Monday, December 29, 2014

The Unsung Jews of Baseball: Sy Berger, Greg Harris and Jeff Idelson

Here in Michigan, it's been the least snowy winter in 125 years. Temperatures have been unseasonably warm. It seems to be the polar opposite to last year's Snowpocalypse. This mild winter, however, hasn't made me miss baseball season any less than winters past. Like most baseball fans, I spend the winter counting down the days until pitchers and catchers have to report for Spring Training marking the annual end to the off-season.

In the interest of not having an off-season hiatus from blogging about baseball, I thought I'd take a look at three Jewish men who have contributed to Major League Baseball in big ways, but haven't received the attention they deserve. With a Jewish commissioner (Bud Selig) and three Jewish guys affiliated with my hometown team alone (the Detroit Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus, infielder Ian Kinsler and pitcher Josh Zeid), there seems to be more Jews in Major League Baseball then ever before. Yet, while there are Jewish players and managers, team owners and agents, these three Jewish men are the unsung contributors to the American pastime.

You might never have heard of Sy Berger, Greg Harris or Jeff Idelson, but let me tell you about them and their gifts to the game of baseball.

Sy Berger, who died two weeks ago on December 14 at 91, was a chewing gum executive at the Topps Company. Berger joined Topps in 1947, and in 1951 turned his attention to the company's baseball cards, which had been simple gray and white photographs of baseball players superimposed on cardboard and used as a sales gimmick to get more people to buy tobacco products. Berger added color, a facsimile of the player's autograph and statistics. His designs were then printed on playing-card-sized pieces of cardboard and sold with packages of gum.

Sy Berger, creator of the modern baseball card
Sy Berger, creator of the modern baseball card

Sy Berger helped transform the baseball card into a pop-culture phenomenon that became a multi-million dollar business. As he liked to point out, they went from being a novel item that kids could buy with a few cents from doing their chores to entire collections that kids could sell and use the funds to pay for their college education. The baseball cards Sy Berger designed were collected and traded by kids and adults. Like any other collectible in the supply and demand market (coins, stamps, antiques, etc.) they each had a value and could be bought, sold and traded. In fact, it was that "value appreciation" that Berger said was the greatest change that had taken place in the baseball card industry because of the skyrocketing worth of many of the old cards. The bonus for Berger was schmoozing with the players while getting their authorization for Topps to use their names and pictures on its baseball cards. Berger retired from Topps in 1997, but stayed on as a consultant to the company for five years.

In 1988, Berger was honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for his role "in the development of the modern baseball trading card and for helping to introduce generations of fans to baseball for more than half of a century." The highlight of Berger's illustrious career, however, was likely the printing of his own baseball card in the 2004 Topps series called All-Time Fan Favorites.

Greg Harris is a Jewish attorney who lives in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. A few years ago, the personal injury lawyer wanted to honor the most prominent Jews who played in baseball. The artwork, drawn by artist Ron Lewis, truly depicts the legacy of Jews in Major League Baseball as it includes such notable Jewish players from Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax to Kevin Youkilis and Ryan Braun. It also has famous Jewish non-players like Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. The project was conceived of by Greg Harris after he saw a Ron Lewis print of Negro League stars on the wall at the Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown.

Jewish baseball players by Idaho artist Ron Lewis
Jewish baseball players by Idaho artist Ron Lewis

Each limited edition lithograph measures 2-foot-by-3-foot and features 27 players in uniform. The "spectators" in the stands honor many Jews with ties to baseball, including Chicago Cubs General Manager Theo Epstein, actor Billy Crystal who was produced the movie "61," the first Jewish major leaguer, Lipman Pike, who made his major league debut in 1871. Arizona Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall, talk show host Larry King, Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Charlie Steiner and actor-director Rob Reiner are also included as spectators in the stands. The most notable Jewish ballplayer missing from the artwork is Ken Holtzman, who wasn't able to reach a deal with Harris for inclusion (players were compensated for being included and for signing autographs on the lithographs, as well as having the charity of their choice receive a portion of the profits as a donation in their honor).

The signed lithographs range from $6,500 to $10,000 and there are only 500 in existence. Harris sites his own costs for the steep price for the lithographs including the artist's fees, contracting players, licensing, traveling to autograph signing sessions, insurance and storage). While I don't personally own one of these lithographs, I have the chance to see one often at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit. That lithograph is part of a vast baseball collection belonging to Bob Matthews, a retired orthodontist who lives in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Other pieces from Matthews' collection included in the JCC's exhibit are a Hank Greenberg bat, a Sandy Koufax autographed Dodgers uniform, baseballs signed by Al Rosen and Shawn Green and a 1934 tax form signed by Moe Berg, a catcher who spied for the United States. This significant project is a special contribution to ensure a legacy for Jewish baseball players over the generations.

Jeff Idelson serves as the director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Together with the Jewish mayor of Cooperstown, Mayor Jeff Katz, these two Jewish men make sure that everything runs smoothly at the annual induction ceremony at the Hall of Fame. Idelson is a native of Newton, Massachusetts and worked in public relations for the Boston Red Sox before taking a similar position with the New York Yankees. The 50-year-old has worked at the Hall of Fame for over twenty years and became president in April 2008.

 Jeff Idelson introduces President Obama to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown (AP Photo)
 Jeff Idelson introduces President Obama to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown (AP Photo)

In a recent interview with Comcast Sportsnet, Idelson explained his philosophy with the Hall of Fame, saying, "At the crux of what we are, we're the repository for baseball’s history, so if you want to learn about the major leagues or the history of baseball or any facet of the game as it's grown up, this is where you start. This is where all of the stories are told."

About 300,000 visitors come each year to the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and the museum recently welcomed its 16 millionth visitor. Idelson's goal is for the museum to modernize, as he realizes that many young baseball fans, who visit Cooperstown each summer with their baseball teams, demand education in different forms.

The Hall of Fame museum is in the midst of a massive digitizing project, and knowing that Cooperstown is a difficult trip for many outside the Northeast, Idelson wants to bring the Hall of Fame to the fans through technology. "It's incumbent upon us because we're remote to make our collections as widely accessible as possible," Idelson said. "It’s certainly a journey to come to Cooperstown, but well worth the trip. For those that can’t come to Cooperstown, we overcome that hindrance by taking our collection on the road."

A point of pride for Idelson is that the majority of the living Hall of Famers attend the induction ceremony each year. He likes to also point out that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is really several institutions under the same roof -- a hall of fame, a history museum, a library and an education center. Neither Idelson nor Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz gets to decide who gains entry into the Hall of Fame, the sportswriters who cover the game do. However, Idelson makes sure that the stories of baseball are told. "There really isn't an aspect of this game that's not told within Cooperstown. It's just a matter of how it’s told."

Each of these Jewish men -- Sy Berger, Greg Harris and Jeff Idelson -- has helped millions enjoy the national pastime of baseball a little more. While their contributions might have been off the baseball diamond, they deserve our praise nevertheless.


rikscot said...

Marv Rotblatt was not available to paticipate in Greg Harris's project due to the fact that he was dying. So sorry there is no mention. He did play in the Majors briefly;however, his stats in the minor leagues and college at University Of Illinois are Impressive to say the least.

rikscot said...

My Dad, Marv Rotblatt was unable to participate in Gregg harriss's project. He played for The White Sox for 4 years. His minor league career and time at The University Of Illinois was quite impressive.