Artful Dodger

“Subway” Sam Nahem raises his right hand over his head, recalling the day six decades ago when the former Brooklyn sandlot legend got his chance to throw batting practice at Ebbets Field.

Thankfully, however, no projectile soars out of the 88-year-old’s fingers and across his sunny, North Berkeley living room in a re-enactment — on that Brooklyn afternoon, Nahem’s best fastball ricocheted off Dodgers star Van Lingle Mungo’s plus-sized derriere.

Brooklyn manager Casey Stengel — yes, that Casey Stengel — walked out to the mound.

“He said, ‘If you can hurt that big son of a bitch, you must have something on the ball.’ He put his hand on my ass and said, ‘We’ll try you out at spring training.’ That was my introduction to baseball,” said a laughing Nahem during a recent interview at his home.

“I told my mother I’m going to play ball, and she said, ‘You’re grown up already, what are you doing playing ball?’ I said “Ma, I’m going to make $150 a week,’ and she said, ‘Go play!'”

By 1938, Nahem was a big leaguer. But he was never quite the same as his teammates. For one, he was a graduate of both Brooklyn College and St. John’s Law School, a lively, bespectacled wit who quoted from Shakespeare or Guy de Maupassant in the same breath as assessing a current San Francisco Giants starter as “a s___tball pitcher.”

And he was also a Syrian Jew who grew up speaking Arabic at home and still does. Many of his teammates had never even seen a New Yorker (hence the nickname “Subway Sam”), let alone a Jew.

“Many of them came from places where they probably had never even met a Jewish person and, you know, they subscribed to that anti-Semitism that was latent throughout the country. Much of it was implicit: Jews and money, Jews and selfishness,” said Nahem in a moment of seriousness during a long interview laced with self-depreciating humor.

“I especially made sure I tipped as much or more than any other player; I did things that indicated I was aware I was a Jewish player and different from them. There were very few Jewish players at that time.”

Yet if Nahem’s major and minor league teammates were indifferent about having a Jewish teammate, they held strong opinions about sharing their locker room with black players.

“I was in a strange position. The majority of my fellow ballplayers, wherever I was, were very much against black ballplayers, and the reason was economic and very clear. They knew these guys had the ability to be up there, and they knew their jobs were threatened directly, and they very, very vehemently did all sorts of things to discourage black ballplayers,” recalled Nahem.

“In New York if you’re young and Jewish you’re political. And I did my political work there. I would take one guy aside if I thought he was amiable in that respect and talk to him, man to man, about the subject. I felt that was the way I could be most effective.”

Nahem’s general manager, Branch Rickey — who enjoyed philosophical discussions with his college-educated pitcher, yet still stiffed him with a $3,200 salary — later broke baseball’s color line when he signed Jackie Robinson. Nahem later heard that several of Robinson’s Dodger teammates taunted the racial pioneer by leaving their shoes outside Robinson’s hotel room as they would for “the shine boy.”

Between integration debates and ballgames, Nahem also found plenty of time for America’s other national pastime — chasing women. But he found he was more skilled at pitching during ballgames than pitching lines to female fans in the minor league towns he called home during 1939 and 1940.

Perhaps they didn’t go for his big-city accent or literary references. Or, perhaps more damagingly, he was bald.

“Very few ballplayers wore glasses, and I was bald-headed then. Euphemistically, I could say I had hair, but euphemistically,” said Nahem with a smile.

“I remember even the almost ethical guys would chase women. You know, I wasn’t a natural woman-hunter, and most players, even the successfully married ones, were skirt-chasers, they really were. I wasn’t too happy at that. [But] the class of women in the big leagues was higher than in the minor leagues. That was another reason to aspire to the big leagues.”

Admittedly, the law school graduate spent his free time “reading a lot.”

Resurfacing in the bigs in 1941, he went 5-1 with the St. Louis Cardinals with a sparkling 2.96 earned run average, and tossed his best game ever, a three-hit victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Shipped to the Philadelphia Phillies the next year, he went 1-3 with a 4.94 ERA for one of the worst teams in modern history.

Thankfully, Nahem’s next squad was a winner — he joined the Army. By the time he made it to Europe, however, the combat was over, so he was assigned to one of the many military baseball teams playing games to entertain the troops. In a tale a Hollywood producer may one day wish to retell, the Jewish pitcher led an integrated squad against an all-white team of current and former major leaguers, and beat them for the European championship.

Nahem rejoined the Phillies in 1948, but found his admittedly “just above mediocre” talent to be on the wane. He went 3-3 with an astronomical 7.02 ERA and opted to retire.

Looking back with the wisdom of age, Nahem regrets he never had the inner confidence in his own ability one needs to be a successful major leaguer. If he’d been a bit more assertive, he could have been “quite a decent pitcher.”

But Subway Sam also had the misfortune to play for teams rivaling Stengel’s 1962 Mets for baseball ineptitude, though he finished his career a respectable 10-8 with a 4.69 ERA. Years after he retired, he learned that opposing coaches spotted he’d been tipping his pitches — he raised his arms higher during the windup prior to a curve than for a fastball — yet his own coaches had not been astute enough to catch this flaw.

Playing in the era before roto-league baseball, “sabermetrics” and voluminous dossiers on every pitcher and batter’s strengths and weaknesses, Nahem remembers his coaches doing little more than “catching relief pitchers during practice.”

After hanging up his spikes for good, Nahem married, fathered three children and moved to the West. The righty pitcher was always a lefty politically — the latest copy of The Nation sits on his coffee table — and he spent decades as a union leader for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers of America.

As the World Series rages on, Nahem takes little notice. Baseball is “one of those things in life that passes and you don’t go back to.” He last went to a game 20 years ago, when he and his “equally bald” brother spent a day in Candlestick Park shouting “Hey Baldy!” at the Phillies’ cue ball of a catcher.

And while he misses the thrill of hurling a fastball past a batter to seal a complete game victory, he doesn’t miss “getting the crap knocked out of me, which is a big job, because there’s a lot of crap in me.

“What other sport puts a player out there so that when he’s knocked out of the box the manager has to come all the way out and get him? I used to propose that we have a trapdoor leading right up from the toilet in the dressing room,” he said with a laugh, diagramming the angle of the subterranean ramp with a wave of his pitching arm.

“That way, if you’re knocked out, rather than have to face the humiliation of walking from the mound to the bench, you just have a trapdoor. Down and into the toilet!”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.