Izzy Zarakov: Izzy at the Bat
There’s no more dramatic moment in baseball than the one that Harvard’s captain now found himself. It was the last game of the season, and the Crimson were trailing their arch-rival Yale 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th inning. The Yale captain, a senior facing what would be the last at bat of his collegiate career, surveyed the field as he selected a bat. One teammate danced off third base 90 feet away. There were two outs on the scoreboard, and the stands were alive with disappointed Harvard fans making for the exits before what looked to be a sure loss to dreaded Yale.
This was one of those moments where either a hero or goat is created. Hollywood is fueled on this type of drama, where one becomes either Roy Hobbs or The Mighty Casey. But neither Hobbs nor Casey were entrusted with Harvard’s athletic reputation that afternoon in 1927; Izzy Zarakov was.
Yes, the greatest moment in Ivy League baseball history belonged not to the scion of some Mayflower-descended family, but to the son of a Jewish immigrant tailor.
Isadore John Zarakov was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1903. His parents, Simon and Sarah Zarakovsky, had lived in the Kherson province on the Black Sea in what is today Ukraine. But, back at the turn of the century, it was still the Russian Empire. The couple had their first son, Barney, in 1900, but soon decided to set out for America, arriving in the winter of 1902. The couple snipped off the “sky” from their last name and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where their second son, Isadore, was born in 1903.
Both Izzy and Barney were outstanding athletes, eagerly taking to all three sports then popular in New England: baseball, football and hockey. According to his mother Sarah, young Isadore took to football before he could walk, kicking a pillow out of his cradle for a perfect imaginary field goal at six months old. At the age of four he was assembling makeshift footballs out of scraps of material on the floor of his Pop’s tailor shop. The Zarakov’s did their best to instill the need for a good education into their sons, trying to acquaint their boys with the finer things in life. Isadore was given violin lessons, eventually mastering the instrument and becoming especially adept at light opera pieces. Yet, it was sports that continued to interest their youngest son.
Unable to deny they were witnessing a natural athlete in the making, Isadore’s parents scrimped and saved to buy their son his first real football at age 8. Now known exclusively as Izzy, the Zarakov’s boy had grown to be a sturdy 5’ 9” and 150 pounds. Not only did he play all three sports well, but he also possessed that rare quality that made him a team leader.
While at Cambridge Latin, Izzy captained all three sports and was regularly ranked as one of the best student-athletes in New England. In 1919 he became a local legend during the annual Cambridge-Newton football game. The heavily-favored Newton was up 7-zip with seconds left on the clock when Izzy ran 80 yards to score a touchdown. Besides the team’s star running back, Izzy was also their kicker, so it was up to him to tie the game with a field goal. With the pressure on, Izzy’s kick went wide, but he miraculously received a second chance when the referee ruled the Newton players had left the restraining line before the signal. Given a second chance, Izzy came through, and the game ended in a tie. When he wasn’t running or kicking the pigskin, Izzy was on his skates as a forward on Cambridge Latin’s hockey team. When the ice melted, Zarakov was busy playing all nine positions on the school’s baseball team. Given that two of his teammates, Pete Cote and Doc Gautreau, went on to play in the majors, Izzy’s being captain of the team spoke volumes about both the level of his talent and leadership ability. By the time he graduated Cambridge Latin in 1920, Izzy was named to the Boston Post’s all-high school team in all three sports, a feat seldom accomplished.
In what had to be a rare aspiration for the son of a poor Jewish tailor, Izzy dreamed of attending the educational bastion of the rich, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite: Harvard University. With that goal in mind, Izzy entered Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. There, Izzy continued his dominance in baseball, football and hockey, finally attracting the attention of Harvard authorities. In the fall of 1923 Izzy moved back to Cambridge and entered Harvard, Class of ’27.
This was an interesting time for the country’s Ivy League. Since the turn of the century, Jews had immigrated to the United States at an increasing rate. By the early 1920s, this influx had begun to affect the racial and religious makeup of elite universities like Harvard. According to an October 17, 2018 article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by Ben Sales, in 1900 it was estimated that 7% of Harvard’s students were Jews. By 1922 that number had ballooned to 21.5%. In response to what Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell called, “the peril of having too large a number of an alien race,” the university placed a cap on how many Jews were admitted. According to Ben Sales’ article, suspected Jewish applicants were given the designations. “J1,” “J2” or “J3” — conclusively Jewish, probably Jewish or maybe Jewish, respectively.” Izzy Zarakov, who arrived at the university’s ivy gates just a year after Lowell’s classification system was implemented, would be proof that despite the inherent hidden and visible anti-Semitism, Jews would not only succeed but become an integral part of Harvard’s rich history.
