A Full Deck

Baseball card set celebrates the 141 Jewish men - many long forgotten - who have worn a Major League uniform.

October 21, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Of the 16,700 men who have worn a Major League baseball uniform, 141 were Jewish.

Who knew?

That's the question Martin Abramowitz pondered four years ago while sitting with his son at the kitchen table, looking at his incomplete collection of baseball cards depicting Jewish players.

To his father's lament of the cards that never were, 11-year-old Jacob offered simple advice: "Make your own."

With that, Abramowitz began a search that took him from a Chicago basement to dusty courthouse records to document "American Jews in America's Game," a set of baseball cards that goes on sale next week.

In many ways, the project is a remarkable tale of perseverance, luck and a last-minute change of heart by the greatest Jewish ballplayer of them all, Sandy Koufax.

For 41 of the players, the new collection marks their first Major League cards.

"I felt I owed it to them," says Abramowitz, an executive with a Jewish charity and New York Yankee fan living undercover in Red Sox Nation. "There is a sense that if you don't have a card, you didn't play the game. I wanted to give these players their slice of immortality."

That, he has, says Tim Wiles, head of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"He's made several unique contributions to both baseball history and Jewish cultural history," says Wiles. "He has succeeded where others have failed, and that is what is so remarkable."

The "America's Game" project was not what baseball players might call a can of corn.

"To have baseball cards, you have to have photos and statistics," says Abramowitz, who owns 97 of the 100 known original cards produced featuring Jewish ballplayers. "In some cases, we didn't have either."

Many Jewish players had short careers in the majors, the proverbial "cup of coffee." Ten athletes used aliases to avoid anti-Semitism. But the bulk of those missing in action came in the first half of the 20th century, when utility players weren't given a card of their own.

Abramowitz's faith in his project was tested early, when photo libraries at the Hall of Fame and The Sporting News came up empty.

Then along came the first of his rabbis - a Chicago factory worker and amateur photographer who shot pictures of every major leaguer who came through town from the early 1920s to the early 1990s.

In file cabinets in his basement, George Brace had prints and negatives of all but a handful of the players. He invited Abramowitz to borrow what he needed.

"It was the greatest treasure I could imagine," recalls Abramowitz.

As word of the project spread through the Jewish press, collectors and dealers contacted him. Bernie Wax, director emeritus of the American Jewish Historical Society, tracked down players' families, and Abramowitz scoured the files of universities that had Jewish players.

Ultimately, they were stymied by just one player - Ike Samuels, an infielder who played in 24 games in 1895 for the St. Louis Browns. Instead of his mug, his card bears a woodcut drawing of the team with the caption, "Ike Samuels's teammates."

The next step was getting the numbers. The Hall of Fame had the Major League statistics, but the project needed another rabbi, amateur baseball researcher Ray Nemec, to mine his database of 275 minor-league clubs.

Jacob Abramowitz came through in the clutch, when he wrote from summer camp that the kid in the next bunk always seemed to be getting packages of baseball cards. At Parents' Weekend several weeks later, that camper's father, Fleer Trading Card Co. president Roger Grass agreed to print the cards at cost and help get Major League Baseball, the players' union and the players' alumni association to waive their licensing fees.

The American Jewish Historical Society agreed to underwrite the project.

That left just one hurdle: the ultra-private Koufax. The Dodgers' Hall of Famer from the 1950s and '60s threw the creative team a curve ball by initially saying no.

"I don't think a set of cards without Sandy Koufax would have authenticity. We could not have gone forward," says Michael Feldman, executive director of the historical society. "But his reluctance was very much in keeping with his insistence that his image not be used commercially."

When Koufax learned of the nonprofit historical society's mission and that production would be limited to 15,000 sets, he changed his mind.

The presses rolled this month. The 142-card set (the extra card is of photographer Brace) is being sold for $100 through the society's Web site, www.ajhs.org.

"It's not just celebratory. It's the record," says Feldman. "It tells of the famous and the guys who just played one game."

Through the 2002 season, Jews had played for 40 different Major League franchises, including all but one (the Arizona Diamondbacks) of the current 30 teams. There have been six pairs of brothers, six players who converted to Judaism and two who converted from Judaism. Two - Koufax and Detroit Tigers' slugger Hank Greenberg - are members of the Hall of Fame.

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