In A League Of Their Own

Jewish players? Harry Danning is one of the few, the proud who will be honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend.

August 26, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Harry Danning isn't one to complain.

Well, there was that one time, in 1939. Cincinnati Red Harry Craft smacked the ball into the lower left field deck of the Polo Grounds. The umpire pronounced it fair. Danning - and who had a better view than the New York Giant catcher? - saw it as foul. By a foot, at least. He protested so vehemently he got kicked out of the game.

But, by and large, griping has never been Danning's way: not as a Jewish kid growing up batting golf balls - "it was the only kind of ball we could find" - in a poor Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles; not as a member of that rare breed, Jewish major leaguers, many of whom endured discrimination and ethnic slurs, sometimes whispered, more often shouted from the opposing team's bench.

Danning took the insults in stride. Yes, that was his nose. No, he was not eating a banana. Sometimes, he says, they were even funny.

He was a catcher, not a kvetcher - stoic, hardworking and, though his career was cut short by injury, more durable than most: He's the only surviving member of the pennant-winning 1937 New York Giants.

Not even now, at 92, living in a sunlit room above the home of his daughter in Valparaiso, Ind., does Danning get worked up about things he can't control. He doesn't moan about the eye he can no longer see out of, the wheelchair he needs to get around, or the astronomical salaries today's players make.

So, just as when he got the diagnosis that his left knee was history, Danning brushed it off when his doctor advised him not to attend a ceremony this weekend honoring Jewish major leaguers at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The man they called "The Horse" is too frail for the trip.

But the oldest living Jewish major leaguer - a man with an easy laugh, a steel-trap memory and a sparkle in his eye, especially when the subject is baseball - is still sturdy enough to handle the disappointment.

"I'm not a down person. I take things as they are, if you get what I mean. If it happens it happens, that's all. What am I going to do about it? I'm worse off than a whole lot of people, not as bad off as a whole lot of people. And I beat the rap anyway - I'll be 93 next month. How many people are that old in the world?"

He spoke from his easy chair, a pillow under his legs, a piece of gauze wedged between his glasses and his bad eye, passing the hours before his attention was required for a Cubs game on TV. The room overflows with baseball memorabilia: old leather mitts, grainy black and white photographs, balls, bats, plaques and, next to a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, a stack of the fan mail that, 60 years after his baseball career ended, still trickles in.

"I wish I could go, I really do," Danning said of the Hall of Fame event. "It's a good idea, it's good for the kids. There's been a lot of discrimination, a lot of hatred. Years ago it was tough. They'd be calling you names. Something like this shows kids that, if they want to do it, they can do it."

Of more than 16,000 major league baseball players, only 143 have been Jewish.

That's less than 1 percent -- 0.8 to be exact - even though Jews make up nearly 3 percent of the U.S. population.

Why so few?

"Jewish youngsters back then were more likely to take the college route to the professions and to business," said Martin Abramowitz, vice president of a consortium of Jewish charities in Boston and one of the sponsors of the Hall of Fame event.

"I'm a fan, not a sociologist, but my theory is that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, the route to major league baseball was primarily through the minor leagues, and the players that went to the minor leagues were not college kids," he added. "They were farm boys and the sons of fishermen and factory workers, people who lived in big industrial cities who went directly from high school to minor league ball.

"In the second half of the century, there was an influx of very talented African-Americans and Hispanics. ... That stiffened the competition."

The first Jewish player is believed to have been Lipman Pike, in the 1860s, but the first to become a star was Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers first baseman who entered the major league in 1934, 10 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Greenberg was a source of pride for Jews, a source of homeruns for the Detroit Tigers and, often, a target of ridicule from fans and opposing teams.

In 1938, challenging Babe Ruth's 60-home-run season record, Greenberg reached 58, but in the last five games he was walked repeatedly, leading some to think - though not Greenberg - that there was a conspiracy to prevent a Jewish player from breaking Ruth's record.

Greenberg and Sandy Koufax are the best known Jewish players, and the only two to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But dozens more made names for themselves, from Cleveland Indian Al Rosen and legendary catcher/spy Moe Berg to Mike Epstein, dubbed "Super Jew" when he played for the Orioles.

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