While Izzy had reached his goal of attending Harvard, the hard work had just begun. As the son of a poor tailor, Izzy had to work several jobs in order to pay his tuition. Over his four years at Harvard, Zarakov hired out as a violin player in bands, drove the school’s bus to and from visiting games and sold insurance door to door. These jobs, combined with a full class load, made his playing three varsity sports seem all the more admirable. Add on that he was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club, the Institute of 1776, student council and a fraternity makes one wonder where he found time to sleep.
His decidedly un-Ivy League surname of Zarakov made his exploits stand out, and newspapers across the country featured articles on Harvard’s three-sport star of humble origin. He was the starting forward on the university’s hockey team and on the gridiron he became known as the scourge of Andover College. Although football was Izzy’s favored sport, it was with the Harvard nine that he really made his name. Just as he had at Cambridge Latin and Exeter, Izzy distinguished himself as a team player who could be counted on in the clutch. In a 1925 game, Izzy belted a grand slam home run to give Harvard a dramatic 9-4 victory over Bates College.
That year he was awarded the university’s coveted Wendell Bat Award, given annually to the best offensive player on the baseball team. He won it again in 1926, as well as the Wingate Trophy, awarded to the best overall baseball player. He capped off his junior year by being named captain of the baseball team for the upcoming season, an honor that made the sports pages nationwide.
And that brings us back to this story’s beginning: the 1927 Harvard-Yale game. The two rivals had met the previous afternoon in New Haven. Izzy had gone 1 for 5 with 2 runs scored in his team’s 10-6 come from behind win. June 22 found the two teams in Cambridge for the final game of the 1927 season. With football and hockey seasons long over, this game would also be the last game in the Harvard captain’s college career.
Yale got on the board first, scoring a run in the initial frame. Harvard quickly countered with a 2-run homer by Bill Lord in their half of the first. Yale jumped ahead again in the third and was leading 3-2 going into the 6th. The Crimson scored a pair of runs, but Harvard starter R.H. Booth fell apart in the top of the 9th, giving up two runs to make it 5-4 Yale. Frank Cutts came in to stop the bleeding, but at this point the Harvard stands began to empty. The prospect of a Bulldog victory and the ensuing heckling hastened the pace of the crowd.
But baseball has nine innings, and Harvard wasn’t throwing in the towel yet, especially not to the dreaded Yalies. Yale put in a fresh arm in the form of relief pitcher Bill Holabird. Right fielder Bill Ellison was first up, and quickly beat out an infield hit. This raised a faint round of golf applause from the fans who hadn’t headed for the exits. At this point, Coach Fred Mitchell, a former big leaguer during the Deadball Era, made a few key moves. First, he penciled in Johnny Chase to pinch hit for reliever Frank Cutts. Then he sent in G.E. Bennett to run for Ellison. In perfect Deadball Era-“small ball” style of play, Chase laid down a perfect bunt, sending Chase over to second. With one out, Howie Burns, the captain-elect of the team, worked the count full on Holabird. Burns then laced a scorching single to center. The shot should have easily scored Chase with the tying run, but Yale’s center fielder Jack McClellan quickly scooped up the ball and unleashed a laser throw to home plate, Chase was caught in a rundown and finally tagged out between third and home. Burns, taking advantage of Chase’s predicament, slid into third unopposed. When the dust settled, Harvard was 90 feet away from a tying run, but there were too few fans left in the bleachers to raise any kind of applause.
It was at this point that Captain Izzy Zarakov emerged from the dugout. Izzy surveyed the bats arrayed before him and selected one of assistant coach Freddy Parent’s bats. Parent had been a turn of the century star and had the distinction of playing for Boston in the very first World Series in 1903. Like all players of his era, Parent’s bat was a heavy Edd Roush model, an outdated relic by 1927, when modern sluggers like Ruth and Gehrig were switching to lighter lumber with much success.
Shouldering the heavy stick, Izzy Zarakov dug in to face Holabird. The pressure must have been intense. Not only was the game on the line, but this would be the final act in his long and successful high school and college career. Add to that the fact that Izzy was also heralded as a Jewish Ivy League success story across the country and the stress must have been crushing.
The Yale pitcher called time and called his catcher to the mound for a conference on how to proceed. Strategy in place, Holabird toed the rubber once more. The first pitch was a fastball inside. Izzy let it go by, but the ump called it a strike. Burns took a wide lead off third, his constant movement breaking Holabird’s concentration. The Yale reliever threw two balls before getting another strike on Izzy. Two balls, two strikes. Holabird came inside with another fastball, but this time the ump called it for what it was – ball three. Full count and the Harvard captain hadn’t even taken the antique bat off his shoulder.
