Phil Weintrub: It certainly is a strange game

 

Phil Weintraub is one of those ballplayers whose numbers you look at and think, “what the heck happened?”

PHILIP WEINTRAUB was born on the west side of Chicago to Israel and Rose Weintraub, Jewish immigrants from Russia. Phil had two older sisters, Celia and Esther, as well as a younger brother George and two little sisters, Gertrude and Harriet. Israel Weintraub has been described by various sources as a butcher, tailor, small shop owner, and auctioneer. I was able to find his 1917 draft card on which he lists “clerk” as his job, and the 1920 census records Israel as a retail-merchant of dry goods.

The Weintraub’s raised their children to have an appreciation of the finer things in life, and Phil grew up with an appreciation of reading and became an accomplished accordion player. Israel wished for his son to follow in his footsteps and pursue a respectable and safe occupation, but Phil had other ideas.

Israel and Rose’s oldest boy grew up to be a stocky six-footer, with bright hazel eyes and coal-dark hair that earned him the occasional nickname of “Blackie.” He was also, much to his father’s consternation, a darn good ballplayer. Phil grew up in the shadow of the Cubs’ West Side Park, and a 1935 New York World Telegram article claims he shagged fly balls and took care of Frank Chance’s bats when he was a boy.

He developed a strong arm and did everything left-handed, including pitch. After playing semipro ball around Chicago, Weintraub wanted to turn pro and make some real dough. After pitching a no-hitter for a local nine (some newspapers claim it was “several” no-hitters) a few low-level minor league teams showed interest, but because he was only 18, he could not legally sign a contract. Initially, Israel refused to allow his son to turn pro, but after Phil threatened to run away, his father capitulated and signed on the dotted line.

WEINTRAUB’S FIRST STOP was the Rock Island Islanders of the entry-level Mississippi Valley League. He quickly learned that his fastball wasn’t that impressive, but his batting was. The next few years found Weintraub pinballing around the lower levels of the minor leagues, but found advancement hard to come by.

When his father passed away in August of 1929, Phil gave up on baseball and returned to Chicago. According to several biographical sketches of Weintraub, he attempted to take over his father’s business. But what that business was is not clear. The 1930 census shows his younger brother George as a packer in a factory while Phil does not list anything under employment. But in a 1934 newspaper article, Phil told the writer that his father ran a thriving meat store in Northwest Chicago and that, “Two years ago I was willing to swing a cleaver in preference to a bat.”

Whatever business he was involved in was not enough to keep Weintraub away from baseball. The White Sox invited Weintraub to work out with the club in practice, but he told one newspaper that he quit voluntarily because he didn’t like the atmosphere on the team. After failing to capture the Cubs interest, he returned to the Mississippi Valley League and played half a season with Dubuque. An elbow injury necessitated him giving up on pitching, but his eye-catching .372 brought his advancement up to the Class B Terra Haute Tots in 1932. He was hitting in the .370s when the Detroit Tigers asked how much Terre Haute wanted for him. The Tots asked for $500, but before anything was signed Weintraub hurt his leg sliding into a base. Detroit withdrew their offer and the depression put the Tots out of business halfway through the summer. Weintraub caught on with the Dayton Ducks and finished out 1932 with a .352 mark.

This brought another promotion to the Class A (today’s Double A) Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. Now faced with top-draw pitching, Weintraub’s average dropped to .296 but his 81 RBI and 15 homers attracted the attention of the New York Giants. His last name of “Weintraub” may also have had a lot to do with the Giants’ interest.

SINCE THE EARLY 1900s, Giants manager John McGraw had been searching for a Jewish ballplayer that could win the fandom of the rising numbers of Jewish immigrants settling in Manhattan. Over the years, McGraw spent a fortune signing any Jewish ballplayer who looked promising. Though highly touted and quickly embraced by the Jewish fans, players such as Mose Solomon, Jake Levy, and Andy Cohen failed to develop into stars. McGraw retired after the 1932 season, but his successor, Giants first baseman Bill Terry, continued to look for that elusive Jewish star that promised to fill the Polo Grounds stands.

