High five: Local Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inducts second class

The sight of a burly former pro football player talking pigskin with a long-bearded Orthodox rabbi is surreal. And yet it happened. On Sunday, May 4, it will happen again. The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California will induct its second class.

Al Rosen

It’s not unusual for a priest to convert a willing subject to Catholicism. Yet when a Jew is unknowingly converted by Ed Sullivan — yes, that Ed Sullivan — well, stop the presses!

It wasn’t welcome news for Al Rosen at the time. In 1953, in his New York Daily News column, Sullivan claimed Rosen was a practicing Catholic. The proof: The Cleveland Indians slugger scrawled crosses in the dirt with his bat while waiting in the on-deck circle.

“When I got home from our road trip, the concierge at my apartment building said there was so much mail he’d had to put it all in bags. When I got up there I found crucifixes and medals — and a lot of irate messages from various Jews from around the country,” recalls Rosen, now 84.

“I called Sullivan and he was in the hospital having an operation. I talked to what he referred to as ‘his girl Friday’ and they put a retraction in the back of the paper. But that was an embarrassing moment and it caused me a lot of embarrassing times.”

And it’s no wonder. After all, if you’re going to get your nose broken 13 times swapping punches with anti-Semitic bullies, what’s the point of converting once you’re a big-time Jewish role model in the major leagues?

Actually, to be accurate, many of those broken noses were from Rosen’s amateur pugilistic career, and he thinks the time it was broken in three different places may be counted more than once in that tally. But the point is, Rosen didn’t take lip from anyone.

Throughout his career, Rosen essentially offered the league a standing invitation to brawl beneath the grandstand if anyone insulted his Jewish heritage (no one wanted a piece of him). Oh, and let’s not forget — though Mays, Mantle and Aaron grabbed more headlines, Rosen was a damn good ballplayer.

In 1953, he came within a whisker of winning the Triple Crown with a scintillating .343 average, 43 home runs and 145 RBIs. In fact, he drove in 100 or more runs every year between 1950 and ’54, and made four All-Star teams.

The prematurely graying “Hebrew Hammer” retired in 1956, at age 32, due to lingering injuries. After nearly two decades as a stockbroker, Rosen returned to baseball as president and chief operating officer of the New York Yankees in the early 1970s. And it was in 1985 that he made his name in the Bay Area, playing a prime role in some of the region’s most fondly remembered baseball lore as San Francisco Giants general manager during the “Humm Baby Era.”

“In ’85, [manager] Roger Craig and I watched the team lose its 100th game on a Sunday afternoon. And the next season our club was in first place at the All-Star break. And in ’87 we won our division,” he recalled.

“When you have young men like Robby Thompson and Will Clark and we drafted Matt Williams, well, that makes your job a lot easier. We had some terrific young players. Mike Krukow was magnificent — if his arm hadn’t gone bad and Dave Dravecky hadn’t had his tragedy [tumors in his arm, eventually resulting in amputation after an emotional comeback], I think that club would have won every year.”

These days, Rosen lives in Palm Springs and occupies himself with “playing golf and getting older.” But despite his good humor, he can’t hide how important to him it is to be honored by his fellow Jews.

“I always felt like I wanted to be recognized as a Jew because I wanted my people to be proud of me,” he says.

“This is very important to me.”

Dr. John Frank

Men who see fit to exchange punches with Lawrence Taylor — arguably the most feared football player in NFL history — often end up requiring a doctor’s attention. But not John Frank.

He simply became a doctor.

The brawny San Francisco 49ers tight end took a unique path to fulfilling every Jewish mother’s dream. Yes, he grew up to become a successful doctor. But not before playing five years (1984 to ’88) on some of the greatest 49ers teams and earning two Super Bowl rings (and socking New York Giants legend Taylor, a feat that, on its own, earned Frank a spot on the 1984 All-Madden Team).

“It was a defining moment in my career. Gosh, I was half his size — but people in New York still talk about it,” recalled Frank, now 46, of his tussle with Taylor.

“He tried to punch me in the face when I was on the ground. But I wish him well.”

Frank, a native of Pittsburgh, was never a typical football star. He was twice named to the Academic All-America team and was a Rhodes Scholar nominee in his senior year. And he was certainly the only player on the Ohio State football team who chose the school based on its excellent medical program.

While Frank was one of the few Jews ever to really excel at pro football, he never sought to revel in it. In 2002 he told this paper that he and fellow Jewish 49er Harris Barton “never felt discriminated [against] or singled out. It was really a meritocracy; we just happened to be decent football players and Jewish at the same time.”

On the field, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Frank’s impact outweighed his modest career numbers (65 receptions, 662 yards, 10 touchdowns). He was a punishing and relentless blocker known since high school for his perfect form. Less surprisingly, teammates raved about Frank’s fantastic hands (he did become a surgeon). Late 49ers coach Bill Walsh tabbed Frank as one of the most underrated players he’d ever coached.

