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Pitching Politics from the Mound

David Spaner
September 25, 2017

by David Spaner

SAM NAHEM was a right-handed pitcher with a lefty pitch.

One day in 1948, however, Sam lost control of his pitch with Roy Campanella at the plate. It was a year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, and Sam, with the Philadelphia Phillies, was pitching to Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodger teammate Campanella, also one of major league baseball’s first black players. Campanella, Robinson and the other pioneering black players were facing tremendous racial abuse from fans and opposing players, so when Sam’s pitch went astray and decked Campanella, as the Dodger got to his feet he glared at Sam, as if to say: “Another racist asshole.”

Sam was beside himself, wanting to tell Campanella he hadn’t thrown at him intentionally, that he had picketed New York’s ballparks demanding an end to segregation in baseball, that he had managed one of the first integrated ball teams when he was in the military. Sam, though, was the opposing pitcher in the midst of a ball game, so he kept quiet.

Battling baseball bigotry was only one part of Sam’s long life of activism. “I was left,” he told me in an interview a few years before he died in 2004. “I marched. I contributed to the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, gave fundraising parties, was involved in the fight around the Rosenbergs, was chairman of the negotiating committee for the union at the Standard Oil plant in Richmond, California.” He was the most unusual of baseball players: Shakespearean scholar, lawyer, linguist (Arabic and French as well as English), Beethoven aficionado, Syrian Jew, Communist, union organizer -- and with that integrated baseball team he managed won the armed forces World Series of 1945.

Sam Nahem’s story begins in Brooklyn, where he was born into a large family in 1915, his parents immigrants from Aleppo, Syria. Being Sephardic, the Nahems expressed their Jewishness less through bagels and Yiddish than pita bread and Arabic. Sam and his seven siblings grew up in an insular Syrian Jewish enclave in Brooklyn’s Ocean Park. While Sam loved some things about the neighborhood culture (food, music), he rebelled against its restrictive traditions, such as arranged marriage, and its deep religiosity.

Early on, Sam was drawn to reading the classics and listening to classical music, but he was also a fine athlete, playing sandlot ball all day. In 1928, Sam’s father Isaac, a well-heeled importer/exporter, was among more than a hundred who died when the SS Vestris capsized off the East Coast. After his father’s death, Sam increasingly saw baseball as his ticket out of the cloistered community.

BASEBALL was the Sport of Entry for generations of immigrant children. It had been called the “New York game,” and between 1880 and 1920, as waves of Jewish immigrants poured into New York, it was at the height of its popularity. No surprise that a naturally athletic Brooklynite like Sam Nahem would fall for the game. There is a long history of Jews playing baseball that goes back to 1870s major-leaguer Lipman Pike, and includes players such as Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Al Rosen, and Shawn Green, along with notable union leader Marvin Miller. (Not every Jewish family, though, has two major-league ballplayers, but Sam’s sister Vicky’s son, Al Silvera, played briefly with the Cincinnati Reds.)

Sam and his cousin Joe Cohen grew up on the same sandlots. “We were young, we were snappy, we went for humor,” says Cohen, adding that Sam ”was gentle, he was kind, he thought about people.” Cohen says the Syrian Jewish community took pride in Sam’s athletic heroics as he quarterbacked the Brooklyn College football team and turned professional baseball player after a tryout with the Dodgers in 1935. “I don’t want to say that there are stereotypes of the Jewish kid or something,” says Sam’s son Ivan, “but he was certainly no little skinny Jewish kid. He was very strapping.”

Sam was as cerebral as he was athletic. Says his son Andrew: “He told me he had spent a summer somewhere — I don’t know, in the south, I think, or the Midwest — playing minor league ball and just bored out of his mind … so he read all of Balzac.”

Along with classic literature, Sam’s reading list included the socialist classics. “(He) believed in those ideals and was very active,” says Andrew. “It was very much in the air in those days.” Like so many during the Depression, Sam joined the Communist Party. After the Second World War, the McCarthyite witch-hunters would insist that the youthful Depression-era lefties had wanted to create a Stalinist tyranny, but that was the farthest thing from Sam and his friends’ minds. The CP was a mass movement and they joined to build labor unions and fight racism and fascism. ”I think his motivation was that he was always kind-hearted,” says Ivan. “And I think a lot of the people who were leftists in the ‘30s and ‘40s were motivated by a really noble altruistic vision of what this world could be.… They would go out and do a lot of canvassing and that sort of thing, and at one point he was chased by a Nazi mob. Got away.”

