They didn’t wear their religion on their sleeves, but the colors of those sleeves were definitely black and gold — or dirt brown from the occasional dust-up on the base paths.
They were the Jews who played baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and as it turns out, there have been Jews playing for this club, off and on, since Chester A. Arthur was president.
That’s 127 years for those of you who aren’t up on your presidential history.
With help of several sources, and just in time for the Pirates’ 2009 season opener in St. Louis, The Chronicle has compiled what is perhaps the only Jewish Bucco lineup. We look not only at who they were, but how well they played.
The main source was the recently published book, “The Baseball Talmud,” by Howard Megdal. It contains stats and bios from all MOT major leaguers.
Megdal is certain he’s compiled a near comprehensive list of Jews in Major League Baseball.
“The only one I’m missing is a guy [named] Josh Weitzel, who plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks who came up just after my final deadline, so I’m one short,” Megdal told The Chronicle. “There are definitely some who have not been discovered, who will be discovered down the road, but as of this minute that’s the only one.”
“So much of this is speculation,” Megdal added. “You have to hear a name and follow up.”
Some of these Buccos are obscure, having played a season or two before they disappeared from baseball. Others were solid players who retired after respectable playing careers. At least one was a bonafide baseball legend.
So how would this team of mentsches fair if time and fate conspired to throw them together as one club? Well, let’s put it this way, they probably wouldn’t win any pennants; neither would they embarrass themselves — much.
So without further ado here is the lineup for your Pittsburgh Jewish Pirates!
Leading off and catching, Jake Goodman
First, a confession: Goodman actually played first base. But given the scarcity of MOT Buccos, we have to move him behind the plate. The oldest Pirate on our team, Goodman played for the club before it was even called the Pirates. He joined the team in 1882 when it was still known as the Alleghenys and playing in a long-defunct league called the American Association. A wholly unremarkable player, this Lancaster native spent one season with the team during which he batted .317. But don’t get too excited, that’s based on just 41 at bats. He smacked 13 hits that year including two doubles and triples apiece, no homers though, and he didn’t steal a single base. Still, he’s our leadoff hitter.
Batting second and playing right field, Cal Abrams
A Pirate, for parts of two seasons — 1953 and ’54 — Abrams batted .286 and .280 consecutively those years, belting out 258 hits. Over his career, which included stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox, “Abie,” a 6-foot tall left-handed hitter, batted .269 with 32 homers, 64 doubles and 19 triples — just the number two hitter — we need to move the runner over.
Batting third and playing left field, Sid Gordon
Now we’re getting into the meat of our lineup. In his only full season with the Pirates (he was traded midway through the following year), the 5 foot 10 inch right-handed hitter from Brooklyn batted .306 with 363 at bats; just 12 homers, but he hit 202 round trips in a career that spanned 13 seasons.
Batting fourth and playing first base, Hank Greenberg
The crowd goes wild! Greenberg, perhaps the best-known Jewish ballplayer in the history of the Majors (sorry Sandy Koufax), spent the final season of his hall of fame 13-year career with the Pirates. A menacing hunk of a batter, Greenberg stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 210 pounds, and though he batted only .249 in 402 bats during his Pirates season, he still managed to drive 25 home runs and rack up 74 RBIs (Forbes Field was very, very good to him). For the record, he finished his career with 331 home runs, but baseball historians love to speculate what he might have done had World War II and military service not interrupted his playing time. Who knows? Babe Ruth’s 714 home run record might have fallen sooner than it did.
Batting fifth and playing second base, Jake Pitler
So much for our long ball threat, now back to reality. Pitler, a 5 foot 8 inch 150-pound right-handed hitter from New York, is the best of what’s left. Pitler spent his only two seasons in the Majors — 1917-1918 — with the Pirates. During that time he batted .232 with zippo homers and 23 RBIs. And though the Pirates weren’t any better in 1917 (they finished 51-103 that year), Pitler had the honor of being the only Jewish Pirate ever to share an infield with the great Honus Wagner. They formed the double play combination in Wagner’s final season with the Pirates. Too bad they didn’t turn more of them. Despite his uneventful playing career Pitler went on to become a well-known coach.
Batting sixth and playing center field, Ed Mensor
We are now officially scraping the bottom of the barrel. Ed Mensor, who checked in at 5 feet 6 inches weighing 145 pounds, was known as “the Midget” to his teammates. In three barely noticeable Major League seasons — 1912-1914, all spent with the Pirates — this snip of a Jew from Woodville, Ore., managed a .221 batting average, a single home run and eight RBIs.
Batting seventh and playing shortstop Dave Roberts
Oh, I can hear all you Pirates fanatics scrambling for your e-mail right now, “Gotcha! Roberts was a pitcher, not a shortstop.” That’s right, he was, but alas we’re fresh out of position players, and Roberts, a hard throwing 6 foot 2 inch 197-pound southpaw from Gallipolis, Ohio, is the best hitting hurler we have left. Even though he batted .000 in just five at bats for the Pirates, over his 13-season career, he batted .194 and managed seven homers and 46 RBIs. As a pitcher though, he’s much more noteworthy, winning 103 games and losing 125 with a 3.78 earned run average. He’ll be the backbone of our starting rotation.
Batting eighth and playing third base, Erskine Mayer
Yep, another converted pitcher (Hey what can we say, we’re out of options). Mayer, a 6-foot tall right-handed pitcher from Atlanta, was a .185 hitter, but a respectable pitcher. (90 wins, 70 loses in eight Major League seasons with an ERA of 2.36.
Batting ninth and pitching
OK, here’s the rest of our rotation: Dick Conger, a right-handed hurler who spent the 1941 and ’42 seasons with the Pirates. He only appeared in four games total, but he had a 2.16 ERA. Not bad.
Ross Baumgarten, a 6 foot 1 inch 180-pound lefty from Highland Park, Ill., spent one of his five seasons with the Pirates during which he appeared in 12 games and went 0-5 with a 6.75 ERA. Enough said.
Our first two names, Harry Shuman (righty) and Roger Samuels (lefty), were flashes in the pan here. Shuman spent the 1942 and ’43 seasons here; Samuels, 1989. Neither recorded a save.
Then there’s John Grabow — our set-up man and closer (hey there’s no one else).
A Lebanese Jew on his mother’s side, the 6 foot 2 inch 185-pound lefty from California, is the only current Pirate with the team, and while speculation is rampant that this will be his last season with the Bucs, he would leave with the distinction of being the longest tenured Jewish Pirate in the club’s history, having spent his entire six-year Major League career (not counting 2009) in black and gold. In that time he’s appeared in 345 games, going 17-15 with six saves. ERA: 4.19. If this really is his last season in Pittsburgh, we’ll miss him.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)