In 1988, Frank was just 27 and a starter for a 49ers team that won one of the most thrilling Super Bowl games of all time. He was in the huddle when Joe Montana was leading the team on a last-minute, 92-yard scoring drive, famously calming the squad’s nerves by nonchalantly glimpsing into the crowd and blurting out, “Look! There’s John Candy!”

That would be his last game.

Walsh laughed at first — he thought it was a joke. But this was something Frank had been preparing for awhile; he had already started taking med school courses at Ohio State in the off-season. Tellingly, in a 1985 article in this paper, Frank had this response to the query “Do you love football?”:

“No, I don’t love football. I love people. I’m grateful I can play, but it is a profession.”

Frank — who briefly returned to athletics to found the Israeli bobsled team in 2003 — is now a plastic surgeon and hair-loss expert in New York City. So, perhaps the next time Frank bumps into Taylor, he can rearrange the linebacker’s face — and get paid for it.

Tad Taube

When he takes in a Stanford football game at the university’s spectacular new stadium, Tad Taube often chooses a counterintuitive seat for a man who helped finance the place.

Seats at the 50-yard line, Row A are great and all — but Taube likes it up on the roof of the press box.

“Not only can you see the stadium floor, but there’s an incredible vista of campus, Hoover Tower and down into Palo Alto,” he says.

It’s a great view of places to which he feels attached — and that have benefited from his generosity.

Taube’s involvement in Stanford athletics began inauspiciously. An English professor saw him as a fairly easy mark on the tennis courts and challenged him to a game. Taube, improbably, wiped the floor with his prof — “I like to blame my bad grade on that rather than my actual performance [in the classroom].”

It’s not likely today’s Stanford undergrads will be wrecking their grade-point averages via humiliations of their professors on the court. But, thanks to Taube, they could: He funded construction of the 17-court Taube Family Tennis Stadium and the Taube Tennis Center, which hosts some of the top women players in the world in the Bank of the West Classic every July.

Taube also chaired the school’s Athletic Advisory Board for five years, pushing for the new football stadium and assisting in the hiring of football coach Jim Harbaugh and former basketball coach Trent Johnson (the Leland Stanford Junior University Band will fete Taube at his induction).

And, of course, away from the fields of play, Taube — and the Koret Foundation, of which he is president — is a major benefactor of Stanford Jewish and academic causes: Taube has given to Chabad at Stanford, Hillel at Stanford and Stanford’s Jewish studies center (which bears his name).

Locals sports fans might experience a wave of nostalgia upon reading

the words “Oakland Invaders”; the pumpkin-orange helmet with the lightning bolt-fist logo and the archaic two-bar facemask recalls a nostalgic era when East Bay residents pining for the Raiders could turn their attention to the United States Football League’s Bay Area squad. Taube is nostalgic as well — he owned the team.

Guiding a volatile, upstart league playing football in summer was no picnic. But the team was good: In 1985, the league’s final year, the Invaders went 13-4-1, falling 28-24 to the Baltimore Stars in the championship game. “It was a heartbreaking finale, basically decided by a penalty,” recalls Taube all these years later.

The USFL filed a multibillion-dollar antitrust suit against the National Football League following that season; the NFL was eventually mandated to pay out $3.67 (yes, you read that right). The USFL was history. And yet, Taube’s memories of the time crackle with enthusiasm.

“I would be less than candid if I didn’t say it was probably the most exciting period of my adult life in terms of my adult business and sports life. [Owning a pro team] was something a lot of people would like to do, and I had the opportunity to do it,” he said.

“It was a very expensive experiment, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”

Benny Lom

Odds are, not one reader knows who James R. Leavelle is — and yet, every last one of you knows who he is.

Leavelle is the man with the white Stetson hat, ice cream suit and a lopsided grimace forever frozen on his face in the photograph of Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald. He will always be a part of history — someone else’s history.

Which brings us to Benny Lom. The San Francisco born-and-raised Jewish “triple threat” — passer, runner and punter — was one of the best players ever to suit up at U.C. Berkeley’s cavernous Memorial Stadium. Close to 80 years after he last graced the gridiron, he still ranks as one of the best Golden Bears of all time.

But few remember him for that. Lom is the man who did everything right on one of the most famously wrong moments in football history.

January 1929. The Rose Bowl. More than 100,000 rabid fans pack the eponymous stadium in Pasadena, unaware they will witness a play for the ages.

The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Lom lowered his shoulder into the midsection of Georgia Tech back Stumpy Thomason, inducing the football to squirt out of the Ramblin’ Wreck player’s hands like a watermelon seed. On the first bounce, Cal’s Roy Riegels scooped it up, spun through a barrage of would-be tacklers and took off toward the end zone — the wrong end zone.

