By Mary Klaus and Adam Grobman
Not many people know more about baseball than Andy Linker.
The longtime beat writer and chronicler of the Harrisburg Senators has written four books on the subject and has been watching the sport since he began attending games with his cousins in the 1960s.
As a Jewish kid growing up in Philadelphia, he connected with the sport while reading a biography on Sandy Koufax. “That first drew me in,” he remembers. “He had missed game 1 of the 1965 World Series to observe Yom Kippur – I became very immersed in it just as he had retired.”
Decades ago, Jewish immigrants to Harrisburg and similar communities small and large learned about baseball and made it their own, both as an activity of leisure and as a way to fit into local culture.
“The prominent sport going back to the 1920s was baseball,” says Andy. “You had a countless number of immigrants coming over from Eastern Europe and one of the ways that families realized they could assimilate into society was through sports.”
Alongside Koufax, Andy points to early Jewish superstars like Hank Greenberg as important to the greater community.
“There were so few (professional) Jewish players in the 1920s -1960s, and fewer who were stars,” he says. “It didn’t matter if they were from Harrisburg or Baltimore. Any community’s people would gravitate toward those players, read about them, and go out and see them play.”
Michael Coleman, a local community member and baseball devotee, has been a fan of the sport since he was a six-year-old player on a Little League team. He still follows closely as he approaches his 80th birthday.
“Baseball is my favorite sport,” Coleman said, a Philadelphia Phillies fan. “Maybe football and basketball are more popular nationally, but for me, baseball is first.”
He expressed interest in attending the July 16th game at FNB Field between the Israel National Baseball Team (Team Israel), and the Cal Ripken All-Stars. Coleman’s love for baseball, like this community’s, goes back generations.
Phil Bloom, a Phillies fan and longtime sports broadcaster in both Pennsylvania and Kansas (and a former Harrisburg Senators public address announcer), shares this affinity for the baseball diamond.
“When my dad was growing up here, everyone seemed to love either the Phillies or the Baltimore Orioles,” Bloom said. “His generation and mine loved baseball.”
One family that has long aligned with the Orioles is the Schwab family. “Baseball has been a part of our family since we were born,” says Dan Schwab. “Our family has had season tickets to the Orioles for all sixty-eight years they have been a franchise in Baltimore, one of only eleven families/companies to do so. It has always been a family affair.”
Since becoming partners in the Harrisburg Senators in 2018, the Schwabs have had a direct hand in passing along the love of the ballpark experience to the next generation.
“Minor league baseball isn’t about who wins or loses,” Dan says. “It is about shared experiences with friends and families in a great atmosphere. It is incredibly Americana and brings back warm memories to those who have gone with parents, grandparents, company events, or birthday parties.”
Bloom said that in the past twenty years, Jewish baseball players and the number of their fans have increased. Baseball also has been a popular pastime for the local community, Bloom said, who played baseball on a Susquehanna Township team and in college.
“Locally, in the 1950s through the 1980s, guys played baseball on Sunday afternoons from May through September,” he said. ‘There were a lot of pickup games, both softball and baseball, on the grounds of the Harrisburg State Hospital. My idol – and the idol of every kid my age – was the late Paul Stein, a legend on the baseball field. He was perfect.”
Bloom said that those Sunday afternoon games featured players ranging rom their teens to their 70s coming together in “ultra –competitive” games.
Sometimes, he said, two or three games were going simultaneously with fans cheering from the stands.
“It was so much fun,” he said. “It really brought people together. Then, everyone would go home, get their bathing suits on and head to Green Hills to swim and have dinner.”
The Harrisburg JCC Sports Hall of Fame recognizes several community members for contributions in baseball and softball, including 2020 inductee Rebecca Morrison alongside Israel “Billy” Michlovitz, the aforementioned Paul Stein, Herman Minkoff, and Max Shore.
Shore’s plaque in the Hall of Fame states that the JCC softball league was named in his honor to recognize his work in forming men’s leagues in the 1940s, a time when baseball was as important to Jewish Americans as ever.
“Max lovingly dipped softballs in whitewash every Sunday morning so the team could have ‘new’ balls,” reads the plaque, giving us a peek into the lengths Jewish athletes would go to practice America’s Pastime in the face of economic and global turmoil.
Coleman said that the Jewish Community Center members played pickup games against other Jewish teams, and teams from churches and civic groups.
Although soccer and basketball are more popular than baseball in Israel, there’s a lot of interest in Team Israel, which is heading to the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. That team is loaded with American players – seven with previous Major League Baseball experience and several current minor league players.
They will join a number of Jewish players who have played on City Island throughout the years, Andy says, citing current Senator Rhett Wiseman, Nick Rickles (a current Team Israel member), pitcher Justin Wayne, and Clown Prince of Baseball Max Patkin, who, prior to being featured in the movie Bull Durham, got his start in Harrisburg.
With a rich history of Jewish baseball in Harrisburg and throughout the country, Coleman says he looks forward to following Team Israel in the Olympics. “Sports have a way of bringing people together,” he said. “It unites people who many not agree about other things – we need that now.”