Manager John McGraw was fed up. His 1923 New York Giants were only weeks away from clinching their third consecutive National League pennant, and no one in the city seemed to care. In his lineup were Ross Youngs, Dave Bancroft, Frankie Frisch, Casey Stengel and George (High-pockets) Kelly—all future Hall of Famers—plus Irish Meusel, who would lead the league that season in RBIs, with 125. "The most powerful ball team ever put together," trumpeted the St. Louis-based bible of the sport, The Sporting News. The crusty manager agreed.
There was one problem—as good as the team was, few fans were coming to see the Giants play. Attendance at the Polo Grounds had dipped, from 950,000 the previous year to 820,000. McGraw blamed Babe Ruth. Longtime Giants fans—lovers of the hit-and-run and stolen base—had defected by the thousands that year to watch Ruth launch home runs in brand-new Yankee Stadium; the Bronx Bombers were drawing more than a million a year. This was especially troubling to McGraw, who was a part owner of the Giants. He sent word out to his scouts: Find me a Babe Ruth. And then, thinking of his city audience, added: Find me a Jewish one.
In 1920, Jews totaled more than a quarter of the city's population and were a huge untapped market among sports teams. "A home-run hitter with [a Jewish] name in New York would be worth a million," McGraw told the New York Tribune. "We have been trying to land a prospect of Jewish blood," he assured others of the New York press.
His staff was not optimistic. Few Jewish players had ever reached the majors. That summer, though, an obscure Jewish outfielder named Mose Solomon hit 49 home runs, at the time second only to the Babe for a season. His feat might have stirred broad interest had he accomplished it on a team less anonymous than the Hutchinson (Kans.) Wheat Shockers of the financially unstable Class C Southwestern League. As it was, Solomon remained almost totally unknown outside such Southwestern League towns as Salina and Coffeyville, both in Kansas. The Wheat Shockers, reported The Hutchinson News, hoped to sell Solomon to a Class A or Double A team at the conclusion of the season. They figured he was several years away from making the majors.
Solomon probably knew in his heart he wasn't ready for the Giants. He had played only a year and a half professionally, but he was eager to escape the smalltown minors. So it was tough to resist the temptation of going straight to the Giants. After listening to his scouts, McGraw was inclined to agree with them that Solomon was too green for the majors. But that didn't stop him from signing the young slugger. He brought the muscular, 5'9" Solomon to New York on Sept. 6 and introduced him as the Rabbi of Swat.
Overnight, the Rabbi became the most talked-about player on the team. He was 22, handsome and single, and, according to The Hutchinson News, had "the best physique of any man in the league..., stockily built with big legs and massive shoulders, and arms in proportion."
He was inundated with invitations to dinners and socials. Prominent Jews vied to arrange dates with their daughters and to escort him like glad-handing politicians around their neighborhoods.
"I know what he probably went through," says Barbara Cohen, 68, whose late husband, Andy Cohen, followed Solomon to the Giants in 1926 and lasted three years with the club. Cohen was a good hitter and an adequate fielder, though he lacked big league foot speed. "People always said [the Jewish community] wined and dined Andy out of the big leagues. There were so many parties in his honor, he was out every night. It was almost too much for him to handle."
Solomon apparently felt less pressured than Cohen. "I don't think that being a Jew really entered his mind, as an athlete," says his son Joseph, 65, a general contractor in Coral Gables, Fla. "Dad was not a devout or serious Jew. He knew he got a break when he went to the Giants, but he also knew he had to prove himself as a ballplayer."
This was nearly impossible, for although McGraw was promoting the Rabbi all over the New York press, he never put him in the lineup. And he hoped he would never have to, because the Rabbi fielded like, well, a rabbi.
In 108 games at first base at Hutchinson, Solomon had made 31 errors. The Sporting News had noted in June, "The Hutchinson management now proposes to make an outfielder out of [Solomon], it being the opinion that he is too ungainly to make a star first baseman." In rightfield, his contribution at Hutchinson was an abysmal .862 fielding average.
