“What a great idea,” I thought when my grandson, Adam, told me about his class assignment to explore racism through the life story of a famous person. At 13, Adam is an avid baseball fan and told me he chose Jackie Robinson as his subject. He wanted to understand how Robinson was able to achieve such success despite the Jim Crow laws in the United States.
One night, as I was helping Adam with his assignment, I thought that perhaps my father’s journey as a rookie baseball player might help him appreciate the context and complexity of that time. I recognized that my father’s experiences as a young Jewish ball player from Toronto would never come close to the challenges that Robinson faced, but I felt an account of his journey to Miami in 1935 for spring training might enrich Adam’s appreciation of the era in which Robinson was emerging as a preeminent athlete.
“Did you know that your great-grandfather Sam tried out for professional baseball during the Great Depression?” I asked Adam. My father had been a gifted pitcher who honed his skills as a young boy during the Great Depression at city parks. He played ball with the Jewish Boys Club and the University Settlement Club. In 1934, he pitched senior ball for the Danforth Aces and later trained with the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club. In 1935, he was invited by Ike Boon, the Leafs’ manager, to train with the team in Miami. Boon offered no financial remuneration to my father – just an opportunity. Like so many during the Depression, my father’s family was cash strapped; my grandfather was a baker at Silverstein’s Bakery and my grandmother took boarders into the house to help meet expenses. So the Orion Club generously ran a raffle to raise the funds necessary to send my father to Florida in early January.
My father had been at the Christie Pits riot in 1933. He knew a great deal about anti-Semitism, but he had been shocked by the racism he witnessed during his journey south. Once past the Mason-Dixon Line, he observed how dramatically values and attitudes changed – rampant racism was everywhere. In the South, my father saw the stark segregation that pervaded every level of daily life. It was something he would never forget to describe when sharing stories about his early baseball career. As Adam and I leafed through a folder from my bookshelf containing the transcript of an interview my brother, Barry, had conducted and recorded with our father, we came across this passage in which dad described rooming in a Miami home:
“They had a black woman who was their nanny who used to come early in the morning, prepare breakfast for them, cleaned and did laundry and everything. I don’t know what she was paid but I know whatever food was left, they would give it to her to take home. She would wash my laundry and I wanted to give her a quarter and she wouldn’t take it. She would say, ‘My mistress will whip me …’ Anyways, I slipped it into her pocket.”
Dad had been in Miami for about a month, training with other aspiring ball players, when he was approached by a man who asked: “How would you like to train with the New York Giants if I can arrange it?”
“It would be good to have a Jewish boy on the New York Giants,” he explained. “They’re looking for a Jewish pitcher. They’d like to have one. I like what I see.” Bill Terry was the manager at that time and my dad ended up pitching to the Giants for a few days during training. He played for one team headed by Freddie (Fat Freddie) Fitzsimmons against another team headed by Carl Hubble. Terry acted as umpire. This was an unfathomable dream come true for my father.
However, the adventure turned to misadventure. With no agent or manager to advise him, my father was blindsided by Boon’s refusal to have him on as a pitcher for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rookie players like him could not sign with a major league – his brief foray pitching ball for the New York Giants disqualified him to train for the Leafs. He was totally unaware that he was formally signed with Toronto, or that he was even on their protected list, and certainly did not know what this meant in terms of the proprietary conditions that restricted his pitching activities with other teams.
At this point in the interview, Barry asked dad if he was “shattered” by this turn of events. My father answered, “No, because I had seen an awful lot of sad stories about professional ball, particularly the fellows that were hounding the training camps looking for employment. That was the trend those years … ball players were a dime a dozen. It was the Depression and everybody made their own way in life. Sports was a way of passing your time because unemployment was very, very hard. That was the unfortunate conditions that prevailed in the Depression years.”
My father went back to Canada, married my mother Molly and played ball in Brantford, Ont., Kirkland Lake, Ont., and Malartic, Que., where the mines had their own semi-pro ball teams. His baseball career was curtailed by the war and a rotator cuff injury. Later, he and my mother went into the variety store and ticket business, organizing bus trips to see the Montreal Expos until Toronto had its own team. He was the Blue Jays’ most dedicated and ardent fan – he even threw out an opening pitch at the Skydome on his 90th birthday. Jackie Robinson was his hero, too.