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IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Harry Danning isn't one to complain.

Well, there was that one time, in 1939. Cincinnati Red Harry Craft smacked the ball into the lower left field deck of the Polo Grounds. The umpire pronounced it fair. Danning - and who had a better view than the New York Giant catcher? - saw it as foul. By a foot, at least. He protested so vehemently he got kicked out of the game.

But, by and large, griping has never been Danning's way: not as a Jewish kid growing up batting golf balls - "it was the only kind of ball we could find" - in a poor Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles; not as a member of that rare breed, Jewish major leaguers, many of whom endured discrimination and ethnic slurs, sometimes whispered, more often shouted from the opposing team's bench.

Danning took the insults in stride. Yes, that was his nose. No, he was not eating a banana. Sometimes, he says, they were even funny.

He was a catcher, not a kvetcher - stoic, hardworking and, though his career was cut short by injury, more durable than most: He's the only surviving member of the pennant-winning 1937 New York Giants.

Not even now, at 92, living in a sunlit room above the home of his daughter in Valparaiso, Ind., does Danning get worked up about things he can't control. He doesn't moan about the eye he can no longer see out of, the wheelchair he needs to get around, or the astronomical salaries today's players make.

So, just as when he got the diagnosis that his left knee was history, Danning brushed it off when his doctor advised him not to attend a ceremony this weekend honoring Jewish major leaguers at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The man they called "The Horse" is too frail for the trip.

But the oldest living Jewish major leaguer - a man with an easy laugh, a steel-trap memory and a sparkle in his eye, especially when the subject is baseball - is still sturdy enough to handle the disappointment.

"I'm not a down person. I take things as they are, if you get what I mean. If it happens it happens, that's all. What am I going to do about it? I'm worse off than a whole lot of people, not as bad off as a whole lot of people. And I beat the rap anyway - I'll be 93 next month. How many people are that old in the world?"

He spoke from his easy chair, a pillow under his legs, a piece of gauze wedged between his glasses and his bad eye, passing the hours before his attention was required for a Cubs game on TV. The room overflows with baseball memorabilia: old leather mitts, grainy black and white photographs, balls, bats, plaques and, next to a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, a stack of the fan mail that, 60 years after his baseball career ended, still trickles in.

"I wish I could go, I really do," Danning said of the Hall of Fame event. "It's a good idea, it's good for the kids. There's been a lot of discrimination, a lot of hatred. Years ago it was tough. They'd be calling you names. Something like this shows kids that, if they want to do it, they can do it."

Of more than 16,000 major league baseball players, only 143 have been Jewish.

That's less than 1 percent -- 0.8 to be exact - even though Jews make up nearly 3 percent of the U.S. population.

Why so few?

"Jewish youngsters back then were more likely to take the college route to the professions and to business," said Martin Abramowitz, vice president of a consortium of Jewish charities in Boston and one of the sponsors of the Hall of Fame event.

"I'm a fan, not a sociologist, but my theory is that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, the route to major league baseball was primarily through the minor leagues, and the players that went to the minor leagues were not college kids," he added. "They were farm boys and the sons of fishermen and factory workers, people who lived in big industrial cities who went directly from high school to minor league ball.

"In the second half of the century, there was an influx of very talented African-Americans and Hispanics. ... That stiffened the competition."

The first Jewish player is believed to have been Lipman Pike, in the 1860s, but the first to become a star was Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers first baseman who entered the major league in 1934, 10 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Greenberg was a source of pride for Jews, a source of homeruns for the Detroit Tigers and, often, a target of ridicule from fans and opposing teams.

In 1938, challenging Babe Ruth's 60-home-run season record, Greenberg reached 58, but in the last five games he was walked repeatedly, leading some to think - though not Greenberg - that there was a conspiracy to prevent a Jewish player from breaking Ruth's record.

Greenberg and Sandy Koufax are the best known Jewish players, and the only two to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But dozens more made names for themselves, from Cleveland Indian Al Rosen and legendary catcher/spy Moe Berg to Mike Epstein, dubbed "Super Jew" when he played for the Orioles.

