Thomas Friedman’s classic book on the Middle East conflict, From Beirut to Jerusalem, first published in 1989, contains a description of a fascinating encounter between Friedman and Rabbi Nota Schiller. Friedman had written a piece for the New York Times about the struggle in Israel between Haredi and secular Jews, and Schiller reached out to Friedman, inviting him to spend a day at Ohr Somayach, an outreach Yeshiva that Schiller co-founded in the early 1970s, to see an insider perspective on the Haredi community.
In the midst of a serious discussion, Friedman asked why Schiller had a picture of a baseball player on his desk. Schiller explained that it was a picture of Cal Abrams, a Jewish outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1949 to 1952, who was famous for hitting the ball to left field despite being a left-handed batter. Schiller was a teenager living in Brooklyn and attending the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin at the time of Abrams’ hot start to the 1951 season, and, he told Friedman, “It was clear to me and my friends that Cal Abrams was going to be the Messiah.”
Unfortunately, Abrams cooled down and went into a huge slump. “We decided that the Messiah would only come when the generation is ready,” Schiller explained. “Cal Abrams was supposed to be the Messiah, but the generation did not deserve him. We were not ready.”
Abrams never attained superstar status, but numerous sources reference his magical start to the 1951 season—which was especially attention-grabbing considering Abrams is perhaps best-known for getting thrown out at home during the last game of the 1950 season against the Phillies, costing the Dodgers the pennant. In Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Peter Golenbock quotes a New York Post headline at the height of the Abrams craze that proclaimed, “Mantle, Schmantle, We got Abie!” comparing Abrams to the famed Yankee player Mickey Mantle. This quote also appeared as the title of a chapter on Jews in baseball in Peter Levine’s book, Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience, and was quoted in Abrams’ New York Times obituary when he died in 1997.
But that wasn’t actually the headline. The May 25, 1951 edition of the New York Post indeed featured glowing words of praise for Abrams on the cover of its sports section—the Dodgers were about to begin a weekend series at home versus the (then Boston) Braves. But above photographs of Abrams doing repair jobs around his house and posing with his wife and young children, the headline actually read “Mantle, Shmantle—Long as We Got Abrams,” and not, as is commonly quoted, “Mantle, Schmantle, We got Abie.” The New York Post article continued to heap praise upon Abrams, and even gave him a new nickname, “Three-Hit Abie.” It looked as though Abrams had finally found a home for good in left field. But ultimately, as Schiller explained to Friedman in his office in Jerusalem, it wasn’t meant to be.
A few months ago, a family friend told me that he had been teaching at Ohr Somayach in the early 1990s and remembered hearing that after Friedman’s book came out, Cal Abrams had actually visited Ohr Somayach. To my surprise, he gave me Schiller’s phone number and urged me to call the Rabbi myself and ask him about it. Figuring this story was just too good to pass up, I called Schiller during the yeshiva’s vacation period between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Schiller greeted me warmly and we had a lengthy conversation about the glory days of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the many lessons one can learn from the game of baseball. Schiller also confirmed Abrams had visited the Yeshiva and provided a detailed account of the visit.
In 1992, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe celebrated his 90th birthday, there was a great deal of messianic fervor throughout Israel. Schiller was in his office and received a phone call from an unknown caller. When Schiller asked with whom he was speaking, the person responded, “the Messiah.” Perplexed, the rabbi asked for a clarification, and the caller told Schiller to guess who he was. The quick-thinking Schiller realized it might be a reference to his quote from the Friedman book and guessed correctly: it was Cal Abrams.
Abrams was calling Schiller to let him know that he was visiting Israel at the time with his wife May, and Schiller invited the couple to come visit Ohr Somayach. They did, and Schiller recalled his excitement at finally meeting his childhood hero. It had been 40 years since Abrams had worn a Dodgers jersey, but the Rosh Yeshiva was filled with joy as he met with his favorite ballplayer. Abrams shared stories of his days as a Dodger and described the challenges he faced while trying to succeed as a Jewish ballplayer in the big leagues.
It turns out that this was actually Schiller’s second interaction with Abrams. Years earlier, while meeting with a potential yeshiva supporter in downtown Manhattan, the donor showed Schiller a collector’s item in his office—original seats from Ebbets Field. Schiller was ecstatic, and began to tell the donor all about his love of the Dodgers, and of course, Cal Abrams. The donor turned out to be good friends with Abrams, and within minutes Schiller was on the phone with the former baseball player. After they spoke, Abrams sent Schiller an autographed picture of himself, the same picture that years later would grab the attention of Thomas Friedman.
After my conversation with Schiller, I brushed up on the Jewish history of the Brooklyn Dodgers, determined to see what it was about Abrams’ 1951 season that has captivated the venerable Rosh Yeshiva for all these years. Growing up in Los Angeles, I have been a lifelong Dodgers fan, and have always enjoyed reading about the Brooklyn glory days in Golenbock’s epic Bums and Roger Kahn’s classic book, The Boys of Summer. Of course, most conversations about the Jewish Dodgers of that era revolve around the great Sandy Koufax, the team’s most famous Jewish player and arguably the greatest Jewish baseball player of all time. Koufax first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers during their championship-winning season of 1955, yet his historic seasons wouldn’t occur until after the Dodgers had made the move to Los Angles (which Schiller described as “when the Dodgers went into Galus,” or exile). But only Abrams ever received the moniker of the Messiah from the Brooklyn Yeshiva students.
The second half of Abram’s 1951 season, though, was lackluster. From May 25 though June 14, Abrams only mustered four total hits, and on June 15, 1951, the Dodgers found their new left fielder when they traded with the Chicago Cubs for Andy Pafko. Abrams had only six more hits for the rest of the season, and Pafko became the everyday starter in left field, starting nearly every game during the epic pennant race with the Giants later that season.
It was thus Pafko, who died earlier this month at 92, who was immortalized in Don DeLillo’s story, “Pafko at the Wall,” as he stood powerless watching Bobby Thomson’s homer off Ralph Branca sail above his head—the shot heard ’round the world. Had things gone differently in 1951, it may have been “Abrams at the Wall,” as Abrams had claimed that left field spot as his own during a glorious month of May.
It wasn’t the right time for the Messiah to arrive.