Wednesday, May 22, 2013

151. Al Schacht: Fun & Games

When I first started this blog a little over 3 years ago, I started receiving many requests for players to be profiled on here and given The Infinite Baseball Card Set "treatment." Out of all the emails I began to notice that it was not one particular player that was asked for the most, but rather a whole ethnic group: Jewish ballplayers. I did cards and stories on here of Sandy Koufax and Moe Berg, but I began slowly researching different players of the Jewish faith, trying to find characters who would fit in with the kind of stories I like to write - guys with interesting stories who may not be known to the casual fan of baseball history. Al Schacht was one of those guys, and in fact he appears on page 7 of the Premier Issue of "21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball." While many baseball fans may know of him from the comedy routines he did with Nick Altrock, Al Schacht was actually a real pro ballplayer and had a nice career before he started his second career as a comedian. His story of doing everything possible to attain his goal of playing in the major leagues was both funny and inspiring to me, as I hope it is to you...

Al Schacht was a product of the teaming slums of the Lower East Side. The son of Russian immigrants, Al defied his parents wishes by embracing the American pastime of baseball. His mother, daughter of the village Rabbi back in Russia, was especially against the game, fearing he’ll turn out to be a bum or a loafer if he continued. Despite the warning, Schacht poured his heart and soul into the game. After the family moved to the more rural Bronx, Schacht would walk all the way to the Polo Grounds in Harlem to see his beloved New York Giants play. He went beyond being a  casual fan however and soon made himself useful to the team by running errands for the players. Christy Mathewson especially became a favorite of Schacht and the two struck up a friendship of sorts. Mathewson even taught the young kid how to throw his famed “fadeaway” pitch.

Because of being 5’-11” and only 125 pounds, Schacht was overlooked for his high school team so he put his talents to use on the sandlot and with semi-pro teams. Although he eventually made his high school team, he was later found illegible because of his having played semi-pro ball for pay. So Schacht dropped out of school all together and pursued a career in professional baseball. 

Catching on with a team in Walton, N.Y. he promptly won 16 consecutive games. Before one game he learned that a scout from the Cincinnati Reds was in the stands to watch him. Fearing his diminutive size would work against him before he even had a chance, Schacht pulled on double pairs of socks and a couple of sweatshirts along with sliding pads to make himself seem bigger. The afternoon was hot and the struggling Schacht lost 2-0, but he was called to Cincinnati and put in front of owner Clark Griffith. Seeing that he was much smaller than described, Griffith offered him a minor league contract. Schacht declined, knowing he could make more playing semi-pro ball than in the low minors.

Schacht played around the Northeast for various clubs and after a stint in the army during the First World War, where he did little more than play baseball, Al signed with the Jersey City Skeeters in 1919. The Skeeters were a miserable team, winning only 45 games during the whole season. However, Schacht was the winner of 20 of those contests. After each win Schacht would anonymously send a newspaper clipping of the game to Clark Griffith. Now owner of The Washington Senators, Griffith himself travelled to Jersey City to look Schacht over. After his 10th shutout of the year, Griffith signed Al to play for the Senators. He was a good pitcher for a few seasons but it was his second talent on the diamond that he became known for. 

Al Schacht was a natural clown. Teaming up with former player Nick Altrock, the two made the stands howl with laughter as they went through silent vaudeville routines between innings. Besides being clowns, the two men served as 1st and 3rd base coaches. By all reports Schacht was a well respected coach while with the team. By 1921 Altrock and Schacht were performing all over the league as well as at the World Series. Somewhere along the way however, Altrock and Schacht had a falling out. No one really knows the reason why, some say it was an anti-Semitic remark Altrock made while drunk, others say it was jealousy over Schacht's younger age. Whatever the reason the two silently feuded for years before breaking up the act in 1936. 

Clad in his trademark top hat and tails over a baseball uniform and known as the “Clown Prince of Baseball” Schacht was famous all over the country, even appearing on stage with such celebrities as Bing Crosby. During the Second World War Al volunteered to entertain the troops. Appearing in such remote places as North Africa and the South Pacific, Schacht helped bring a smile to homesick servicemen. After the war he opened up a restaurant in Manhattan which became a hang out for ballplayers and celebrities. The affable Schacht worked the room entertaining his customers.

Throughout his long career Al Schacht never hid that he was a Jew, famously remarking: "There is talk that I am Jewish-just because my father was Jewish, my mother was Jewish, I speak Yiddish and once studied to be a rabbi and a cantor. Well, that's how rumors get started." 

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