Most Jewish players have been catchers and pitchers, arguably the two positions that require the most smarts, but Abramowitz isn't sure what, if anything, to make of that.

Danning was a four-time All Star and a member of three World Series teams. He once had five hits in a game, once hit for the cycle (with an inside-the-park home run). He hit over .300 three years in a row.

He was catching when Joe DiMaggio hit his first World Series home run, when Lou Gehrig hit his last World Series home run, and in 1941 when Ted Williams hit what many consider the most dramatic All Star game home run ever.

After that ball went into the upper deck of Detroit's Briggs Stadium in the 9th inning, winning the game for the American League, National League pitcher Claude Passeau conferred with his catcher.

"Where was that pitch?" Passeau asked.

"I don't know where it was," Danning answered. "But I can tell you where it is."

Minority player

When Harry Danning landed his first baseball job, he found himself in the minority.

The semi-pro team was sponsored by a Mexican grocery store called El Porvenir (The Future), and only one other player was white.

"All the announcements were made in Spanish, and 95 percent of the fans were Mexican," recalled his younger brother, Ben Danning, a retired attorney.

Harry Danning said it was a matter of going where the money was. "They paid the most for a catcher, $7.50 a game," he said. "With my glove and my bat and my shoes over my shoulder, I had to take two streetcars to the east side of town."

Danning was born in Los Angeles, the son of a used-furniture salesman who had immigrated from Poland to Philadelphia. There, he dropped his last name - no family members remember it - and took the name Danning, based on Denning, the name of the Irish woman who had taught him English.

He married a Latvian immigrant, and they moved to Los Angeles around 1900. Both were Jewish, though Danning said his father, after a falling out with his synagogue, no longer observed the religion.

He observed plenty of baseball, though.

"My father was the greatest fan. ... He used to take us to games - the coast league and Negro leagues. I remember seeing the players spit on their hands before they batted. So one day, playing baseball at school, I spit on my hands. The principal saw me and made me wash all the bats off."

Danning's father died of Hodgkin's disease when Harry was 16, and he and his five brothers and sisters all worked to support the family. He sold cupcakes door to door, hauled ice and, after graduating from Los Angeles High School, took a job at a wholesale rug dealer.

He supplemented his income by catching - the position he had played since grade school.

"All the kids were older than me, and they had everybody chosen but the catcher. They needed a catcher. So I said, 'I'm a catcher.'"

After his father's death, Danning began going to the synagogue. He would attend three times a day, sometimes shooting craps at a candy store in the interim. While he never learned Hebrew - the language spoken at the synagogue - he did learn to appreciate his faith.

"All through my career, I never played on holidays," he said. "I never played on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur."

While playing semi-pro ball, Danning drew the eye of a scout and was offered a contract with the New York Giants. He was sent to Bridgeport, Conn., but in his second year the league went out of business. He was sent to another minor league team in Winston-Salem, N.C., but with the Depression under way, times were lean there as well.

There were games in which players were only paid $3 each, games delayed when the ball was hit out of the park, so that it could be retrieved.

In 1932, he was sent to Buffalo, where he continued to bat over .300. In 1933, he was called to the majors in the middle of what would become the Giants' World Series-winning season. But, as the third-string catcher, he mostly warmed the bench until 1937, when starter Gus Mancuso got hurt.

Danning made the most of his chance, proving not only that he could hit the ball but field the barbs as well.

"In all the time I have played baseball, I have been called names, but mostly from the dugout," he said. "They'd call you all kinds of names, but usually not to your face. The Italians were 'dagos.' The Jews were 'kikes.'

"I did have a pretty good-sized nose. ... They used to holler when I was at bat, 'Pitch under his nose, he can't see the ball.' ... 'He's the only guy who can smoke a cigar while he's standing in the shower and not get the cigar wet.'

Sometimes playful, sometimes cruel, the comments didn't faze him, although he did later allow a doctor to "take a little bit off the proboscis" when he was being operated on for a deviated septum.

