The first thing guests noticed when they arrived at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston on this chilly Sunday evening was the aroma of hot dogs grilling on an outdoor barbecue. Baseball season may be over but the “hot stove” — or in this case hot grill — league is just getting started.
About 130 fans gathered for the synagogue’s Night of Jewish Baseball on Nov. 3, featuring former New York favorites Ron Blomberg and Art Shamsky. The evening also served as a fund-raiser featuring the display of a unique painting by artist Ron Lewis depicting 29 extant Jewish Major Leaguers, hand-signed by each player.
Greg Harris, a “semi-retired” lawyer from Chicago, conceived of the “Jewish Baseball Player” project after a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with his son in 2008. On a memorabilia hunt, they saw an illustration by Lewis featuring stars of the Negro Leagues. Harris eventually bought 11 copies and contacted Lewis to discuss the idea of a similar artwork depicting Jewish ballplayers.
Harris hatched the plan with Steve Stone, a former “JML,” Cy Young award-winner, and current broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox, who helped put him in touch with others who would become involved in the complicated project. One problem was getting the hechsher of Major League Baseball for licensing rights, but a chance meeting — “beshert,” said Harris — at an Arizona cafe with baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who gave his blessing, removed that obstacle.
The biggest challenge, said Harris, came in getting Sandy Koufax to sign off — literally — on the idea. The Hall of Famer’s participation was secured through the assistance of Ira Berkow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sports columnist who also wrote the documentary Jews in Baseball: An American Love Story. With Koufax on board, other players fell quickly into place.
Only 500 copies of the illustration were made, in five series of 100, each with a different feature, ranging from $6,500 to $8,500. The paintings travelled over 10,000 miles to 13 cities to get all the signatures, with the baseball personalities signing each one of the 500 prints, an arduous and time-consuming task. The players were compensated for their time, with most giving their fees to their own charities and foundations.
In addition to the athletes, a “crowd shot” in the background includes images and signatures of Selig, Larry King, Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, and Marvin Miller, the former head of the players’ union, who passed away shortly after his signing session.
So far, about 25 percent of the paintings have been sold, raising almost $100,000 of Harris’s $500,000 goal, which goes to various causes.
Harris told NJJN that programs such as the one at Beth Shalom offer multiple benefits. Aside from bringing Jewish baseball fans together for always-welcome discussions and to meet some of their favorite players, the proceedings serve as a fund-raising mechanism for the synagogues, with a portion from any sale made during the event going to the host. Guests can also purchase raffle tickets for the chance to win one of the limited-edition pieces.
The highlight of the evening featured Shamsky and Blomberg discussing their experiences as Jewish athletes, both in the Major Leagues and as opposing managers in the lone season of the Israel Baseball League in 2007. Blomberg’s Bet Shemesh Blue Sox beat Shamsky’s Modi’in Miracle to win the IBL’s only championship. They spoke about the thrill of establishing baseball in a new environment, but admitted there were challenges. “Playing in Israel was like playing on the moon,” said Blomberg, referring to the crater-filled playing fields. Shamsky expressed his gratitude for the way interest in Jewish baseball has exploded over the past few years.
Andy Muser, who served as the emcee for the event, told NJJN he had wanted to buy one of the paintings — until he saw the price tag. Instead, he helped put together the program for Beth Shalom.
And the winner of the evening’s raffle, randomly selected by Shamsky? Muser’s father, Howard. Another example of fathers and sons enjoying the national pastime.