As luck would have it, 1933 brought not one but two promising Jewish prospects. Catcher Harry Danning was hitting close to .350 for Buffalo when he was called up to the Giants in July, and September brought Phil Weintraub. The Giants had just clinched their first pennant since 1924 and new manager Bill Terry decided to rest his starters and see what the prospects could do. Weintraub’s chance came in the top of the 9th inning of the September 5 game against the Pirates at Forbes Field. With the Giants down 6-1, Weintraub pinch hit against Larry French and drew a walk. He advanced to second on a Hughie Critz single but died there when Terry flew out to center to end the game.

Two days later Terry sent him in to replace Lefty O’Doul in the 4th inning. With the Pirates ahead 11-1, Weintraub hit a Heinie Meine pitch over the right field wall to make it 11-2. He flew out in his other at bat, but Weintraub had added his name to that rare bunch of players who homered for their first big league hit.

Weintraub got into six more games before the season ended, and although he hit just .200, New York’s Jewish fans wholeheartedly embraced the rookie and looked forward to seeing what he could do in 1934.

The Giants went on to beat the Senators in the World Series in March, which took Weintraub south for 1934 spring training. When the team tried to check into Miami Beach’s dapper Flamingo Hotel, the desk clerk refused to give Weintraub and Harry Danning a room due to their strict “No Jews” policy. Manager Bill Terry refused to accept that and threatened to take the whole team to another hotel. Faced with the loss of dozens of room reservations, the Hotel Flamingo lifted their Hebrew ban.

Back on the field, the coaches liked the looks of the Chicago boy, and one sportswriter who watched him work out penned, “A powerful left-handed hitter, Weintraub has an impressive stance at the plate and he drummed zippy liners to all parts of the field. He also smacked several long drives into deep left and left center field, a rare feat for a left handed hitter.”

The New York sportswriters took a quick liking to the Giants newest addition. Weintraub was well spoken and cultured compared to the typical ballplayer and he made great copy. Writers noted his classy choice in bespoke clothes, and one newspaper claimed he had over one hundred fine suits. Weintraub didn’t deny he was a sharp dresser but insisted his wardrobe held a more modest eight suits. His rugged boxer-good looks (one paper described him as being modeled along the lines of heavyweight champion Max Baer) made him especially popular with the ladies. Giants manager Bill Terry enjoyed relating what happened when the team pulled into Weintraub’s hometown of Chicago for a series. Teams customarily set aside tickets so players could invite their friends or family to a game, but Weintraub’s request raised a front office eyebrow or two when he asked for seventeen comped tickets for his family. The club granted his request, but Bill Terry found it hard to believe that the string of beauties each within the same age range were all supposed to be Weintraub’s sisters!

And it turned out that for as good as Weintraub was as a ballplayer, baseball wasn’t his first love. In fact, he told sportswriters that baseball was simply a way to indulge in his true passion: speed. Phil was a self-proclaimed motorhead, and at each level of baseball he climbed he would treat himself to a vehicle with more power. He spent his first minor league paycheck on a dilapidated motorcycle. Halfway through the season he traded up to a new bike. The following season he transitioned four wheels with an old Ford. By August, he had upgraded again to a brand-new sports roadster. When he was with New York in 1934, Weintraub told a sportswriter, “I’m a cinch to make those Giants” he said, “And boy how I’ll like that big town. They tell me there’s more that 500 automobile dealers in that burg – and a fellow can get any kind of car that’s made. Boy I’ll make good all right – and this summer when you see a good looking guy driving down Broadway in one of those big sixteen cylinder jobs you can tell the cop on the corner that it’s Weintraub’s son Phil, in person. Yessir, all I’ve got to do is make good with those Giants and that sixteen cylinder baby is mine. Boy, I’m a cinch.”

