Harry Chozen (COURTESY OF NORMAN MACHT)

Harry Chozen

This article was written by Norman Macht

Harry Chozen (COURTESY OF NORMAN MACHT)Over a span of 17 years, catcher Harry Chozen played in 1,696 games in the minor leagues and one game in the majors. A lifetime .287 hitter, he had a 49-game hitting streak with Mobile in the Southern Association in 1945 that has been equaled or surpassed by only five of the thousands of players who have appeared in the minor leagues.1 But this is more than the story of a career bush-league catcher. It is a story of how baseball was instrumental in the Americanization of Harry’s father and other immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century.

It begins in The Pale of Settlement, an area of Eastern Europe created by Russia in 1791 that reached from the Black Sea to the North Sea, and at various times included much of western Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. (Borders frequently shifted as a result of military forays; it was possible for a family to live in a few different countries during three generations without ever moving.)

The Tsar forced Russian Jews to move to The Pale, which lasted until after World War I. Most of them were poor; prospects were bleak. They were not allowed to settle in agricultural areas, so they were mostly merchants and peddlers. Education opportunities were severely limited and at times forbidden. They were fair game for pogroms (deadly raids by neighbors, soldiers, and police), physical beatings, homes plundered of what little they had: a dried-up cow, wash basins, firewood — more of a blood sport than a treasure hunt.

Young Jewish men never went out in the street without carrying a big stick to protect themselves. They were subject to sudden conscription into the Tsar’s army at any time. Between 1881 and 1914 an estimated two million of them escaped, most of them to America. Abraham Chozen was one of them.

Chozen lived in a Ukrainian town then known as Proskuriv (town names changed with the tides of war), in the northwestern corner of The Pale, abutting Poland. He had no formal education and had worked curing animal skins in a tannery since he was 8 years old. By his early 20s, he had a wife, Ida (Plutsman), probably through an arranged marriage, and two small children, Morris and Ann. He also had a friend, a former co-worker, who had escaped to America. In 1902 Abe received a letter from his friend, offering to sponsor his acceptance in America and promising a job in a tannery in New York City. Abe told his wife he would go, get settled, save some money, and send for them as soon as he could.

The Buh River ran through the town and into Poland (where it became the Bug River). Abe and two coworkers built a raft and rode it down the river as far as they could, then walked and hitched rides on wagons until they reached the North Sea at Bremen. From there they sailed to Liverpool and boarded a ship to America. They arrived in New York in the summer of 1902. Abe’s friends went on to Minnesota, where they may have had family.

Undaunted by the crowded streets and tall buildings, Abe Chozen fell in love with America. There were no Tsar’s soldiers; nobody needed to carry sticks to protect themselves. He had landed in the big pot, and he could not wait to melt into it. But he spoke no English. Rather than seek the cocoon of fellow Ukrainians, he was determined to become thoroughly American. So he went to places where men gathered to talk; saloons and street corners and labor halls. He heard a lot of animated talk of giants and baseball games and something or somebody called McGraw. Abe did not know what it meant, but he heard the words so often he knew it must be something important. He had a quick mind and an ear for language and a hunger to learn.

Abe Chozen had arrived in New York at about the same time that John McGraw quit as manager of the American League’s Baltimore Orioles and jumped to the National League’s New York Giants. McGraw had been one of baseball’s most exciting and colorful players of the 1890s. The Giants had been floundering near the bottom of the NL for the past four years. Under McGraw, within three years the Giants would rise to become pennant winners, then world champions.

Abe Chozen’s new world was baseball crazy. To fulfill his dream of becoming a real American, he realized he had better learn baseball. He studied the lingo, the rules, the strategies, went to see the Giants play at the Polo Grounds, and studied the batters and the fielders. A hundred years later his son Bob would say, “Pa knew more about the way the game should be played than managers today.” Chozen became a lifelong baseball fan and student of the game, the father and grandfather of four professional ballplayers, and the patriarch of generations of avid baseball fans.

