by Matthew Arnold Stern
When does a family tradition begin?
In the case of my family's love of baseball, I believe it was 1938. This was the year Hank Greenberg pursued Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs, and my mom – who was then 9 – fell in love with the game.
It Started with a Hero
Life was difficult for Jews in 1938. Our people faced growing brutality in Europe – which turned into the violence of Kristallnacht that November – and discrimination at home. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the United States. Father Coughlin's radio program routinely blared virulently anti-Jewish speeches. (One of them was cribbed from a speech by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.) Jews were frequently denied jobs, and a number of universities refused to admit Jewish students.
In such dark times, Hank Greenberg shined a hopeful light for our community. His esteem grew when he refused to play on Yom Kippur during the 1934 pennant race. His decision earned him the admiration of Detroit Free Press columnist Edgar A. Guest who wrote, "We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat/But he's true to his religion – and I honor him for that." He was a hero for Jews, just as Jackie Robinson would be for African Americans a decade later.
In 1938, my mom lived in Cincinnati. Her father, my Grandfather Max, took her to Reds games at Crosley Field. The Reds remained her team even when she started rooting for the Dodgers. This led to some difficult moments for her when the Reds and Dodgers vied for the National League West pennant during the late seventies.
Though she loved the Reds, she still rooted for Hank Greenberg and followed Tigers games on the radio. She was heartbroken when he fell short of the record, hitting only 58 home runs that season. But from that time on, she was hooked on baseball.
It Continued in California
When my mom's family moved to Los Angeles in 1940, she took her love for baseball with her. At the time, the Major Leagues only extended to the Mississippi River. So, she turned to allegiance to the local minor league club, the Hollywood Stars. They played at Gilmore Field, a ballpark that was close to her home in West Los Angeles.
Living up to their billing, the Hollywood Stars were the favorites of Hollywood stars. Box seats at Gilmore were the place for celebrities to see and be seen – just like courtside seats at the Staples Center are today. But the Stars were also a source of community pride for the ordinary folks of West L.A. like my mom. (My mom also had a crush on a Stars bat boy.)
The Stars were bitter cross-town rivals with the then minor-league Los Angeles Angels. Games between the clubs were intense. A Stars–Angels doubleheader at Gilmore in 1953 erupted in a brawl. Police had to be called in to separate the players. Ironically, Gene Autry – one of the Hollywood celebrities who owned shares in the Stars – would later be the owner of the Major League Los Angeles Angels.
In 1958, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. The Stars moved out to make way for the Dodgers. Gilmore Field was torn down and is now part of CBS Television City. Where they once played baseball is now where they tape finales of Survivor.
But in the 1950s, my mom's interest in baseball started to wane. In 1951, she married my dad. Unfortunately, he didn't have much interest in sports. It wasn't until my parents divorced that our family's enjoyment of baseball started up again and was ready to be passed along to a new generation.