By Bill Simons
The baseball canon includes several notable lefties. From the mound, Lefty Grove and Lefty Gomez earned Hall of Fame plaques. And the Jewish phenom Sandy Koufax might rank as the greatest of all southpaw pitchers. For only one major league pitcher does the designation “lefty” refer to political ideology rather than to throwing arm. That would be the Jewish hurler “Subway Sam” Nahem, who was ironically right-handed. Nahem joined the Communist Party, rendering him unique in major league history.
Baseball is a conservative game that harkens back to America’s rural mythology. The game and its players evoke traditionalism. Today, African Americans comprise little more than 7 percent of those on MLB rosters compared to approximately 75 percent in the NBA. When Gabe Kapler, the muscular and brainy Jewish manager of the 2021 San Francisco Giants, played outfield for the Boston Red Sox, he found himself the only Democrat on the team; the other 24 players identified as Republicans. And Nahem, a Cold War Communist, stood far to the left of Kapler.
As a Jewish intellectual, social activist and major leaguer, Nahem shared similarities with Moe Berg, a catcher during the years between the world wars. Both Nahem and Berg earned post-graduate degrees, read omnivorously, practiced law, possessed linguistic gifts, contributed to the U.S. victory in World War II, battled injustice and reflected secular Judaism. While Berg appeared enigmatic, secretive and reclusive, Nahem exuded an open, extroverted sociability. Berg and Nahem would have formed baseball’s most cerebral pitcher-catcher battery.
Alas, Berg was a mediocre major leaguer and Nahem marginal. Over parts of MLB seasons (1938/Brooklyn Dodgers, 1941/St. Louis Cardinals, 1942/Philadelphia Phillies and 1948/Philadelphia Phillies), punctuated by minor league and semi-pro play as well as four years of military service, Nahem won but 10 games and lost eight for a respectable .556 winning percentage. With an inflated 4.69 career earned run average, he pitched only 224 innings, a number approximate to the total a starting-rotation pitcher accumulates in a single season. Appearing in 90 games over his four MLB seasons, Nahem started only 12 of those. He replaced the starter in 78 contests during an era when a reliever seemed more “mop-up” pitcher than valued specialist.
Despite less than pinpoint control and a fastball sans great movement, Nahem displayed a good slider and smart spot-pitching. He proved generally effective throwing sidearm to right-handed batters, but lefties frequently tagged his overhand pitches for hits. Displaying his trademark amalgam of wit and erudition, Nahem assessed his pitching: “I am in the egregiously anonymous position of pitching batting practice to the batting practice pitchers.”
Nonetheless, Nahem did have stellar moments on the ballfield. He starred as a good hitting pitcher and football fullback at Brooklyn College. In the minors, Nahem had an All-Star 1937 season with Clinton of the Illinois-Iowa-Indiana League, notching 15 wins against only five losses. His diamond heroics with the strong semi-pro Brooklyn Bushwicks also attracted attention.
As a major league spot starter and reliever with the 1941 St. Louis Cardinals, Nahem generated attention, going 5-2 with a 2.98 ERA over 82 innings. In his first start with the Cards on April 23, 1941, Nahem pitched a 3-hit, 9-inning complete game, allowing only 1 walk and defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-1. The Pirates’ one run, unearned, resulted from two eighth inning fielding errors by the Cards.
Despite a lean muscularity at 6’1”, 190 pounds, the bald, bespectacled, asthmatic, dark and bookish Nahem did not look, talk, or act like a typical major leaguer, not even a Jewish one. Unlike his Jewish MLB contemporaries, such as Hank Greenberg, Harry Danning and Sid Gordon, who came from Eastern European Ashkenazi backgrounds, Nahem’s immigrant parents, Sephardic Jews from Syria, spoke Arabic. And communism set Nahem apart.
Legal settlement with a ship company after his importer/exporter father’s drowning kept the family solvent. But the suffering of others during the Great Depression, exposure to radicalism at Brooklyn College and the Communist Party’s 1935 adoption of Popular Front collaboration with liberals and labor unions against fascism led Nahem to the political left. Subsequently, the Soviet Union and the United States forged a wartime alliance against Hitler. In addition, the Communist Party supported Black civil rights, and Nahem believed bigotry toward Blacks and Jews was intertwined. Thus, from his coming of age until his revulsion at the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Nahem identified as a communist. FBI surveillance of Nahem produced a thick file.
The Communist Party’s Daily Worker newspaper waged a strong campaign for the integration of baseball, a matter of importance to Nahem. Indeed, Nahem integrated baseball – or at least a portion of it – before Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to Ebbets Field. In 1945, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Sam Nahem found himself the player-manager of the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition All-Stars baseball team in the European Theater of Operations. When not taking his turn on the mound, Nahem played first base and hit well. Bucking the brass, Nahem fought successfully to have two Negro League stars, Leon Day and Willard Brown, on his team. Playing a powerful squad drawn from General George S. Patton’s Third Army, Nahem managed and pitched the racially integrated OISE All-Stars to an upset victory in the ETO World Series.
Soured on communism, but not progressive causes, Nahem, his artist wife Elsie and their young children left New York for a new life in California in the mid-1950s. During his long stint at a Chevron factory, Nahem emerged as an assertive leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Hanging out at the University of California, Berkeley, he enlisted in the mid-1960s Free Speech Movement. Alongside his family, Nahem marched and demonstrated against the Vietnam War and racism. The old lefty continued to battle for social justice until his death at age 88 in 2004.
A Jewish pitcher and a Communist – the story of Sam Nahem resonates like that of a character culled from a Philip Roth novel.
Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.