Will The Real Rabbi Of Swat Please Stand Up?

This article was written by Louis Jacobson

This article was published in 1989 Baseball Research Journal

The cult-inducing slugger failed with the Giants, but not for reasons previously reported. Nor did he go by the name in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Herewith the facts.

HIS STORY WAS THE STUFF of legends. His name was Mose Solomon. He hit 49 home runs in Hutchinson, Kansas, of the Southwest League in 1923 – and only Babe Ruth had ever hit more.

John J. McGraw’s New York Giants bought him for (depending on what newspaper article you quote) $4,500 up to $100,000, planning to make him a rival gate attraction to Ruth and hoping that New York’s burgeoning Jewish population would come out to see one of their own. He immediately became a darling of the Gotham press, who promptly gave him (or at least publicized) such nicknames as “The Jewish Babe Ruth” and “The Rabbi of Swat.”

He played in three games at the end of that 1923 season, batting .375 (3 for 8) and outhitting rookie benchmates (future Hall of Famers) Bill Terry (.143) and Hack Wilson (.200).

What could go wrong with this movie-like script? Well, it didn’t turn out as planned: He was sold to Toledo in the American Association before the next season, never to play in the majors again.

These are primarily facts that make a legend; unfortunately, published speculations about Solomon’s premature downfall have proved to be incorrect, initiating a legend of their own.

Howard Lavelle, in “Moses Solomon, the Rabbi of Swat” (published posthumously in the 1976 “Baseball Research Journal”), wrote, “The king abdicated. The clouting colossus of the southwest collapsed. His fielding was atrocious. He couldn’t catch a fly without flypaper. He was a hazard on defense, not only to himself but also to his teammates. The king was soon exiled to the minors, shorn of his tinsel and glamour. The Rabbi of Swat had become a rabbit of swatters; the long-ball touch was gone.”

And Bill James, also of SABR, in his “Historical Abstract,” wrote, “Seems like he had a lot of trouble with the glove and a certain amount of trouble with the curve ball.”

“The reason they sent him down was so simple you wouldn’t believe it,” Mose’s son Joseph Solomon told me in December 1987.

“He came up at the end of the season [in] 1923. The Giants made the World Series. McGraw asked my dad to stay and attend the Series, even though he wasn’t eligible to play. He hadn’t played enough games to be eligible.”

There was a problem. Solomon was a top football player, good enough to play on teams such as Jim Thorpe’s Carlisle Indians and the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, which evolved into today’s Detroit Lions.

“Football season was starting,” Joseph Solomon said. “My dad made more money playing football than baseball. He asked McGraw, `Am going to get paid?’ McGraw said, `No.’ And [Mose] said, `Then I’m going to play football.’ He played for Portsmouth.

“McGraw said, `If you go play football, you will not be on the Giants. You’re either going to be a baseball player or a football player.’ My dad read about it in the papers: He was sold to Toledo.”

There is more to the legend of the Rabbi of Swat, though. Let’s go back to the beginning.

He was born on Hester Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on December 8, 1900. The midwife who delivered him made a mistake on the birth certificate.

“[T]he midwife didn’t record the certificate until February or something,” says Joseph Solomon. “It was a cold winter, and she went out with a whole pile [to be recorded at the same time]. She put ‘Morris’ on [the certificate].”

The problem was, his name wasn’t Morris; it was Mose.

“It created a lot of problems through the years,” says Joseph. “Such as in dealing with his insurance policies. He knew the birthdate; it happened in a period near Hanukkah, and his whole family knew.”

Neither was his given name Moses, Joseph says. “As far as he was concerned, it was `Mose.’ All his friends called him Mose. But sometimes the newspapers called him Moe, further complicating the issue.”

His parents were poor (his father was a peddler), and they moved to Columbus, Ohio, when Mose was young. His mother had emigrated from Austria, and his father from Russia. Though the parents were religious, the piety didn’t rub off on Mose.