Around 1905 Abe sent for his wife and children. The friends with whom he had traveled had written to him urging him to move to Minnesota, where there were jobs available in tanneries in their town of Winnebago. When his family arrived, Abe decided that, rather than settle in the big city, they would go west to Winnebago, a town of under 2,000 population (that never grew) in south central Minnesota near the Iowa border. Abe and Ida had five more children: Esther, Jenny, Myer (Mike), Harry, and Bobby. Harry was born on September 27, 1915.

Abe brought his love of baseball with him to Winnebago but found only town and semipro teams to watch. When Morris was about 13, Pa bought a bat, and they would go to a park where he would hit grounders to his son and teach him the game. Morris became a semipro pitcher, but Winnebago was too small-town for him. In 1917 he hopped a freight train and headed for Southern California. The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 hit Ida the hardest in the family. She recovered but was left with asthma. Her doctor advised her to move to a drier climate. So in 1921, the family packed up and moved to Pasadena, California.

To Abe Chozen, the Los Angeles area was baseball heaven. The warm weather allowed for long high-school, college, and semipro seasons. Major-league teams trained there in the spring. The Pacific Coast League was the fastest minor league in the country. By 1929 LA would have two teams in the league, the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars; the whole family often went to Stars games.

In Winnebago Abe had had enough of tanneries and had opened his own junkyard. He did the same in their new location in Pasadena. They lived near Brookside Park and took picnics there, listening to the music from the bandstand and watching semipro games. Abe took his sons to the park and hit grounders and pitched to them. Remembering how he had studied the big leaguers in New York, he taught them: “Stay in front of the ball … hit with an open stance — you can see the pitch better.”

Bobby was the youngest by six years; Mike and Harry took him under their wings and taught him, occasionally sneaking him out of school to practice with them. Eventually, all three played for semipro teams at Brookside, where Bobby’s keystone partner was Jackie Robinson, and American Legion ball for Pasadena Post 13. Mike went on to play for six minor-league teams in 11 years between 1932 and 1945. Bobby played for one year — more on that later.

Harry attended Pasadena public schools and, when it combined with the last two years of the high school, Pasadena Junior College. Mike and Bob were infielders; Harry was built like a catcher: 5-feet-9 and 195 pounds. He had broad, powerful shoulders and a strong arm. But he was slow, later acquiring the facetious nickname “Deerfoot,” which he amiably noted in a 1945 questionnaire.2 He played one season at PJC before he was injured, and after graduating in 1932, he signed with the St. Louis Browns and was invited to San Antonio for spring training. It quickly became evident that the 17-year-old was too green for pro baseball; he was released and sent home.3

For the next year Harry went to every tryout he could find; nobody was interested. Then in 1934 he saw an ad for Ray Doan’s baseball school in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It boasted big-league stars like Dizzy Dean and George Sisler as instructors. But it cost $150, which Harry did not have. He wrote a letter to Doan, offering to write a testimonial for the school in lieu of tuition if he was signed by anybody. Doan accepted the deal, and Harry made his way to Hot Springs. One of the instructors was Josh Billings, a 10-15 pitcher with Detroit for three years in the 1920s. Billings was now managing the Lake Charles (Louisiana) Skippers, a Cincinnati farm club in the Class D Evangeline League. He took a liking to the jovial, talkative, energetic 19-year-old. Harry got a contract; Doan got his testimonial.4

Wherever his boys played, Abe Chozen subscribed to the local newspaper to keep up with their careers. In Harry’s case, that added up to a lot of newspapers. Beginning in 1935, he caught for 16 minor-league teams over 17 years. As a rookie in Lake Charles, Harry caught 126 games and batted .321. It earned him a late-season look with the Reds’ farm at Fort Worth in the Texas League, where the Cats’ manager, veteran big-league catcher Harry McCurdy, told him to go home and work on his flawed throwing — he was throwing to second with a side-arm motion, not overhand.

That winter Harry worked on his throwing motion for an hour every day in front of a mirror. “And if you don’t think it’s tough for a guy like me to look in the mirror for an hour, you’re crazy. Sitting in the catcher’s rocking chair [squatting on his heels] in front of a long looking glass I practiced that motion all during the offseason.”5

The new improved catcher spent the next two years with El Dorado (Arkansas) in the Class C Cotton States League. In 1937 he held out briefly before reporting. “I’m catcher No.1, I’m catcher No. 2, and am planning on getting married and need the money,” he wrote the (club) boss.6 Then he had a breakout year, batting .339 with 102 RBIs and a career-high 14 home runs. It earned him the league’s MVP honors and a September call-up by the last-place Cincinnati Reds. He was 22.

