Baseball Hall of Fame
In downtown Manhattan, the oldest, ethnic, cultural archive in the United States houses 30 million artifacts of American Jewish history, from the papers of an American Revolution patriot to the letters of a Confederacy leader.
None approaches the popularity of two pieces of baseball memorabilia linked to the two greatest Jewish superstars in American sports history: a Hank Greenberg game-used bat from the prime of his career with the Detroit Tigers during the 1930s, and Sandy Koufax’s Brooklyn Dodgers home jersey from his 1955 rookie season.
“The people want to be a part of them and see them over and over and over again,” Rachel Lithgow, the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS), told me. “Year in and year out, there is something about these pieces of Americana that interests everyone, young and old.”
Photo by David Seideman
During my visit to the Society’s offices, a small group took turns posing with the bat for phone photos. The Koufax jersey, as neatly folded as an American flag at a military ceremony, was tucked inside a cardboard box on a bed of archival tissue. I didn’t dare touch it. Antique “textiles” such as the jersey are extremely fragile, Susan Malbin, the director of Library and Archives informed me.
On the evening of November 14, the historical society will be pulling out all the stops at a gala dinner to celebrate its 125th anniversary. Some of New York’s heaviest hitters will be on hand. A star attraction, if not the star attraction, will be the Greenberg bat for guests to hold, cherish, and horse around with.
The central role that the bat will play at the event speaks volumes about the magnitude of the sports memorabilia industry and its significance in American history. Above all, it highlights Hank Greenberg, a true American hero in an age when we could use more.
Photo by David Seideman
Malbin and development director Jacqueline Leitzes asked me to give them an idea how much the two holy relics are worth; purely out of curiosity, mind you. I told them that at a Heritage Auction I covered for FORBES in 2015, a Koufax rookie jersey sold for $573,600.
The Greenberg bat isn’t exactly chopped liver, either. Its provenance is impeccable: Greenberg’s son, Stephen, former deputy commissioner of baseball— donated it in 1999. The game-use is tremendous, with cleat marks on the barrel from the slugger knocking dirt out of his cleats and a crack in the handle from trying to hit a fastball thrown by flame-throwers such as Bullet Bob Feller.
“While it is, of course, hard to estimate any collectible via scan and not in person, the bat could be worth $30,000-$50,000+,” says Joe Orlando, the author of a magnificent new book about collecting game-used bats. (See, A Beginner’s Guide To Buying And Selling Game-Used Baseball Bats.) “And perhaps more – when you couple it with the provenance.”
Over the past two years, the two best Greenberg bats have sold in the $75,000 to $100,000 range. Each had plenty of pine tar on the handle for a better grip and notations on the barrel from being cracked and returned to the factory for ordering duplicate models.
“This one [owned by AJHS], while it doesn’t possess as much character, would benefit greatly from the provenance and that, by itself, would place it amongst the best Greenberg bats in the hobby,” Orlando explained. (Note to collectors: Not for sale for all the shekels in the world.)
“Had he not lost the better part of four seasons defending our country in World War II, Greenberg’s statistics would have rivaled baseball greats,” Orlando writes in his book. “The ‘Hebrew Hammer’ likely would have hit the 500 home run mark, and 1,800 RBI. “[After the war], he simply picked up where he left off. With a .313 lifetime batting average to go along with is 331 home runs and 1,274 RBI, Greenberg led the Detroit Tigers to four World Series, winning the championship in 1935 and again, upon his return, in 1945.”
By the time the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Greenberg had already fulfilled his military obligation. Even so, he became the first major league baseball player to volunteer for the military service. In contrast to most of his baseball peers who spent the war playing exhibition games for troops, Greenberg demanded real combat duty. In the Army Air Corps. he rose to the rank of captain.
Greenberg was never your average athlete in professional sports, a vocation sparsely populated by people of his faith. In the heat of the 1934 pennant race between the Tigers and Yankees, the “Jewish Babe Ruth” was conflicted about playing on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Before the game on Rosh Hashanah, The Detroit Free Press ran a headline in Hebrew wishing him a Happy New Year!
Photo by Detroit Free Press
“After consulting with family, friends, and his rabbi, Greenberg decided to play on Rosh Hashanah,” Orlando writes. “That day he smacked two home runs in the Tigers 2-1 victory over the Red Sox.”
Nine days later, on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish day, he opted to sit out a game against the Yankees. “Instead of playing, he spent the day praying in the synagogue and because of this decision, the congregation gave him a standing ovation when he arrived,” Orlando adds. Despite losing the game that day, the Tigers proceeded to win the pennant.
Through it all, Greenberg endured a torrent of anti-Semitic abuse from fans and opponents alike. “I was a kike or a sheeny or a mockey,” he recalled in his autobiography. Another taunt was “Christ-killer.”
“Throw him a pork chop,” an opposing player once yelled. “He can’t hit it.”
A more subtle form of anti-Semitism may be at play on his mid-1930s baseball card from the beautiful Art Deco Diamond Stars set, one of my all-time favorites. While researching images for this post, I discovered that Greenberg suffered the ultimate indignity of having his name misspelled on his gum card. Early in the print runs, it was “Greenburg.”
Photo by PWCC (eBay)
Since the set consists of only 108 cards and Greenberg’s is the only last name in error, maybe it was even intentional. Ironically, the error card appears to be about six times rarer than the corrected version and, thus, commands a premium. The error version in mint condition sells for $13,500, compared to $5,500 for the corrected one. A near mint Greenburg is up to $550 in an eBay auction ending November 13.
At first glance, Greenberg almost resembles a Jewish Jackie Robinson. The difference, he noted, was that Jews had never been banned from baseball as blacks had. Nor, he added, had they received murder threats like those Robinson repeatedly faced. Greenberg was a big Robinson champion because, he told him after a first base collision, that they were kindred spirits.
With the Nazis’ Final Solution looming in Europe in the late 1930s, Jews looked to Greenberg to lead by example. He mostly let his bat do his talking. “Every home run I hit,” he once said, “was a home run against Hitler.”
Photo by David Seideman
During the 1938 season, Greenberg’s best, he fell just two home runs short of Babe Ruth’s hallowed record of 60 set in 1927. “Since 1938, it has been a point of controversy whether there existed a conspiracy (or a disorganized moment of individual prejudices) to deny the record to the Jewish Greenberg,” wrote Peter and Joachim Horvitz in The Big Book of Jewish Baseball.
“Hank, himself, always stated that he did not believe there was any movement to deny him the record.”
True to form, Greenberg took it all in stride. If he had broken Ruth’s record, Greenberg’s mother offered to make him 61 baseball-shaped gefilte fish portions (a Jewish fish-ball that is an acquired taste I never acquired).
“In the final game of the season, with a slim chance to break Ruth’s record, he hit three singles before the game was called due to darkness in the seventh inning,” writes Bob Slater in Great Jews in Sports.
“It’s just as well,” Greenberg said. “I couldn’t have eaten all that gefilte fish.”
For more information and to buy tickets to the dinner, visit http://www.ajhs.org/emma2017 or call 212-294-6160. Mention this Forbes column for a discount.
Photo by David Seideman
More Info: www.forbes.com
Categories: Money Matters