BASEBALL AND FOOTBALL were not the only sports to run in the family. One of his brothers, who fought under the name Harry Sully, was an Ohio boxing champion. Joseph relates that Sully said, “You know, I could lick everybody in Ohio – and my kid brother [Mose] could whip my ass from the time he was fifteen.”

Sully’s son became an all-around athlete, the only one at his Ohio high school ever to earn twelve athletic letters.

Mose was so talented at football that Ohio State took serious notice of him. “He was offered the first football scholarship from Ohio State University that I know of,” says Joseph. He says he believes that never before had the university offered somebody free tuition simply because of football prowess.

Unfortunately, Mose couldn’t accept: The family needed his income.

Joseph maintains Mose’s aging scrapbook, and one page that has since been lost had an article that described a one-punch fight under the stands. “He knocked the guy cold,” says Joseph. “It said the word finally got around the league: Better lay off the big Jew. He told me that was typical: It [occurred in] every town. He had to prove that he was [equal to the challenge].”

Times hadn’t changed much by the time Joseph was playing ball. He too had some notable experiences with his Jewish identity. When he was pitching for South Miami in the Dade County League, he was razzed by the opposing bench – the Naval Reserve squad – about being Jewish. “I just politely went off the mound, went over to our bat rack, picked up a bat. I went over [to the bench] and I said, `All right now. If anybody has anything more to say, come on out and say it.’ That was the end of it.” The Naval Reserve was subsequently kicked out of the league.

Mose never hid his Jewish identity in the face of anti-Semitism. But he did hide it once for another reason.

“He played [football] one year with the Carlisle Indians, with Jim Thorpe,” says Joseph. The team was supposed to be an all-Indian team. “They were barnstorming, and they were down near the end of the ballgame and it was 0-0.

They were playing in Dayton, Ohio, which is far enough from Columbus [that Mose wouldn’t be recognized]. My dad was playing under an assumed name – Red Bill or Red Hawk, or something.”

Mose was an outstanding drop-kicker a now extinct art that flourished in the early days of pro football. In fact he used to give exhibitions of his skill at drop-kicking, in which the ball is dropped, allowed to bounce, and then is kicked on its upward flight.

“They needed a field goal,” Joseph said. “My dad drop-kicked the field goal, and they won the ballgame.

“There happened to be a sportswriter from Columbus in the stands,” says Joseph. “He came down to the locker room afterwards, and he told my dad, `I’ll never tell on you, but you can’t do this!’ And that was the end of his playing with [the Indians].

“Now, there may have been other guys on the team who weren’t Indians, too. But I don’t think there were too many Jews on the team!”

Still, neither football nor baseball was an accepted occupation among most Jewish parents of Mose’s time. When people asked his parents what Harry was doing for a living, they wouldn’t hesitate to say “boxing.” But when people asked what Mose was doing, his parents said, “He’s out West working.”

“It was society,” says Joseph. “It hadn’t yet become acceptable. Boxing already had Jewish champions, like Benny Leonard and Lew Tendler. But baseball was not the type of work a Jewish boy did.”

MOSE, IT SEEMED, was chronically injured, which makes his success – the 49 home runs, the seven seasons in the minors batting over .300 – even more incredible. “He was in the hospital twenty-three times,” says Joseph. “He had kind of brittle bones in his ankles, and he broke his ankles a lot. But when he broke his collarbone in 1924 playing football, he told me, it kind of changed his swing. He had a hard time pulling the ball after that.”

He retired when he was only twenty-seven years old, playing in the Eastern League with Albany, New York. “[That was] when I was born,” says Joseph, “and that was one of the reasons he quit when he did.”

Mose died in 1966 of heart failure – perhaps, as Lavelle writes, “richer and happier.” Some would say he lived the American dream. One thing is sure, though. The Rabbi of Swat lived the life of a legend.

LOUIS JACOBSON, a sophomore at Princeton, is researching a book on the sociological aspects of Jews in baseball.