Sam Nahem was not your typical major league baseball player.
Born in 1915 to Syrian Jewish immigrants, he grew up speaking Arabic on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, learned several additional languages, studied Shakespeare and attended St. John’s Law School during the offseason, according to the Jewish Baseball Museum.
“That was all very unusual for a baseball player back then,” said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College and author of the upcoming book “Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.”
“He was often identified in newspapers as Jewish. A lot of the articles talk about Sam being bespectacled, and they also talked about how he was balding and they often talked about how he had a law degree,” he said.
Nahem’s JBM biography states that he made the Brooklyn College baseball team and was discovered by Brooklyn Dodgers manager Casey Stengel in 1935. He pitched for the Dodgers’ minor league franchise in Allentown before his major league debut in 1938.
By 1941 he was a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals but was traded to the Phillies. His time with the latter was interrupted for six years by his Army service.
Although Nahem only spent two seasons with the Phillies, Dreier said that time influenced him greatly, especially in building his awareness of race and class.
He witnessed his manager and teammates hurl racist taunts toward African American players like Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. As a left-wing activist who favored integration, he tried to convince them to change their ways.
“He was not very persuasive because he was not doing very well,” Dreier said. “He had these moments of brilliant pitching but he was basically a so-so player.”
Some of his teammates reminded him to reflect on his own privilege.
In an interview with Robin Roberts and C. Paul Rogers for their book “The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant” Nahem recalled, “Andy Seminick (the Phillies’ catcher) really put me in my place once. He once said to me: ‘Sam, we all know that you went to college and that you’re a lawyer from New York. For heaven’s sakes, Sam, I come from a coal mining family.’ Then I realized that I had a condescending attitude toward them. It was arrogant of me.”
Dreier said Nahem began to change the way he dealt with people after that encounter.
“That was important for the rest of his life. When he left baseball he could have become a lawyer, but instead he moved to the San Francisco Bay area and got a job at a chemical factory because he wanted to organize unions and lead a radical left-wing career and build a labor movement,” he explained.
According to Gary Bedingfield’s “Baseball in Wartime,” Nahem brought his passions for baseball and activism into the military. He assembled a racially integrated team, the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition All-Stars, consisting of ex-minor league players and Negro League stars Leon Day and Willard Brown.
In the 1945 G.I. World Series, Nahem led his ragtag team to victory against a heavily favored, all-white team of major league players, the 71st Division Red Circlers. They played in Nuremberg Stadium, which had hosted Hitler’s infamous rallies and been converted into a baseball diamond by American troops.
“That’s a pretty remarkable story. This integrated team won the World Series in the same place Hitler had been issuing propaganda. You could say (Nahem) was part of the movement to integrate baseball, and he did it in the military and did it without a lot of fanfare,” Dreier said.
Nahem returned from the military and pitched his second season for the Phillies before retiring from baseball in 1948. Nahem’s son Ivan told Dreier his father was audited by the FBI due to his Communist Party membership.
Nahem retired from a long career as a Chevron union leader in 1980 and volunteered at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California. He died at age 88 in 2004.
“He had a great sense of humor and a great set of social skills and he used those to promote social justice,” Dreier said.
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