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DISCOVERIES

Tribute is in the cards for Jewish ballplayers

Set documents their contribution

NEWTON -- About the only criticism you can muster of Martin Abramowitz's crowd-pleasing idea -- to produce a set of baseball cards of all 142 Jewish major leaguers from 1871 to 2003 -- is that its thoroughness kills the possibility of trades. After all, if everyone owns every card, how can someone offer to swap, say, a Mike "Superjew" Epstein for a Moe "The Rabbi of Swat" Solomon?

Never mind. Later this month, Fleer Trading Cards Co. will publish 15,000 sets of "America's Jews in America's Game," Abramowitz's kitchen-table dream. Because the sets will be offered only to folks who make at least a $100 contribution to the American Jewish Historical Society, you can assume that thousands of hard-core baseball card collectors will suddenly show an interest in American Jewish heritage.

From Goody Rosen to Al Rosen, here is every Jew who ever played in a major league game, even if it was only for a single trip to the batter's box or one pitch hurled homeward. Superstar pitcher Sandy Koufax and slugger Hank Greenberg we know. But Eddie "Smiley" Turchin? Eddie "Itzy" Feinberg? Who are these guys?

"The set is exciting because it makes a contribution to baseball research, not just Jewish heritage," says Timothy Wiles, director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. "And I don't know of any other instances where an individual was motivated to do something like this from conception to reality."

To the lanky, 63-year-old Abramowitz, whose "day job" is vice president for planning and agency relations at Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, the history of Jews in baseball is of no small significance, a narrative similar to that of African-Americans. "The early Jewish players were using baseball as an entry point into the American experience," he says enthusiastically as he stands in his Newton kitchen. "Meanwhile, the stars among them were creating pride in the Jewish baseball experience."

Four years ago, however, all Abramowitz wanted was to acquire all the 100 existing cards that featured Jewish major leaguers. (He already owned about 90 of them, dating to early 20th century St. Louis Browns pitcher Barney Pelty.) Sitting at the kitchen table one evening with his 11-year-old son, Jacob, he was lamenting the fact that there were no cards in existence for the 40 or so other Jewish players. Like all collectors, he wanted a complete set, even if one didn't exist. "Why don't you make your own?" Jacob asked. He even came up with a logo for the project, a baseball inside a Jewish star. Why indeed, wondered his father.

Since that night, Martin Abramowitz's persistence has produced a confluence of necessary ingredients. A definitive all-time roster of Jewish players had been developed by a number of earnest baseball scholars and was later updated by the bimonthly Jewish Sports Review. Photos were gleaned from the remarkable collection of George Brace, a photographer from the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, who had shot most of the major leaguers who played from the 1920s to the early 1990s. (He died last year.) Ray Nemec, a baseball researcher in Naperville, Ill., burrowed into his database to statistically profile each player.

When the American Jewish Historical Society learned of the project, it offered to underwrite it, sparing Abramowitz the $25,000 he was fretting that it might cost him. This led to New Jersey-based Fleer, a major player in the sports card market, offering to print the collection at cost. (Abramowitz's nonprofit corporation, Jewish Major Leaguers Inc., is listed as co-producer of the set with Fleer.) Permissions were acquired from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum weighed in with its support.

Baseball is nothing if not a game of statistics, and Abramowitz has lots of them. Of the 142 players, 123 have had two Jewish parents, 13 have had one Jewish parent, and six have been converts. (Two later converted from Judaism.) They have played on 40 major league franchises and in at least 275 minor league towns. There have been nine Jewish Boston Red Sox -- including current outfielder Gabe Kapler -- and three Jewish Boston Braves. Jewish hitters have collectively batted slightly higher than the average for all players, .265 to .262, and Jewish pitchers have compiled a somewhat higher winning percentage, .504 to .500. (But Jewish base runners have stolen well below their fair share.) There have been six pairs of Jewish major league brothers, and at least three players who were sons or grandsons of rabbis. Ten Jewish players, nine of whom played before 1930, changed their last names.

Meanwhile, Jews have been under-represented in Major League Baseball. Abramowitz says they make up about eight-10ths of 1 percent of major leaguers throughout history, while pointing out that it is generally assumed that Jews represent about 3 percent of the American population over the past century.

His theory: "During the heyday of baseball, before the advent of college ball, the minor leagues were the route to the majors. But Jews were on another track. They were more likely to go to college, due to their ambition to make it into the professional and business classes."

Abramowitz, born and raised in Brooklyn and a typical card-flipping freak as a child of the 1940s and early '50s -- is clearly the right man for this job. He is passionate about both his heritage and baseball. But despite the fact his efforts are already creating a buzz, he sometimes waxes ambivalent. "I'm almost embarrassed by the attention this is getting," he says. "The world is having such a tough time that it almost seems obscene for grown-ups to be having so much fun over something that has so little cosmic significance. On the other hand, I feel a sense of obligation to complete the record of American Jewish ballplayers and to do justice to their memory."

The backs of Abramowitz's cards contain tidbits and anecdotes about the players. Consider, especially, the tale of Bob Tufts, a Massachusetts native who pitched in 27 big-league games during the early 1980s and is now an institutional broker. When Tufts converted to Judaism during his playing days, he was asked by the rabbi at the ceremony if he wanted to choose a Jewish name, a traditional occurrence.

"Yes," he quickly replied. "Sandy Koufax."

Nathan Cobb can be reached at cobb@globe.com or 617-929-7266. Ideas for subject matter -- unusual people, places, events, etc. -- are welcome.

This 1938 card commemorates Hank Greenberg; now all 142 Jewish major leaguers will be so recognized. This 1938 card commemorates Hank Greenberg; now all 142 Jewish major leaguers will be so recognized. (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner)
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