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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

About 30 years later, Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax, in a decision still recounted by rabbis across the country, would make that same decision - though with the stakes much higher. Koufax observed Yom Kippur instead of pitching in the opening game of the 1965 World Series.

Life after the game

After baseball, Danning tried selling cars. He opened his own dealerships in Los Angeles, selling Kaisers and Hudsons.

He hated it.

He tried coaching, for the minor league Hollywood Stars. He didn't see much future there, either.

He moved to New York and worked in newspaper and magazine distribution, but after the companies he worked for both went out of business, he returned to California and a job at an insurance company.

"That's probably the one big mistake I made in my whole life - I didn't plan for after I got through baseball," he said. "I saved money while I was in baseball, but after the war, inflation started, and the money wasn't worth as much."

After retiring, Danning and his wife moved to Indiana, to be near their daughter. His wife died in 1978.

Danning lives in an upstairs room. The stairway is equipped with rails and a hoist system for his wheelchair.

Every two weeks, if he feels up to it, Danning makes the trip to nearby Merrillville to eat breakfast and shoot the bull with other sports figures and fans.

Otherwise, he passes the days watching TV and sifting through requests for autographs, trying to separate the sincere requests from "the ones who just want to sell them on eBay." While he can't sign a baseball anymore - "my hand shakes too much" - he does send autographs.

"I spend my time here with the television, and the Cubs," he said. "Actually I watch everything, beach volleyball, whatever there is on. The Giants are my first love, but my second is the Cubs."

In Valparaiso, about an hour southeast of Chicago, there is a baseball field named after Danning, and an annual softball tournament.

Danning, like all players who left baseball before 1947, is not covered by the Major League Players Association pension. Instead, he receives $10,000 a year from a fund established in 1997 by team owners after years of pleading and legal wrangling on behalf of the players.

"We got a letter from the owners asking us to sign agreements that we wouldn't sue them ... If you didn't sign it, you didn't get the money. So I signed it."

"We started off with 104 men, but I think we're down to 60 now," Danning said.

One friend, former major leaguer Joe Hauser, who in 1930 hit 63 home runs for the minor league Baltimore Orioles, died three days after getting his first payment, Danning said. He was 98 and living in a nursing home in Sheboygan, Wis.

"He was a nice guy. I know he could have used the money."

Harry Danning and his bother Ike, who died in 1983, were one of six pairs of Jewish brothers in the major leagues, and both are sometimes mentioned as figuring in one of the favorite stories in Jewish baseball lore:

At a celebrity exhibition game in California, Jimmy Reese of the Yankees is batting against Harry Ruby, the Jewish songwriter. Either Ike or Harry Danning, depending on which version you hear, is behind the plate.

The catcher, rather than using hand signals, calls his pitches in Yiddish. Reese - after stealing home in one version of the story or getting hits in another - was confronted by the catcher.

"I didn't know you were so good," the catcher says.

"You didn't know my real name is Hymie Solomon," Reese answers.

Harry Danning says he was not the catcher in question, and he's not sure it was Ike either.

"Still," he said, "it's a great story. It's like the Babe Ruth story, pointing to the outfield. People say, `It wasn't this,' `It wasn't that.' What's it matter?

"It's a good story. Don't you think it's a good story?"

Jewish players

There are currently 12 Jewish major league baseball players:

Name Team

Dave Newhan Orioles Brad Ausmus Astros John Grabow Pirates Shawn Green Dodgers Gabe Kapler Red Sox Mike Koplove Diamond- backs Al Levine Tigers Mike Lieberthal Phillies Jason Marquis Cardinals Scott Schoeneweis White Sox Justin Wayne Marlins Kevin Youkilis Red Sox

Sources: The Baseball Hall of Fame and Jewishmajorleaguers.org

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