Holabird went to his full windup and fired one in. This time Izzy unshouldered the bat and connected with a terrific crash. The ball cleared Holabird’s head and continued to climb. McClellan out in center turned and ran as it rocketed over him. The ball hit the grass and skidded onward. Back in 1927, Soldier’s Field didn’t have an outfield fence, and the freshman ballfield butted up against it, back to back. As Izzy raced around the bases, the ball continued onto the freshman field with McClellan in hot pursuit. The ball cleared the infield and mound before the Yale outfielder gave up, turning to watch helplessly as Izzy crossed the plate with the winning run.
Zarakov was immediately surrounded by his teammates and the remaining fans. They scooped up the captain and carried him around the ballfield six times before the celebration was through. A two-out, bottom of the ninth home run to lift Harvard above Yale was a movie script come to life. And to have the star be the son of a Jewish immigrant who worked his way through one of the nation’s greatest academic institutions was just the sort of story American’s loved. Izzy’s achievement was heralded in sports pages coast to coast, his name added alongside other great college athletes like Jim Thorpe and Red Grange. However, unlike Thorpe and Grange who were able to capitalize on their college careers by playing pro sports, Izzy Zarakov did not.
The 1927 Harvard yearbook listed their baseball team captain as being twenty years-old. In fact, Izzy was twenty-three and eager to start his adult life. Unfortunately, the time Izzy dedicated to athletics finally took its toll at the end of his senior year. It wasn’t that he was a poor student – newspapers stated he rated a steady “B” average, with an occasional “C.” What happened was that he failed to take his divisional examinations, a general exam needed by seniors in order to graduate Harvard with a degree. The captain had postponed this exam to concentrate on the baseball season, a dedication which paid off with what was arguably the most dramatic moment in Harvard sports history. Newspapers reported that Izzy intended to take the exam the following year, but it was not meant to be.
Unknown to his teammates at the time, he was engaged to marry Lillian Silverman, and the couple married before the year was out. The newlyweds opened a boy’s camp on Maine’s Long Lake which they named “Camp Zakelo.” Alongside the usual summer activities, Camp Zakelo attendees learned French and Spanish, published a newspaper, produced musical concerts and plays and participated in sports coached by the best Ivy League athletes of the time. In between running this successful camp, the Zarakov’s had a daughter, who they named Lillian after her mother. In the winter, Izzy carved out a place for himself as a consultant helping kids pick the right schools and colleges to fit their needs. Although Izzy never returned to take his postponed general exam, Harvard didn’t forget their three-sport star, inducting him into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame in 1968.
The Zarakov’s ran Camp Zakelo up until a heart attack hit Izzy in 1971. The couple sold the property and retired, first to Brookline, Massachusetts, and eventually Providence, Rhode Island to be near their daughter, a successful doctor. The hero of the Harvard-Yale game passed away in on July 18, 1988 at the age of 84. From humble beginnings, Izzy Zarakov reached the Ivy League through hard work and determination, carved out a name for himself in Harvard sports history and together with his beloved wife, created a summer haven for thousands of boys. Way back in 1923 Izzy’s mother Sarah told a newspaper reporter, “We worked all our lives for the honor our sons might bring us. It is worth it all. What is money compared to it? We are satisfied.”
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As an interesting footnote, besides leaving behind an athletic record that ranks among the finest of any Ivy Leaguer, the camp he founded gave birth to one of the most enduring songs in pop music. Back in the 1930s, a camper named Burt Bacharach was kept awake by the rainwater dripping on him as he lay in his bunk at Camp Zakelo. Young Burt crafted this unpleasant experience into a song he titled “Raindrops Keep Falling On my Head.” Decades later in 1969, the song was recorded by B.J. Thomas and featured in the blockbuster hit movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Besides spending 4 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, the song won Bacharach an Oscar for Best Original Song. To quote Mel Allen, “How a-bout that?!”
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This was one of those stories I just kinda stumbled on to along the way to something else. In this case I happened to click on the wrong lot number while perusing an RMY Auctions online catalog. The photo was of Izzy in a three piece suit sitting in an office setting holding the Wendell Bat Award. I almost passed it by, but luckily read the description, and in doing so opened the door to a really interesting ballplayer.
The illustration itself gave me fits. There is a lack of any good photos of Harvard ballplayers of this period. The most prominent feature of the 1927 Harvard jersey was a big diamond patch on the left sleeve. I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was as it always seemed to show up solid black. Finally, after giving up several times, I found a clear enough photo: it was a black “H” on a crimson diamond. Who cares, right? Wrong! It’s the little details that make a great story or drawing.
And speaking of details, a big thanks to Chris Meiman, Curator of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, for the bit about Freddy Parent’s bat being an Edd Roush model. I found it really interesting that in the days of Ruth and the home run craze Izzy would pick a heavy bat from the Deadball era.
As they say, it’s all in the details…
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This week’s story is Number 20 in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.