UNFORTUNATELY FOR PHIL, making those Giants wasn’t a “cinch.” The good thing about Weintraub was that he was versatile – he could competently play both left field and first base. The bad thing was that Weintraub was a left fielder and a first baseman.

Allow me to explain: The New York Giants of the 1930s had two of the game’s best hitters and future Hall of Famers in the prime of their career at – you guessed it – left field and first base. Yup, Weintraub was up against the great Mel Ott in left field and the team’s first baseman and manager, Bill Terry. Phil could have hit .500 in spring training and still would not have been able to unseat either one of those giants.

As the Giants broke spring training camp and headed north for Opening Day, the team dropped off players at various minor league teams along the way. When they got to Nashville, they unloaded Phil Weintraub and his trunk of sharp suits. News of his Nashville assignment raised a heck of an uproar back in New York. Jewish fans flooded the Giants front office with letters and telegrams pleading for Weintraub to be brought north. Some fans thought the matter so pressing that they appeared at the Giants offices in person to plead his case. Reportedly Bill Terry came close to bending to the will of the fans but, in the end, felt Weintraub would benefit from regular playing time in Nashville.

ULTIMATELY, TERRY was proven right. Nashville’s manager was Charlie Dressen, a mediocre big league journeyman infielder who was in his first season at the helm of a ballclub. Weintraub joined Hank Leiber, another hot Giants prospect, and big-league veteran Lance Richbourg to give Nashville the best outfield in the Southern Association. That isn’t to say it was easy.

Sulphur Dell, the Nashville Vols quirky ballpark, boasted a rightfield wall that sloped up 22½ feet above the level of the infield. Discouraged right fielders stationed there took to calling the ballpark “Suffer Hell.” It was on this challenging plane that Weintraub had a comedic experience that became a staple of Nashville baseball lore.

One afternoon he was playing deep when he had to come in for a grounder. Weintraub ran down the slope only to have the ball go through his hands and roll uphill to the wall. Weintraub turned and chased the ball up the slope only to have it hit the wall and rebound back down the hill through his legs. When he finally caught up with the ball, he quickly fired it back to the infield and, in his haste, overthrew the third baseman. If you’re keeping score at home that’s a total of three errors on one play!

Fortunately, it was Phil Weintraub’s bat that drew most of the headlines during the 1934 season. Both he and Hank Leiber were hitting at a .400 clip as Nashville easily won the first half of the split season. Then the nightmare scenario every minor league fan dreaded descended upon Nashville. First, the Giants called Leiber up to New York. Then the Cincinnati Reds hired manager Charlie Dressen. And finally, in the last days of July, the Giants recalled Phil Weintraub.

He played his first game on July 31 and, in 30 subsequent games, he batted a lofty .351 with 15 RBIs. Weintraub was an instant sensation in the New York press. Sportswriters remarked on his accordion fascination, cultured love of reading, and his growing wardrobe. In fact, famed sportswriter Fred Lieb called the Giants new sensation, “baseball’s best-dressed pinch hitter.” However, Weintraub’s early success in his second chance with the defending World Champs made some in the Jewish community wary. On September 14, 1934 The Jewish Press warned, “Advice to Jewish Organization(s): If you want Phil Weintraub, new Jewish star of the N.Y. Giants, to be a real success don’t invite him to attend your smokers, etc. . . . it was going to too many such functions which caused the playing of Andy Cohen to fall below big league standards . . .” Andy Cohen had been a highly-touted Jewish infielder who the Giants chose to replace future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. However, anyone, regardless of their religious, ethnic background, or number of afterhours functions they attended, would have had a heap of trouble replacing the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball.

In 1935 spring training, Bill Terry tried his best to fit Weintraub into the lineup. Unfortunately, the team had a set outfield team that worked well together. Weintraub requested that Terry train him as his understudy at first, but George Grantham was already filling that slot on the team. Terry tried to use him as a pinch hitter against right-handers, but Weintraub was only 5 for 38 in that tough role.

