Continuing with spring cleaning this weekend, I came across a book on Jews not named Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax who impacted baseball in America. From the hobbyist’s perspective, front and center was Sy Berger – father of the modern day baseball card. Here is Sy depicted on a 1951 style card, the year before everything changed in that domain thanks to his influence.
Sy was a bright guy who graduated at the top of his class at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and went on to Bucknell University. There he became friends with fraternity brother Joel Shorin, whose father was Phil Shorin. The four Shorin brothers took over their father Morris’ business, the American Leaf Tobacco Company. In 1938, the brothers branched into the gum business and renamed their company Topps.
In 1952, along with Woody Gelman, Sy designed what would become the prototype of the modern baseball card, sized at roughly 2 5/8 x 3 3/4 inches, with fully designed fronts that included an artists rendition of the player, a facsimile signature, and the team’s logo.
Berger designed the 1953 card set and was instrumental in arranging for the painting of players. In an interview with Sports Collector’s Digest 2007 he noted: “We had a guy doing those paintings a mile a minute. A little off-the-wall guy named Moishe.” Moishe was the artist Maurice Blumenthal, whose talent complemented Berger’s vision of the card design. Now to the front he added the player’s position, and on the reverse side was the player’s height, weight, bats, throws, birthplace, birthday, stats and a short biography – a basic design is still in use today
Sy would make subtle changes to the cards each baseball season. For card enthusiasts it was the equivalent of new car designs unveiled for each model year. In 1954 the team logo was moved from the bottom to the top, with a small action photo complementing the drawing. In 1955 the front layout went horizontal instead of vertical. In 1956 the action shot became as prominent as Moishe’s artistic rendition of the player, and in 1957 Moishe’s renditions were abandoned in favor of an action photo shot during spring training, and team cards were issued for the first time.
The Jewish Baseball Card Book features a bio on each player, many of whom were nondescript. Included for example is Andy Cohen, whose claim to fame was serving as the Phillies manager after Eddie Sawyer resigned on the first day of the season in 1960, and before Gene Mauch arrived for the third game to take over.
Cohen has of course now been displaced in Phillies Jewish managerial folklore by Gabe Kapler, former star of the 2005 Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.
And to top off the book’s collection of esoterica about Jews in baseball in America, you can’t do much better than the “Bais Dien” of Jewish umpires: Steamboat Johnson, Dolly Stark, and Al Clark.