Broadcaster Graham McNamee bellowed “Am I crazy? Am I crazy? Am I crazy?” into his microphone as the scene unfolded, and the fans had to be wondering the same thing. Lom pursued Riegels for the length of the field, yelling for his teammate to turn around. Finally, after 63 yards, Lom took matters into his own hands and tackled Riegels — just before the goal line. For the rest of his long life, Riegels would be tagged with the nickname “Wrong-Way Riegels.”

Lom’s subsequent punt was blocked through the back of the end zone for a safety. Lom threw for a touchdown and kicked the extra point, but Cal still lost, 8-7. The Bears did manage to win the 1938 Rose Bowl, but not once since.

After graduating, Lom, an All-America player, spurned pro offers to go work at the Emporium (those were different times). He eventually opened up his own line of shops with his son, Bob (who had followed Lom’s footsteps to Cal, where he, too, played quarterback). Benny Lom died on his 78th birthday in 1984.

In 1982, the Bears finally pulled off a play that eclipsed the 1929 Rose Bowl — a once-in-a-lifetime, five-lateral, last-second kick return vs. Stanford that culminated in Kevin Moen “parting the Red Sea” of Stanford’s prematurely celebrating band and bowling over trombonist Gary Tyrell. Ever since, this miraculous turn of events has simply been called “The Play.”

Lom, incidentally, was there. A true Old Blue, he couldn’t bear to watch his Bears lose to Stanford. So he sat, groaning, with his head between his knees as Moen pitched to Rodgers, who tossed to Garner, who flipped back to Rodgers, who lateraled to Ford who — OH, THE BAND IS OUT ON THE FIELD! — flicked blindly to a rampaging Moen for the score.

He missed the whole play.

Wendy Paskin-Jordan

It was the Beach Boys who sang “Two Girls for Every Boy.” But Wendy Paskin-Jordan’s version goes “1,000 Boys for Every Girl.” She should know — she was the girl.

In 1974, Wendy Paskin became the first woman to qualify as a Los Angeles County lifeguard — an organization called “Baywatch.” The 5-foot-8 former champion swimmer and Maccabi Games legend suddenly had nearly as many cameras on her as Cheryl Tiegs.

Her bikini-clad photo (and she actually had to design her own bikini for the lifeguard job and have it approved by the L.A. County board of supervisors) appeared in papers from coast to coast and she was even tapped as the swimming stunt double in an obscure TV show about L.A. County lifeguards called “California Girls.”

That show didn’t go anywhere, but one of Paskin’s lifeguard buddies, Greg Bonan, thought the idea had potential (and he told this to the Hollywood bigwig whose son he later saved). Bonan’s show, partly inspired by Paskin, was called “Baywatch.” Maybe you’ve heard of it (perhaps you’ll even admit to having watched an episode or two).

Paskin — who once rescued 30 swimmers in a year — was one of those Southern California babies who swam almost as soon as she walked. Before she was even a teenager, she was tabbed as the female Quaker Oats Olympian of the Future. The male representative was a teenager named Mark Spitz. However, “this wasn’t just a Jewish thing, this was an Olympian of the future thing,” notes Paskin-Jordan, the wife of former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan.

With her eye on the 1972 Olympics, Paskin trained maniacally; she skipped high school and was tutored in an athletic facility. And yet, one year before the competition, she broke her wrist in a roller-skating accident. Her Olympic dreams were over.

A year after the tragic Munich Games, she was back in the pool. She missed the Olympics, but she wouldn’t miss the Maccabi Games in Israel. In a Spitzian performance, Paskin won eight Maccabi gold medals in 1973.

Paskin later swam at Stanford, earned a law degree at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and currently manages Paskin and Kahr, a San Francisco money management firm.

Being inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California is “a great honor,” she says. But there are days when she still pines for the beach — and the chance to dive into the water and save some mogul’s son.

How to attend Hall of Fame festivities

While it does not yet reside in an actual “hall,” the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California will soon have 10 members. After the inaugural induction in 2006, the organization received scores of nominations from the public, eventually selecting the five people profiled here.

The first people enshrined were former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Harris Barton; longtime San Francisco Chronicle sports editor and columnist Art Rosenbaum; champion blind rower Aerial Gilbert; Sam Bercovich, mentor to troubled youths who grew into major league stars; and amateur golfer and author Gary Shemano.

The Hall of Fame will induct its second class with a reception and silent auction starting at 6 p.m. and a banquet commencing at 7:30 p.m. May 4 at the Mission Bay Conference Center, 1675 Owens St., S.F. Tickets: $175. Information: Gary Wiener, gary@ppgevents.com or (408) 374-1600.

cover design | cathleen maclearie

Joe Eskenazi

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