Over the course of the 1935 season, Weintraub was used sparingly, subbing in the outfield or first when one of the regulars took a rare day off. Not acclimated to being a bench player, Weintraub’s batting average cratered. It was reported in the press that had Weintraub been anything other than Jewish, Terry would have sent him down to the minors early in the season. According to one article, “It is known that Bill would get rid of Phil Weintraub in a minute if he didn’t fear being set down as an Anti-Semite, for doing so.” Terry went on to explain that he believed Weintraub was not yet of big-league caliber, but “says he’s going to hold onto him until everyone else in New York is convinced of the same thing.” His .241 in 64 games told the story without Terry having to pull the lever.

AT THIS POINT the St. Louis Cardinals came to his rescue. After winning the World Series in 1934, the Cards had begun replacing their older veterans with a young crop of players from their vast farm system. However, Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey liked to rescue what he thought was a misused or misunderstood ballplayer from time to time, and Phil Weintraub fit that bill. Theoretically, the trade opened the possibilities for Weintraub to play regularly in left field or first base – but it didn’t.

Like the Giants, the Cardinals had two superstars already in place at the positions Weintraub could play: future Hall of famers Joe Medwick in left and Johnny Mize at first. Before he could get in a big-league game, Branch Rickey made the call that Weintraub should give up the outfield and concentrate on first base. Rickey sent Weintraub to their Columbus farm team for regular work but then almost immediately shifted him to the Rochester Red Wings.

Weintraub’s first game with Rochester was a Sunday doubleheader against Toronto, and he immediately made it clear he was overqualified for the International League. He walked three times in the first game and then belted two doubles, a triple, and a homer in the nightcap for a total of 11 bases. Two weeks later it took him just one game to beat that number when he went 5 for 5 against Buffalo with two singles, a double and a pair of homers for 12 total bases.

Weintraub was especially dangerous on Sundays: he had one or more hits in every one of Rochester’s 25 Sunday games except one, batting .487 with a .963 slugging percentage – and in that one game he didn’t register a hit; he was walked the two times he batted!

While Weintraub was primarily a singles and doubles hitter, he sometimes exploded with power to spare. In one game against Baltimore, Weintraub faced off against the New York Giants prized pitching prospect Cliff Melton and sent one of his fastballs 460 feet over the left-center field wall, setting a record for the longest home run in the history of Rochester’s Red Wings Stadium.

Weintraub was tearing up the International League through August and other big-league teams began to notice. Chicago Cubs manager Charlie Grimm, whose team desperately needed a starting first baseman ASAP, took a special trip to personally scout Weintraub when the Red Wings played in Newark. In one of those tough twists of fate, Weintraub, who was hitting about .380 at the time, left the game early when he injured his leg. While Grimm was deliberating on whether to take a chance on the injured Weintraub, the Cincinnati Reds swooped in and bought the first baseman’s contract out from under him. Weintraub finished the season with a .371 mark, coming in a close second in the International League batting championship to Smead Jolley’s .373.

On December 5, 1936, Weintraub secretly eloped with Jeanne Holsman in a Chicago suburb. The reason for the secret nuptials is not known, but the 20-year-old Jeanne was the daughter of the recently deceased Chicago jeweler and philanthropist Hyman Holsman. When newspapers found out about the heiress’s elopement, both families insisted on a proper Jewish wedding, which was subsequently held a week later in the Holsman mansion.

PHIL WEINTRAUB reported to the Reds spring training camp full of optimism. The Cincinnati sportswriters had talked up the newcomer all winter and, with his old Nashville manager Charlie Dressen now skipper of the Reds, it looked like Weintraub would be given a fighting chance to make good in either left field or at first base – but once again he ran right into an established star at each position.

At first base they had Frank McCormick, a prospect so hot that the Reds gave up Johnny Mize in favor of him. Though he is forgotten today, Frank McCormick was a 9-time All-Star and won the 1940 NL MVP Award. A back injury eventually robbed McCormick of what could have been a Hall of Fame career. And in left field Weintraub was competing with two veterans who would end up with plaques in Cooperstown: Kiki Cuyler and Jim Bottomley. The Reds played Weintraub in 49 games where he hit .271, but in the end, there was just no place for him. The Giants took him off the Reds hands in July, and he hit .333 in the 6 games he was able to get into. But again, there was the insurmountable Mel Ott-Bill Terry block.

