Daniel Harris’ collection of autographed baseballs boasts signatures from the likes of Willie Mays and the 1969 Chicago Cubs, but the crown jewel bears an unusual message: “Aharon Lichtenstein, who strives for stardom in another league,” it reads. Lichtenstein is, as you must have guessed, not a professional baseball player; he is a Talmudic expert widely regarded as one of the foremost thinkers in the Modern Orthodox world. Other balls feature signatures from Rav Gedaliah Schwartz, head of the Rabbinical Court in Chicago, and Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, son of celebrated scholar of Jewish law Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
How did Harris, associate principal of Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva in Chicago, come to have a collection of baseballs signed by religious all-stars? A lifelong baseball fan, Harris, 52, told me he’d been seeking the signatures of baseball greats for more than two decades. Over time, though, as Harris outgrew his childhood role models, he realized he had exchanged players of physical brilliance for legends of spiritual grandeur—and that those were the heroes he wanted to recognize. “I would have never imagined that given the choice between a baseball signed by Babe Ruth or one signed by a great rabbinic leader, I would have chosen the rabbi!” he told me.
And yet that’s exactly what is happening these days, as he builds up a collection of baseballs autographed by his true heroes: the great rabbis, or Gedolim, of our era, displaying them prominently on his desk at the school. “Students come into the office and say ‘Wow’ when they see whose names are on the baseballs,” he said. “This opens up the conversation to who are our heroes, and who they should be in the modern world.”
His collection has grown recently, and now includes 10 Gedolim-endorsed baseballs. Rav Gedaliah Schwartz of Chicago was an easy get; he’s a personal mentor of Harris’. But the principal has had to think fast to acquire some of the others. He recalls running home to grab a blank baseball when Rabbi Berel Wein, a popular lecturer on Jewish history and a graduate of Ida Crown, visited the school. Harris even traded his signed Kenny Holtzman baseball to Wein for the esteemed rabbi’s signature.
In line with his Modern Orthodox worldview that attempts to meld the secular and religious, Harris sees his collection as an enlightening opportunity to start a discussion about values and heroism. Ida Crown’s head of school, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, agrees that the quirky collection has had a noticeable effect on current students as well as alumni. “Such an incongruous sight inevitably sparks questions from even the most disinterested students,” Matanky explains, “and this always offers the opportunity to start a conversation about heroism.”
For some students, the larger phenomenon of veneration of Gedolim is still an abstract and daunting concept, and so for them, the collection serves as an accessible introduction. For alumni, many of whom later went on to spend time studying with some of the very same rockstar rabbis whose signatures they saw on Harris’ baseballs, the values espoused in the collection were solidified after graduation.
Leo Korman, now 20 and studying at Yeshiva University, says that the collection demonstrates Harris’ uniqueness as an educator. “He has the ability to incorporate the religious world and the secular world to inspire past, present, and future students on a daily basis,” Korman explained. But the project also touches upon a deeper connection for Harris. “Both baseball and, in a greater sense, Talmud, are full of nuance and great detail,” he told me passionately. “Every time you enjoy learning a piece of Talmud you can come away with something new, as in baseball, where there is always some new play or game situation that you have never seen.” In the relatively cloistered world of Orthodoxy, stories abound of religious scholars and their love of baseball. Even if other sports garner similar devotion amongst the religious, rarely do they receive the sort of philosophical and spiritual analysis inspired by America’s pastime.
That’s why, Harris explains, he never thought of using anything but a baseball.
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