"There was discrimination, not as much as the black players faced, but some," he said.

During spring training one year in Florida, a hotel agreed to house the team, except for Danning and Phil Weintraub, another Jewish player.

Bill Terry, the team manager, responded, "No, you'll take them all or you'll take none."

A hard-working, even-tempered player, "The Horse" - an announcer came up with the nickname, based on a Damon Runyon character - did lose control at least once, not over a racial slur, but a bad call.

"I just blew my stack," Danning said of the foul ball that was called a home run. He was kicked out of the game and fined $350. "I never cursed a man out in my life like that."

The next year, after another game with the Reds, Danning got another lesson in taking the game too seriously.

The Giants were losing 4-1 in the ninth inning. Reds pitcher Bucky Walters retired the first two batters. But the next four batters got hits, including a home run by Danning, costing the Reds the game. Two days later, Reds catcher Willard Hershberger, blaming himself for calling the wrong pitches, cut his throat in a Boston hotel.

"I felt sorry about it," Danning said. "I really felt sad ... If that was the real cause of him killing himself, I wish I would have struck out."

In 1940, Danning met and married his wife, Diane. Later that year, they lost twin boys at birth. Three years later, they had a daughter. A few months after she was born, Danning got drafted.

"I had to go. I didn't try to get out of it, especially with all the things that happened in Europe with the Jewish people."

Bothered by injuries and knee pain, Danning had slowed down in his last season, 1942. "My knees always hurt when I was playing baseball, but I didn't pay any attention; I figured it was par for the course."

While he was in the service, Danning saw an Army doctor. "My left knee was completely shot," he said. The doctor gave him a medical discharge and confirmed what Danning probably already knew by then:

His baseball career was over.

Baseball cards

In the sometimes brutal world of baseball-card collecting, some players are "stars" and some are "commons."

Harry "The Horse" Danning - despite four brilliant years in the majors, or perhaps because only four were brilliant - is usually deemed a common.

His brother Ike, meanwhile, who bounced between 10 minor league teams in 10 years before playing only two games in the majors, never had a major league baseball card.

All told, 43 of the 143 Jewish major leaguers - some of them with stints as short as Ike Danning's with the St. Louis Browns - never rated a major league card.

Abramowitz, the Boston fund-raising exec, set out to correct that: "If a major leaguer does not have a baseball card, it's almost as if he did not play the game."

Abramowitz, a card collector, decided to make his own. With help from Fleer, the card company, 15,000 boxed sets of all 143 Jewish players were produced by Jewish Major Leaguers, the nonprofit organization Abramowitz established.

When one of that group's board members suggested an event honoring Jewish ballplayers, the Baseball Hall of Fame readily agreed. The two-day event, "A Celebration of Jews in Baseball," coincides with the national celebration of 350 years of Jewish life in America. It will feature discussions, films, book signings, appearances by former players - not to mention the first kosher dinner ever served at the Hall of Fame.

After the event, Jewish Major Leaguers, in conjunction with the American Jewish Historical Society, plans to launch a traveling exhibit, opening in New York next month.

"I suppose it raises interesting questions, such as 'Why just Jews?' Why not blacks, Scandinavians, Italians?" Abramowitz said. "Our answer to that is why not indeed? The history of baseball is the history of ethnic groups finding their identities as Americans through the game."

Abramowitz said the list of Jewish major leaguers continues to grow as old-time players who may have concealed their faith become known. The latest addition is Lefty Weinert, a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies in the early 1920s, whose elderly son contacted Abramowitz.

A handful of teams actively sought Jewish players in the 1930s, Abramowitz said, and players for those teams probably faced less discrimination.

"The Giants contributed more Jews to the major league than any other franchise in the history of game," he said. "At one point, they and the Brooklyn Dodgers made great efforts to attract Jewish ball players because of all the Jewish fans."

Hank Greenberg probably faced more hostility in Detroit - and more than once he was torn between baseball and religion. In 1934, Greenberg fans, caught up in the pennant race, asked local rabbis to find an exemption that would allow him to play on Rosh Hashana.