Meanwhile, Sam was quickly advancing through the minor leagues — 15 wins and 5 losses with Clinton of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League in 1937, followed by stints in Elmira and Montreal, Nashville and Louisville. The Dodgers brought him up to the majors in 1938, and he hurled a complete-game victory and was dubbed Subway Sam, the kind of thing a New York sports reporter of the 1930s would have giddily nicknamed someone. Later, he would pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals (1941) and Philadelphia Phillies (1942, 1948). Sam didn’t have a lengthy career but he was a dogged pitcher with a lively fastball. He was also a good, sometimes irreverent, interview. When asked by a radio interviewer how to say “Merry Christmas” in Arabic, Sam answered with the name of a Syrian cheese omelet. “So he wished all of Brooklyn cheese omelet for Christmas,” Andrew says.

During his ballplaying years, Sam found time to get a law degree at St. John’s University, but he barely practiced. “He started out being a law clerk and he hated it, found it incredibly tedious, and a sad contrast to the excitement of playing ball. So he gave it up,” says Andrew. He was, however, willing to give up major league baseball for something else -- the anti-fascist war effort. “We didn’t know exactly what was going on in Nazi Germany but we knew there was anti-Semitism and we knew that it was very bad, so he enlisted. He volunteered and in fact he had to lie to get in, because he was asthmatic.”

“He wanted to fight the Nazis and all of that,” says Ivan, “(but) by the time he got there, the hostilities were over.” While 300,000 GIs waited to return home by ship, they played and watched baseball -- America’s most popular sport at the time. With many pros and outstanding amateurs among the troops, baseball leagues were formed. The winner of the league based in Germany (the Red Circlers) played a best-of-five military World Series in 1945 against the best team based in France -- the OISE (Overseas Invasion Service Expedition) All-Stars, managed by and co-starring Sam Nahem. While OISE didn’t have the array of major- and minor-leaguers of the Red Circlers, as one of the first integrated teams anywhere, it had Negro League slugger Willard Brown and pitcher Leon Day, along with Sam on the mound.

Playing before 50,000 GIs in a Nuremberg stadium that had been the site of massive Nazi rallies, this underdog team led by a Jewish manager/pitcher and black stars shocked the Red Circler major-leaguers by taking the Series three games to two. “Me and my ragtag group beat a group of big leaguers,” Sam said proudly.

After the war, Sam returned to baseball, wrapping up his major-league play with the Phillies in 1948 -- and that pitch to Roy Campanella.

ALONGSIDE THE ACTIVISM, there was a party side to the Communist Party. Sam met Elsie Hanson after the war at a Party social. A lefty New Yorker, too, but of Swedish descent, Hanson was a student at the Arts Students League in Manhattan. Son Ivan was born in 1950 and daughter Joanne in 1953. “I do remember sitting on a bed in Manhattan,” says Ivan, “and I remember him saying something about how there’s all kinds of people in the world, different colors, different races and all of that, but they’re all good. And It’s interesting that I have that memory of him because that was kind of very much his belief as we grew up, and I’m very grateful for that. I mean especially thinking about current events.”

While the early 1950s was a relatively affluent period for much of America, it was downward mobility for Sam. “He was a stevedore for a while and he was a salesman for a while when we were still in New York,” says Andrew. “He was the one who told me that the FBI would follow him around to these jobs and tell his bosses, ‘Do you know a Communist is working for you?’ And he would lose the jobs.” Adds Ivan: “All he would tell me was that he was a terrible, terrible failure and that he would supposed to be out going door-to-door or whatever, maybe it was shoes or something like that, and he used to just go to the movies in the middle of the afternoon and not do his job.… He never really connected with anything in those years after baseball and before they moved to California.”

To Sam and Elsie, like so many in the postwar years, California seemed an ideal escape. Moving to suburban San Francisco in 1955, Elsie found work as a graphic designer of high school text books for Field Educational Publications. Sam found manual work at the Chevron Chemical (a division of Standard Oil) plant in Richmond. “His idea was, you know, I’m a Marxist, I don’t want to take a white-collar job, I don’t want to do that, I want to be with the workers,” says Andrew, who was born in 1961. “He rose to the rank of foreman which, as he said, was as high as you could go without being management because he philosophically was against being management, although he could have been.”

The family settled in Berkeley in 1965, arriving as the Berkeley of lefty lore was being born, with its free speech movement, antiwar protests and battle for People’s Park. “Berkeley was just the center of the universe then,” says Ivan. “For my dad too. I mean, moving to Berkeley, that was his element. He found his place.” Sam was sympathetic to the counterculture that permeated Berkeley and he often attended protests with young Andrew in tow. “I remember in the ‘70s going to big, big demonstrations in San Francisco,” Andrew says. “He was in a place where (protest) was the zeitgeist and he was really happy about it.”