On September 21 Reds manager Bobby Wallace started him in the second game of a doubleheader against the seventh-place Phillies. Left-hander Joe Cascarella was the pitcher, relieved by Bill Hallahan in the ninth inning. The Reds lost, 10-1. Harry dropped one foul popup for an error. Batting sixth, he had one hit against 30-year-old rookie southpaw Wayne LaMaster, beating out a grounder to third for a single in the ninth inning, his last time at bat in his only major-league game.

That winter he married Ruth Nelson of Lake Charles. They would have two sons, Richard, born November 4, 1939, and David, born November 19, 1948. He also wrote a letter, which he later thought might have cost him another shot with the Reds. Expecting a chance to make the Reds in spring training, he was stunned to receive a notice to report to the Albany (New York) Senators in the Class A Eastern League.

He fired off a letter to Commissioner Kenesaw Landis, claiming he should be declared a free agent, as he had signed his original contract with the Browns when he was a minor. The matter was forwarded to Reds President Warren Giles, who sent him a telegram inviting him to spring training in Tampa.

“Giles got mad at me for that letter to Landis,” Chozen told author Brent Kelley. “He told me to report to Albany, and they’d bring me up later. But they never did.”

When he complained again to Giles after a season in which he had only two passed balls in 107 games, he was threatened with being sent to an even lower club if he didn’t quit complaining. He remained with Albany until he was released in 1940.

In 1941 Chozen was picked up by the Philadelphia Athletics’ Williamsport club in the Eastern League. By then 26 and in his seventh season, Harry decided he wanted to try his hand at managing. With a recommendation from league President Tommy Richardson, he wrote to Connie Mack, who hired him to manage the A’s new entry at Newport News, Virginia, in the Class C Virginia League, for 1942. The A’s trained in Anaheim, California, that spring. Harry informed Mr. Mack that, since he visited his family in nearby Pasadena each year, he would join the A’s in spring training.

Harry’s brother, Bob, was now 20. An A’s scout had seen him playing semipro ball and invited him to try out. Bob and Pa went to Anaheim, where Bob showed what he could do at bat and in the infield while Connie Mack watched. Impressed, Mack offered him a contract. Bob was too young to sign, so his father was called out of the grandstand to sign for him. Meeting and chatting with the legendary Mr. Mack became a cherished experience for Abe Chozen. Mack signed Bob to play for Harry at Newport News, a decision both he and Harry came to regret. Whenever Bob made an error or struck out, the fans not only got on him, but rode his brother the manager.

The situation was resolved when Bob received his draft notice to report for his physical. He wound up in the Navy; with Connie Mack’s help, he was admitted into a special training program. By the time the war was over, Bob was married and had a child. He wanted to pursue a baseball career, but his wife wanted him at home and Pa needed him in the junk business.

The Virginia League suspended operations in 1943. Harry was part-owner of a wholesale feed company in Lake Charles and worked in a war production plant until mid-1944, when he signed with the Knoxville Smokies in the Southern Association and joined them a month before the team moved to Mobile, Alabama. Classified as 4-F by his draft board after the season, the 29-year-old catcher returned to Mobile in 1945 and had the best year of his career, batting .353 with only two strikeouts in 322 at-bats, and setting a league record that still stands of hitting safely in 49 consecutive games. It was not easy.

“It didn’t mean much to the manager, Clay Hopper,” Chozen told Brent Kelley. “Four times during the streak my only at-bat was as a pinch-hitter. Fortunately, I got a hit each time.”