The Giants left him unprotected after the ’37 season ended and he was picked up by the Baltimore Orioles. Back in the International League Weintraub overachieved again and was hitting .345 going into June when the last place Philadelphia Phillies traded for him.

PHIL WEINTRAUB joined Morrie Arnovich and Eddie Feinberg to give the Phillies a rare trifecta of Jewish players. During this season, the trio became part of Jewish-American sports lore when they were faced with the question of whether they should play ball on one of the High Holidays. Four years before, Hank Greenberg faced the same issue when Rosh Hashana fell on the day his Tigers were playing the New York Yankees in a tough pennant race. In Greenberg’s case, he ultimately decided to play and famously hit two home runs. However, eight days later when the Tigers had the pennant sewn up, he sat out the game that fell on Yom Kippur.

Fast forward to 1938. According to Eddie Feinberg, Weintraub and Arnovich both decided to sit out a doubleheader that fell on Yom Kippur while he opted to play. Feinberg reported that he went 0-8 and later told an author that he, “regretted the decision for the rest of his life.” This story has made the rounds through the years and was given new life after Sandy Koufax famously sat out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series when it fell on Yom Kippur. However, historian and author Howard Megdal took a close look at the tale and found that the Jewish Day of Atonement fell on a date after the regular 1938 season ended.

Taking a look myself, I consulted Feinberg’s game log on Baseball-Reference.com and discovered that he played in both games of a doubleheader just once during the 1938 season: a Tuesday two-fer on September 27 against the Boston Bees. Next, I checked Hebcal.com and found that in 1938 Rosh Hashana began on Sunday, September 25 and ended Tuesday, September 27. Sure enough, the Phils had Monday September 26 off, but did play on Tuesday, September 27 – the last day of Rosh Hashana. And wouldn’t you know, the box scores for both games indeed show Feinberg going 0 for 8 in both games while Weintraub and Arnovich sat out both games. But when I looked at Sunday, September 25, the first day of Rosh Hashana, the Phillies played a doubleheader against the Dodgers and Weintraub, Arnovich and Feinberg all played in the first game and Arnovich played in the nightcap. And for the record, all three were hitless for the day.

Finally awarded the chance to play regularly, Weintraub hit .311 for the rest of the season. Now, after a respectable season in which he proved that he could produce when played regularly, one would think Phil Weintraub finally had it made, right? Wrong.

UNFORTUNATELY FOR PHIL, whenever a Phillies player did well, the owners quickly traded or sold him off to one of the more affluent big-league teams. The Boston Red Sox bought Weintraub’s contract from the Phillies before the 1939 season, but it is a mystery why they did so because – you guessed it – they already had established stars at both positions he could play. In this case Boston had All-Star Joe Vosmik in left and future Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx at first. Weintraub didn’t have a chance.

He was sent to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, the same minor league level as the International League. At 31, his prospects of returning to the majors looked pretty dim, but Phil did his best, hitting .331 for 1939 and then .347 in ’40. With Vosmik and Foxx still firmly in place in Boston, Weintraub considered quitting the game if he was to be stuck in the minors. He had a heart to heart with Millers owner Mike Kelly, who granted Weintraub permission to try to make a deal for himself with a big-league team. Weintraub paid his own way to the MLB Winter Meetings in Atlanta but came up empty. He informed the Millers that he was going to accept an offer from a Chicago jewelry business, presumedly the one owned by his wife’s family.

Come spring, Weintraub shelved the jewelry career when his contract was purchased by the Chicago Cubs. Once again, the chance at the big leagues were tantalizingly dangled before him, but the Cubs decided to send him to their top farm club in Los Angeles instead.