Ivan says his parents provided little for him to rebel against. “They were radicals in Berkeley, and how are you going to rebel against that? … Most people were coming to Berkeley rebelling against their parents, but my parents were already there.”

Andrew and Ivan were musicians in the punk scene of the late 1970s. “Mostly my father was very open-minded,” says Andrew. “He loved T. Rex and the Rolling Stones … and he loved the Ramones.” Sam also continued to love baseball. “I played catch with him all the time,” says Ivan.

Sam quit the Communist Party in the mid-1950s following the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He did not, however, quit the left. While he rejected Eastern Bloc-style Communism, Sam remained a socialist. “He always would say, but I’m proud of what I did, and my ideals were always about civil rights, workers, anti-racism,” says Andrew. At Chevron Chemical, he headed the safety committee of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers of America. In 1969, he chaired the bargaining committee during a historic strike -- so unique because it brought together union workers and the Bay Area’s large New Left. From Berkeley and Stanford and the city, countercultural activists embraced the militant strike, which included picket-line confrontations and prompted Students for a Democratic Society to pass a national resolution calling for a boycott of Standard Oil products. So at Chevron Chemical, Sam threw the biggest strike of his life. “He was consumed by (it), you know, and he was sleeping at the office,” says Andrew. “I remember something about him just taking a toothbrush and spending all his time working on the strike.”

During the strike, Sam’s nephew Joel Isaacs was in Berkeley doing science research at the University of California, and he stayed with Sam and Elsie. “It was comfortable and friendly. I enjoyed that time.” As for the strike, Isaacs says: “I knew he was really active in it, and one time I went with him to join a picket line and we did march outside Standard Oil. … The Oakland or Richmond police formed a line and at one point, nothing violent happened but they did shoot teargas at us. However, the wind came up and blew the teargas back at them.” Isaacs, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Ocean Park neighborhood, says, “I think Sam represented for some of us a really different potential, a real different possibility. … education, going out to the bigger world, and, of course, the left politics.”

BASEBALL and union organizing were not the only secular Jewish traditions embraced by Sam. “He felt very, very Jewish,” says Ivan. “He used to talk about it a lot. He felt very culturally Jewish. His humor was Jewish. He loved the Marx Brothers.” Sam wasn’t at all religious, “but he was very Jewish identified otherwise,” says Andrew. “Definitely was very identified with the Jewish tradition of being leftwing obviously, and was very proud of all that stuff.”

Elsie died of breast cancer at 49 in 1974. “He never quite got over it,” says Andrew. As the 1970s wore on, Sam found new relationships and friendships and retirement. “We were having dinner four of us -- the two sons and Sam and I -- and Sam was the only one that had something to do Saturday night. He was going out on a date,” says Isaacs.

Making new friends like David Aroner, who had been active in Ann Arbor SDS in the early 1960s, was part of why Sam felt so at home in Berkeley. They became fast friends in the late 1970s and Sam provided negotiating advice to Aroner, who was active in the Service Employees International Union. “He was a very interesting person and I liked him and he came to negotiations and we would strategize a little bit,” says Aroner. “He used to joke about getting his dividends and stuff because he was such a lefty and now he’s sitting around getting his dividends from Chevron Oil.… A wonderful friend that I miss.”

Sam’s life touched so much 20th century history -- from the sinking of the SS Vestris to the Depression-era Communist movement, from the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers to the integrated military World Series of 1945, from the Second World War to postwar McCarthyism, from the great Standard Oil strike in Richmond to Berkeley in the ’60s. With such varied experiences, those close to him find many things to epitomize his character. To nephew Joel, it was his principled politics: “He stayed true to his beliefs.” To others, it was his intellect or his family loyalties or his baseball or his cinnamon chicken. Sam was all of this, and something else -- he was Borscht Belt funny. To Andrew: “One of the main things about my father was his sense of humor. He was hilarious and relentless.“

“I’ve been mentioned in the same breath as Koufax,” Sam said when I interviewed him. “The breath usually is, ‘Sam Nahem is no Sandy Koufax.’”

David Spaner has been a feature writer, reporter, and editor for numerous alternative and mainstream publications, and was movie critic at the Vancouver Province daily newspaper. He is the author of Dreaming in the Rain: How Vancouver Became Hollywood North by Northwest and Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film.