The streak was at 34 when a batter swung and missed and hit Harry in the head with the bat, knocking him cold. He was carried off the field. “My only time at bat I had walked, and the league president, Billy Evans, ruled that, since I had no official times at bat, the streak remained intact.”7

Ten years after he began his minor-league travels, Harry still retained his enthusiasm: “Mobile catcher Harry Chozen, who resembles a power-driving fullback, has an unusual voice. He keeps a steady stream of ‘chatter’ going throughout the game and although he doesn’t yell, his voice carries perfectly all over the park,” a sportswriter commented.8 In addition to baseball, music had always been an important part of the Chozen family’s life. Myer played the trombone in dance and studio bands. The girls played the piano. Harry, Bob, and their parents sang. From his high-school glee club to his last day in the choir at Temple Sinai in Lake Charles, Harry’s rich baritone earned him the nickname “The Crooning Catcher.”9 He entertained teammates, fans in the stands, radio audiences, civic clubs — and loved every minute of it.

A free agent in 1946, he signed with Memphis and had another Southern Association all-star season. But he still yearned to manage again. His wish was granted; for the next six years he managed and sometimes handled the business manager’s chores at the same time (there’s no record of whether he also drove the team bus) in the Class C Cotton States League at Greenville, Mississippi, and El Dorado and Pine Bluff (Arkansas); Miami Beach in the Class B Florida International League; and in 1951 for his hometown Lake Charles Lakers in the Gulf Coast League, batting .300 for his last-place team. He closed out his baseball days with the seventh-place Greenville Bucks in 1952. His only pennant winner was at Pine Bluff in 1950. In his seven years as a manager, his teams posted a .500 record.

For several years Harry had been an agent for Guaranty Savings Life Insurance Company; in 1958 he was named district manager.10 He remained active in baseball as a bird dog, recommending local players to big-league scouts. He was president of the local Little League and Temple Sinai, active in the Shriners and many other civic activities. His hobbies were gardening and fishing.

On July 28, 1962, his wife, Ruth, died after a long illness at 46. Two years later he married Ida Blumberg; they operated a dress shop until a 1965 burglary forced them to close.11 They divorced not long afterward. In 1971 Harry married a widow, Ruth Sternberg Golb. She survived him, along with his sons Richard and David, two granddaughters, and three stepchildren, when he died from lung cancer in a Houston hospital on September 16, 1994. He was 78. He is interred next to his first wife in Graceland Cemetery, Lake Charles.

 

Acknowledgments

The author is indebted to Harry Chozen’s brother Bob and niece Ilene Kelsey for much of the family history, and to Harry Chozen for a 1985 interview with Norman Macht. Thanks also to SABR colleague Bill Lamb.

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Len Levin and fact-checked by Paul Proia.

 

Sources

Other sources include Ancestry.com and, for stats, Baseball-Reference.

 

Notes

1 The longest consecutive-game hitting streaks in minor-league history belong to Joe Wilhoit, 69 (Wichita, 1919); Joe DiMaggio, 61 (San Francisco, 1933); Roman Mejias, 55 (Waco, 1954), Francisco Mejia, 50 (Lake County/Lynchburg, 2016), Jack Ness, 49 (Oakland, 1915), and our subject.

2 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire, received from Harry Chozen on February 12, 1945, and accessed via Ancestry.com.

3 See “Catcher Chozen Playing for Lake Charles,” Rayne (Louisiana) Tribune, May 24, 1935: 4.

4 Circa 1992 Brent Kelley interview of Harry Chozen preserved on the SABR Oral History site.

5 Flem R. Hall, “The Sports Tide,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 13, 1936: 6.

6 “Foul Tips from the Sporting News,” Greenville (Mississippi) Delta Democrat-Times, February 26, 1937: 5.

7 Brent Kelley interview of Harry Chozen. This is confirmed by an Associated Press dispatch published in the Hanover (Pennsylvania) Evening Star, July 24, 1945: 3, and elsewhere.

8 Billy Thompson, Nashville (Tennessee) Banner, August 2, 1944: 14.

9 See “Chozen Off Next Friday,” Pasadena (California) Post, March 17, 1936: 6.

10 “Insurance Firm Appoints Chozen District Manager,” Lake Charles (Louisiana) American-Press, January 25, 1958: 17.

11 See “Burglars Strip Dress Shop,” Lake Charles American-Press, November 15, 1965: 1.

Full Name

Harry Chozen

Born

September 27, 1915 at Winnebago, MN (USA)

Died

September 16, 1994 at Houston, TX (USA)

If you can help us improve this player’s biography, contact us.

Tags

© SABR. All Rights Reserved