Out in LA, Weintraub batted .311 in the Pacific Coast League, which, like the International League and American Association, was one level below the majors. And, just as one would expect, there was no room for him in Chicago for Phil Weintraub.

IN DECEMBER of 1941, Weintraub was sold to the St. Louis Browns who shipped the 33-year-old to back to the American Association where he played two more years with the St. Paul Saints and Toledo Mud Hens. By this time, World War II was in full swing, and the major leagues were in dire need of talent to replace the players who were in the service. Weintraub tried to join up after Pearl Harbor but was declared unfit due to the elbow injury he suffered at Dubuque way back in 1930. Suddenly, the 36-year-old hitting .334 in Toledo looked awfully good to the talent-starved New York Giants.

Weintraub made the most of his unexpected ump-teenth chance at the majors. During a preseason exhibition game against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium, Weintraub and some of the other Giants participated in a publicity stunt where a Navy blimp would drop baseballs from a height of 400 feet. Weintraub made an instant sensation when he somehow successfully caught one of the balls without suffering a career-ending injury.

Finally playing regularly, Weintraub put up the numbers that should have made him a big-league starter the previous ten years. His finest day came on April 30 during a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants won the game by a football score of 26-8, much of it thanks to Weintraub’s two doubles, a triple, home run, and bases-loaded walk, which accounted for 11 RBI, one short of the MLB record. After the game, Babe Ruth approached the 36-year-old and said, “Kid, that was some performance. You knocked in enough runs for a month. Some guys don’t get that many in a season.”

On June 12, 1944, he came up one short of another MLB record when he scored 5 runs in a game against Brooklyn. Weintraub finished out the season with a .316 batting average (8th best in the league), with a career high 13 home runs (9th best in the league).

The next season saw the gradual return of the pre-war regulars. Weintraub was able to get into 82 games and hit .272, but his legs were showing their age, and he was eventually released by the Giants. The Yankees picked him up and sent him to their top farm team across the Hudson River in Newark where he hit .311. He retired as a player but tried his hand at managing the Bloomingdale Troopers of the Class D North Atlantic League in 1946. He was let go after the team bottomed out in the standings.

Phil and Jeanne, whose family now included son Phil Jr. and daughter Jill, remained in the New York Area where he worked in the wholesale food industry. He later moved out to Palm Springs, California and dabbled in real estate. His career was acknowledged in 1982 when he was inducted in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He passed away in 1987 aged 79, after a long battle with cancer.

* * *

TO THIS DAY Phil Weintraub’s .295 career average is the fifth highest among Jewish major leaguers, trailing only Hank Greenberg, Ryan Braun, Buddy Myer, and Lou Boudreau (writers and historians differ on whether Myer and Boudreau should be on the list of Jewish ballplayers – if they are dropped from the list Phil moves up to the number three spot). And while his career didn’t really shape up to be what it probably should have; he didn’t seem to harbor any ill feelings about the hard luck that always seemed to block his way every time he tried to stay in the majors. He told an interviewer, “I frankly don’t know why I was a minor leaguer for so long, but I suppose the final explanation is that is just baseball. It certainly is a strange game.”

So back to the question posed at the beginning of this story: “what the heck happened?”

I really can’t say. Some writers go right to the anti-Semitic scenario, but I don’t buy it. If anything, Weintraub’s religion was a positive, especially in New York. A more reasonable explanation is that there were only 16 big-league teams in Phil’s era, and roster spots were at a premium. Add to this that baseball was pretty much the only sport in which an athlete could make serious money. That meant athletes who would today have football, hockey, and basketball to choose from would have all been competing only in baseball. You not only had to be extremely talented to make the majors in Phil Weintraub’s time, but you also had to have luck as well.

But these are all just speculation. Maybe the reason is simple: it’s just baseball. As Phil said:

“It certainly is a strange game.”

* * *

This story is Number 68 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 6 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 066 and will be active through December of 2024. Booklets 1-65 can be purchased as a group, too.

 

 

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