Tuesday, December 6, 2011

97. Sam Nahem: Subway Sam vs. The World

About a year ago when I was researching Jewish players I wanted to write about (and draw) for the first issue of 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball, my old friend Leon Day came to mind. Not that Leon was a Jew - he was in fact one of the greatest Negro League pitchers of all time, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and I was fortunate to know him back in the late 80's. No, I thought of Leon because of the conversations I would have with him in his baseball room on the second floor of his Baltimore row house. Leon would talk about anyone and everyone else, heaping praise on his teammates on the Newark Eagles as well as famed opponents such as Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella and Josh Gibson. It would always take a lot of prodding to get Leon to talk about his own career and the first thing I remember asking him was "what was the best memory you have from playing baseball?"

Without pausing he told me about the 1945 G.I. World Series he pitched in after the fall of Nazi Germany. Leon played on an integrated team called the OISE All Stars that represented a supply unit of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. After beating all the competition in France and Belgium they were to meet the formidable team from Patton's 3rd Army who'd decimated all the German and Austrian based Army teams. Patton liked a winner and his team was made up of the best major league talent serving in the U.S. Army in Europe, many of the players finding themselves on his team after a round of shady back-room transfers from their old units into his 3rd Army. Looking like a David going to meet Goliath, Leon's scrappy OISE All-Stars were coached by a former major league pitcher and Jew from New York named "Subway Sam" Nahem. Subway Sam. Now that was a name I couldn't forget and I stored it away in the back of my mind until he reemerged to take his rightful place on page 13 of 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball...

Teammates in the minor leagues called him “Subway Sam” because he was a real-live New Yorker, the first many had ever seen outside a movie theater. But Subway Sam was different in many other ways as well. Born in New York City to a family of affluent Syrian Jews, his first language was Arabic. Sam loved baseball but was unable to break into his high school team’s lineup. Undeterred, he played sandlot ball and by the time he entered Brooklyn College he was good enough to join the college team as a pitcher, making a name for himself by beating rivals Fordham University with a 6 hitter and St. John’s University with a 3 hitter.

When no major league teams came to him, Sam went to them. In 1935 he showed up at Ebbets Field one day and impressed manager Casey Stengel enough so that he was hired to pitch batting practice. The Dodgers sent Nahem to the Clinton Owls in Iowa where he finished the 1937 season with a nice 15-5 record. In the off-season he finished up law school at St. John’s. Being a New Yorker and a Jew already made Subway Sam stand out amongst his teammates but being a spectacle-wearing college-educated lawyer really separated him from the pack. He was also known to read the classics like Balzac in the dugout and his views on the integration of baseball put him at odds with the majority of his peers. Sam felt that many were against allowing blacks into the white leagues simply because there were only so many roster spots as it was and with integration there would be even fewer opportunities for the more marginal players. At a time when most in the low minors kept their heads down and did not make waves, Subway Sam was an idealist who believe people deserved more and he dedicated himself to try to make it a reality.

At the end of the 1938 season Sam made his debut with the Dodgers, a 6-hit complete game victory. Sam toiled in the back waters of professional baseball finally getting the call back to the big show after being traded to the Cardinal organization. Sam pitched in 26 games for St. Louis, mostly in relief and ended the year with a 5-2 record. The next year he was traded to Philadelphia where he appeared in 35 games record. The next year he was traded to Philadelphia where he appeared in 35 games and posted a 1-3 record for the dreadful Phillies. Serving in Europe during the war he was manager of the OISE All-Stars, a team made up of semi-pro and Negro league players. Sam joined the great Leon Day making a formidable one-two pitching staff that faced Patton’s 3rd Army team in front of over 50,000 G.I.’s in Nurnberg’s Zeppelin Field. Patton’s team was stocked with former major league stars like Ewell Blackwell, Harry Walker, Johnny Wyrostek, Benny Zientara and Bob Ramazzotti but behind the pitching of Subway Sam and Leon Day the underdog OISE All-Stars emerged the winners of the 1945 G.I. World Series.

Coming back from the war, Sam practiced law during the week and pitching on the weekends with the Brooklyn Bushwicks. Although termed semi-pro, the Bushwicks had a huge following and boasted many future and former major league players on their roster. It was while with the Bushwicks that Sam participated in a little-known baseball “world” series. A prototype of the current pre-season series held today, The Inter-American Tournament was held in Caracas, Venezuela and featured one team from Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and the United States. The Bushwicks, who rarely ventured outside Brooklyn, were invited to represent America. Facing such Latin stars as Chico Carrasquel and Bobby Avila, Sam was the ace of the Bushwick’s staff, winning 3 and losing 1 as the American team won the month-long series with a 9-3 record. Subway Sam had the honor of winning the championship game, a 7-6 win over the Cuban team. After returning to the States, Nahem had one more trip to the majors when he went 3-3 for the Phillies in 1948.

After retiring from baseball, Sam Nahem went out west to the Bay area and put into practice his long held views of social equality. Subway Sam became a union organizer and tirelessly worked to better the conditions of the members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Sam organized strikes and participated in negotiations even after he retired from his position.

Subway Sam died at the age of 88, leaving behind the story of one of the more interesting guys ever to wear spikes.

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