Pittsburgh’s Jewish Pirates
(Editor’s note: This is a revised version of a story that appeared in the Chronicle three years ago. It is reprinted here in advance of Jewish Heritage Night at PNC Park, Tuesday, Aug. 28.)
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 dustup 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 130 years for those of you who aren’t up on your presidential history.
With help from several sources, 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 bona fide baseball legend.
So how would this team of mensches 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 generically 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-feet 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 tall and weighed 210 pounds. Though he batted only .249 in 402 bats during his Pirates season, he still managed to belt 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 on what he might have done had World War II and military service not interrupted his playing time. Who knows? Babe Ruth’s record of 714 homers 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 and weighed 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 email 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 losses 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.
And in the bullpen:
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. A Lebanese Jew on his mother’s side, the 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pound lefty from California, is the most recent Jew to wear a Pirates uniform; he’s also the longest tenured Jewish Pirate in the club’s history, having spent his six years in black and gold. In that time he appeared in 345 games, going 17-15 with six saves. ERA: 4.19.
Who else? Lenny Levy. The Pirates first base coach in 1960, Levy stood in that coaching box in the ninth inning of game seven of the World Series as Bill Mazeroski rounded the diamond with his game-winning homer.
A Pittsburgh native, onetime Pirates batboy, and Taylor Allderdice High School graduate, Pirates manager and Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor signed Levy to a contract in 1936, but he never played above the minor leagues. He did, however, remain in the Pirates organization in some capacity until 1963.
He began his coaching career in 1947. A good judge of player talent, he also worked as a Pirates scout from 1951 to ’56, he discovered Dick Groat — who, with Mazeroski, formed that great 1960 double play combination — as well as three-time All Star Frank Thomas.
If anyone can get the most out of this team, he can.
Sitting in the owners box behind home plate, a bowler hat perched majestically atop his head, the great Barney Dreyfuss — arguably the best and most colorful owner in major league history. An architect of the World Series, and the man who mediated an ugly bidding war between the National and American Leagues, Dreyfuss’ impact on baseball is felt to this day. He’s also the man who brought Honus Wagner to the Pirates, literally trading the future Hall of Fame shortstop to himself from his Louisville club.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)