Greenberg did play and won the game for the Tigers, leading the local paper to wish him happy new year in Hebrew on the next day's front page.

On Yom Kippur, though, Greenberg chose to attend synagogue rather than play.

About 30 years later, Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax, in a decision still recounted by rabbis across the country, would make that same decision - though with the stakes much higher. Koufax observed Yom Kippur instead of pitching in the opening game of the 1965 World Series.

Life after the game

After baseball, Danning tried selling cars. He opened his own dealerships in Los Angeles, selling Kaisers and Hudsons.

He hated it.

He tried coaching, for the minor league Hollywood Stars. He didn't see much future there, either.

He moved to New York and worked in newspaper and magazine distribution, but after the companies he worked for both went out of business, he returned to California and a job at an insurance company.

"That's probably the one big mistake I made in my whole life - I didn't plan for after I got through baseball," he said. "I saved money while I was in baseball, but after the war, inflation started, and the money wasn't worth as much."

After retiring, Danning and his wife moved to Indiana, to be near their daughter. His wife died in 1978.

Danning lives in an upstairs room. The stairway is equipped with rails and a hoist system for his wheelchair.

Every two weeks, if he feels up to it, Danning makes the trip to nearby Merrillville to eat breakfast and shoot the bull with other sports figures and fans.

Otherwise, he passes the days watching TV and sifting through requests for autographs, trying to separate the sincere requests from "the ones who just want to sell them on eBay." While he can't sign a baseball anymore - "my hand shakes too much" - he does send autographs.

"I spend my time here with the television, and the Cubs," he said. "Actually I watch everything, beach volleyball, whatever there is on. The Giants are my first love, but my second is the Cubs."

In Valparaiso, about an hour southeast of Chicago, there is a baseball field named after Danning, and an annual softball tournament.

Danning, like all players who left baseball before 1947, is not covered by the Major League Players Association pension. Instead, he receives $10,000 a year from a fund established in 1997 by team owners after years of pleading and legal wrangling on behalf of the players.

"We got a letter from the owners asking us to sign agreements that we wouldn't sue them ... If you didn't sign it, you didn't get the money. So I signed it."

"We started off with 104 men, but I think we're down to 60 now," Danning said.

One friend, former major leaguer Joe Hauser, who in 1930 hit 63 home runs for the minor league Baltimore Orioles, died three days after getting his first payment, Danning said. He was 98 and living in a nursing home in Sheboygan, Wis.

"He was a nice guy. I know he could have used the money."

Harry Danning and his bother Ike, who died in 1983, were one of six pairs of Jewish brothers in the major leagues, and both are sometimes mentioned as figuring in one of the favorite stories in Jewish baseball lore:

At a celebrity exhibition game in California, Jimmy Reese of the Yankees is batting against Harry Ruby, the Jewish songwriter. Either Ike or Harry Danning, depending on which version you hear, is behind the plate.

The catcher, rather than using hand signals, calls his pitches in Yiddish. Reese - after stealing home in one version of the story or getting hits in another - was confronted by the catcher.

"I didn't know you were so good," the catcher says.

"You didn't know my real name is Hymie Solomon," Reese answers.

Harry Danning says he was not the catcher in question, and he's not sure it was Ike either.

"Still," he said, "it's a great story. It's like the Babe Ruth story, pointing to the outfield. People say, 'It wasn't this,' 'It wasn't that.' What's it matter?

"It's a good story. Don't you think it's a good story?"

Jewish players

There are currently 12 Jewish major league baseball players:

Name Team

Dave Newhan Orioles Brad Ausmus Astros John Grabow Pirates Shawn Green Dodgers Gabe Kapler Red Sox Mike Koplove Diamond- backs Al Levine Tigers Mike Lieberthal Phillies Jason Marquis Cardinals Scott Schoeneweis White Sox Justin Wayne Marlins Kevin Youkilis Red Sox

Sources: The Baseball Hall of Fame and Jewishmajorleaguers.org

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