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A league of their own

A Jewish baseball museum, at last

Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg bats for the Detroit Tigers in 1935. (TSN Archives/Getty Images)
Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg bats for the Detroit Tigers in 1935. (TSN Archives/Getty Images)

When Jews visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, they can learn about the two most celebrated members of the tribe who have been inducted into the hallowed museum: Hank “The Hebrew Hammer” Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

Now they’ll also have the chance to find out about the dozens of other Jews who have played in the major leagues — but not in Cooperstown.

Thanks to the effort of a dedicated memorabilia collector, clearly taking Theodor Herzl’s legendary words to heart — “If you will it, it is no dream” — a Jewish baseball museum is, at last, a reality.

Well, make that a virtual reality.

An extensive new website, the Jewish Baseball Museum, is a veritable Jewish baseball nerd’s dream. Set to launch on Monday, the site is complete with biographies of nearly all the Jews who made it to the big leagues. There are interviews with former players and prominent baseball-industry types, as well as a timeline of Jewish baseball stories that goes back to the 1860s.

The site could be the precursor to an actual Jewish baseball museum in Chicago, according to its creator, Jeff Aeder, a Chicago-based real estate investor and Cubs fanatic.

The bat one-time MVP Al Rosen used in the 1955 All-Star Game is among the treasures found in Jeff Aeder’s collection. (Courtesy of Jeff Aeder)
The bat one-time MVP Al Rosen used in the 1955 All-Star Game is among the treasures found in Jeff Aeder’s collection. (Courtesy of Jeff Aeder)

The Jewish Baseball Museum is a passion project for Aeder, 54, who says he has amassed one of the largest collections of Jewish baseball memorabilia in the country. His collection, which is showcased on the site, comprises some 2,000 objects — among them are a Ron Blomberg bat with a Star of David on the knob and a letter Greenberg wrote to a friend during World War II — and approximately 2,500 pre-1990 baseball cards of Jewish players.

Aeder says the website is an opportunity to introduce the stories of older Jewish ballplayers to younger generations.

“Of all the [Jewish] ballplayers who’ve played in the major leagues, everybody always says Koufax and Hank Greenberg,” he said. “But when you learn and read about people like Jimmie Reese [born James Herman Solomon], Al Rosen, Sy Rosenthal, Mo Berg, there are just so many people. And they have unbelievable stories.”

Take Lipman Pike, who in 1871 became the first Jew to play for the majors. He earned a salary of $20 a week.

The two other Jews in the Hall of Fame — early Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss and Lou Boudreau, who was raised Catholic and never identified as Jewish — are not featured on the site.

Aeder — who with his wife, Jennifer Levine, were named Chicagoans of the Year in 2013 for opening the Wolcott School, a high school for kids with learning challenges — will gauge the reaction to the website before moving ahead with plans for the physical museum. He hopes it will open as early as 2017 in his native Lakeview neighborhood on the city’s North Side.

This custom baseball, signed by Sandy Koufax and other Hall of Famers, including Yogi Berra, is a prized possession in the Jeff Aeder collection. (Courtesy of Jeff Aeder)
This custom baseball, signed by Sandy Koufax and other Hall of Famers, including Yogi Berra, is a prized possession in the Jeff Aeder collection. (Courtesy of Jeff Aeder)

Aeder said his collection would form the core of the museum’s permanent exhibit.

For now, the site lives up to its title as an “online museum.” Viewers can zoom in for close-ups of Aeder’s collectibles and scroll through dozens of videos with footage of classic Jewish baseball moments, from Koufax’s World Series wins to Shawn Green’s four home-run game. Stories and interviews by well-known baseball writers populate the site’s many other sections.

Perhaps surprisingly, Aeder, who says he has a “fairly obsessive personality,” hasn’t spent decades amassing his huge collection. It has taken shape only in the past few years. Once he decided to do it, Aeder went to auctions, scoured eBay, and sent personal letters to owners who might have been looking to sell.

Aeder is no stranger to successful hobbies — he’s also the founding owner of Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, a popular kosher barbecue joint near Wrigley Field that serves up old-fashioned ribs and sides and gives its profits to worthy causes. The restaurant has earned the respect of Cubs fans — Jews and non-Jews alike — as well as last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Jake Arrieta.

Aeder’s motto for his labor-of-love ventures sounds like something the late Yogi Berra might say: “If you’re going to do something, do it first class,” he said. “Otherwise don’t do it.”

So here’s hoping another sage’s words will come true. In this case, “the voice” from “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.” JTA Wire Service

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