So McGraw sat the Rabbi and his 49 home runs, his .421 batting average and his .833 slugging percentage on the bench, too scared to play him until the Giants had safely clinched the pennant. Meanwhile, attendance at the Polo Grounds went up, but the fans berated McGraw daily for starting two other less-heralded rookies ahead of Solomon—a first baseman named Bill Terry and an outfielder named Hack Wilson, two more future Hall of Famers.
By Sept. 30, when the Giants played their last regular-season home game, against the Boston Braves, the fans had had enough. "The voices in the stands were calling for and to Mose all afternoon," reported the New York Tribune. "Wails went up when the Giants' lineup was given out without Solomon's name where [first baseman Highpockets] Kelly's is wont to be.... So loud did the wailing become that McGraw weakened and sent in Solomon to patrol Ross Youngs' beat in the second frame.
"As that appropriate line, 'Solomon playing right field for New Yawk,' wafted over the Polo Grounds from the announcer's megaphone, the voices waxed jubilant. It was, 'Oh, you Mose!' and 'We're with you, Solomon.' "
His first time up he struck out, looking, on three pitches. The next two times he flied out weakly.
"The Hebraic hitter," summed up John Kieran of the New York Tribune, "had been up three times...without causing a riot."
Then with the score 3-3 in the bottom of the 10th, and Frisch on second with two out, the Rabbi smoked relief pitcher Joe Oeschger's first pitch over third base for a double. Kieran was unable to contain himself. "Frisch...romped home on the noble blow by Mose Solomon, the noted scion of a prominent family of junk dealers in Columbus, Ohio," he wrote.
Three days later Ruth himself joined the Giants for an exhibition game against the International League champion Baltimore Orioles. The Giants played three rightfielders: the Sultan of Swat, followed by Wilson, followed by the Rabbi of Swat. Fans that day witnessed a key difference between the two Swatsmen: The Babe hit a home run completely out of the ballpark; the Rabbi, the New York Daily News reported, "grounded out feebly."
Solomon made his first and only start the final day of the season, Oct. 7, against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field. He went 2 for 4, both hits being singles, and in the field committed what the New York American termed "an inglorious muff." But it was all the same to the [Brooklyn] crowd," reassured the American. "They were all with Mose."
Well, not quite everyone. McGraw lost his enthusiasm for the Rabbi when Solomon decided to return home to Columbus rather than remain in New York for the 1923 Giants-Yankees World Series. McGraw had wanted him on the bench to attract fans, even though he was not on the Giants' Series roster. For this duty, McGraw offered to pay him nothing. The Rabbi, needing the money, chose instead to play pro football in Ohio. McGraw sold him to Toledo the following January.
Solomon never made it back to the majors. His final big league batting average was .375 (3 for 8); his fielding average was .833. He was a born designated hitter, born 73 years too soon.
The Rabbi played baseball for five more years, in cities like Pittsfield, Mass., and Bridgeport, Conn., but a broken collarbone suffered in a football game in 1924 made it difficult for him to pull the ball, and he never again hit more than seven home runs in a season. Solomon retired in 1928 and became a successful Miami building contractor. He died of heart failure in 1966 at the age of 65.
As for McGraw, he never stopped searching for that Jewish superstar. Cohen hadn't panned out, so McGraw was still looking in 1928 when a local high school prospect, an outfielder-first baseman named Hank Greenberg, asked if he could shag fly balls for the team during batting practice at the Polo Grounds. According to Greenberg's son Steve, McGraw replied through an intermediary, "Henry Greenberg has already been scouted by the Giants, and he will never make a ballplayer."
COURTESY OF JOSEPH SOLOMON
Solomon might have wielded a powerful bat, but his fielding kept him out of the lineup.
Solomon (front, second from left) with the Giants: McGraw (in suit), Stengel (second row, second from left) and two black trainers.
Ron Berler is a free-lance writer who lives in Evanston, Ill.