Cal Abrams: A Nice Jewish Boy

This article was written by Peter M. Gordon

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in the 1991 SABR convention journal (New York City).

 

He had a chance to be Brooklyn’s first home-grown Jewish baseball hero. It was his for the taking. In the last inning of the last game of the 1950 season, Cal Abrams, from Flatbush, had the chance to win the pennant for the Dodgers.

When Cal was growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, he and his friends must have played a similar scene in empty lots and on city streets innumerable times. Score tied, bottom of the ninth, the pennant on the line for the Dodgers. Although his boyhood friends would go on to other pursuits, Calvin Coolidge Abrams would get the chance to live his dream. By the end of the decade, Cal had grown into a strong, swift six-footer, who hit the longest home run in the history of Brooklyn’s James Madison High School.

The Dodgers signed him to a minor league contract in 1942, and he hit over .300. However, America was at war, and Cal joined the Army. He served through 1945, and then went to the Three I League in 1946. He took up where he left off, hitting over .330 in that league, and then .345 for Mobile in 1947.

Abrams’ speed, hitting ability and religion quickly brought him to the attention of the New York media. In the late 1940s and early 1950s New York was then, as it is now, the city with the largest Jewish population in the world. Ever since the days of John McGraw, New York’s ball teams searched high and low for a star Jewish ball player that could help them win a pennant and bring New York’s large Jewish contingent to the ball park. In 1947, even with the hype surrounding Jackie Robinson, and the intense pennant race, some writers found the space to mention that the Dodgers had a “nice” Jewish outfielder hitting .340 in the minor leagues.

The Dodgers brought Abrams up for a cup of coffee in 1949, and he stayed on the team in 1950. However, for most of the year Dodger manager Burt Shotton, recognizing the value of Abrams’ speed and contact hitting ability, used him mostly as a pinch runner, pinch hitter and defensive replacement.

Brooklyn expected to defend their 1949 pennant successfully in 1950. They did not count on the astonishing emergence of the Philadelphia Phillies, nicknamed the “Whiz Kids.” In fact, the young Phillies led the Dodgers by nine games in early September. The Brooklyn veterans battled back to within one game of the Phillies with one games remaining in the season.

Coincidentally, the Phillies and the Dodgers were scheduled to play each other in that last game, in Ebbets Field. The teams pitched their best, Roberts vs. Newcombe, and each side scored one run through the first eight and one half innings. Cal Abrams led off the bottom of the ninth, and worked Roberts for a walk. The Ebbets Field crowd, silent with tension, began to make some noise.

Captain Pee Wee Reese followed with a single, sending Abrams to second. The fans began to clap and plead for Duke Snider, the next batter, to get a hit. Abrams and Reese took their leads. Roberts pitched and Snider hit a hard line drive single to Richie Ashburn in center field. Abrams was one of the fastest Dodgers and Ashburn had one of the weakest arms in the league. Third base coach Milt Stock waved Abrams around third. Cal Abrams, of Flatbush, was about to live his dream of winning a pennant for his hometown team. Ebbets Field roared in anticipation of the apparent Dodger triumph.

However, Ashburn had been playing very shallow in center field, and Snider’s liner came to him on one hop. Ashburn threw straight to catcher Stan Lopata. The ball got there in time for Lopata to have a cup of coffee before tagging Cal out. In one second Ebbets Field was transformed from deafening euphoria to an ear-piercing silence.

The Dodgers still had runners on second and third with one out. But Furillo and Hodges failed to drive them home. In the top of the tenth inning Dick Sisler hit a three-run homer for the Phillies, and the Dodgers went down with nary a whimper in their half of the inning. Despite other missed opportunities by the Dodgers, the fans and media singled out Cal Abrams as the goat.

After the game Ashburn said that he was creeping closer to second while Roberts was pitching to Snider because the pick-off play was on at second. But Roberts missed the sign, and pitched to Snider, who happened to hit it directly to Ashburn. Had Ashburn been playing at his normal depth for the power-hitting Snider, he very well might not have thrown Abrams out.

To say that Dodger fans were disappointed in Cal is putting it mildly. Peter Golenbock’s book Bums, quotes Dodger fan Bill Reddy as saying, “I could have killed Cal Abrams for making that wide turn around third base. I could have killed him with my bare hands.” Talk show host Larry King is a bit more charitable, but still obviously bitter. “We rooted for all the Jewish ball players. We loved Cal Abrams. [He] had a lot of speed and was a good outfielder. We love Cal Abrams—until he got thrown out at home.”

Of course, Cal’s career wasn’t over. In 1951, new manager Charley Dressen said he would give Abrams a chance to win the left field job. For a while, Cal responded to the challenge magnificently. He hit well over .400 in May, and helped the Dodgers open up a big lead in the pennant race. In a game against the Phils in May, he even beat an Ashburn throw home for a game- winning run. However, when Abrams’ hitting streak began to cool off, he found himself on the bench. In 1952, despite again saying they would give Abrams a chance, the Dodgers traded him for the older, slower Andy Pafko, and Cal ended up in Cincinnati.

Given a chance to play regularly with the Reds, and later the Pirates and Orioles, Cal performed very well. In 1953, as a regular for Pittsburgh, Cal hit .286 with 15 home runs for a .435 slugging average. Had things worked out differently—had Cal scored that run—he could have been a valuable part of the pennant winners in 1952 and ’53. He was a fast, left-handed hitter and fielder; Abrams could have caught Yogi Berra’s fly in the last game of the 1955 series as well as Sandy Amoros, and been immortalized as the Dodger who saved Brooklyn’s only World Championship. He could very well have become the Jewish baseball hero that Jewish fans, as well as marketing executives, in New York craved.

But, of course, Ashburn’s throw was on the money. And Cal didn’t score. Still, given the Dodgers’ left field problems, and the box office potential of a good Jewish ball player on the field for Brooklyn, one has to wonder why the Dodgers didn’t give him more of a chance. Instead, as Cal said, “If I went 0-15, they’d say ‘Abrams is in a slump’ and I’d be out of the lineup. Yet other fellows like Jackie went 0-27 and they’d still play every day.”

Did anti-Semitism play a part in the team’s decision? Dodger publicist Irving Rudd said of the organization, “They were tolerant, but it helped to be Irish.” I have to believe, though, had Cal scored in that last game of the 1950 season, they would have given him more of a chance. In any case, that play did help Cal be remembered forever as a Dodger. And he became philosophical about it. “. . . as it turned out, all these years I go out and make speeches and meet with people, and they remember the play so vividly, and I’m thankful they do. Had I reached home, I don’t think they would have remembered it as well.”

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