The Rabbi of Swat
Follow me into a rabbit hole, if you will. I was on my way to a completely different story when I fell in and ended up in, of all places, Hutchinson, Kansas. In 1923. I knew we should have made that right turn in Albuquerque. And that left in Cucamonga.
There’s a baseball player at the plate. Nothing about him seems extraordinary. He’s no taller than 5-foot-10, he might not even be that tall, and he probably weighs 170 or so pounds. He could be anyone. He’s a left-handed batter and does not look particularly fearsome. But he must be somewhat fearsome because he’s being intentionally walked again. It’s the third time today.
Bennie Meyer, the manager of the opposing Salina club, is called “Earache” by his players because of his shrieking voice and, as it turns out, this is the more peaceful version of his desire to avoid this particular batter. A day earlier, Meyer had ordered the batter hit. This had caused a small melee and brought on a fine from the Southwestern league office. So Meyer twice has his pitchers throw strikes to the batter this day. The first time, the batter crushed a homer to right field. The second time, he mashed one over the centerfield wall. A few fans throw coins on the field after the second home run, and even Bennie Meyer has to concede his admiration. He has the batter walked for the rest of the game and the next day too.
“There’s no disgrace in ordering a man like Mose Solomon walked,” the sportswriter behind the column “Fanning Bee Hive” writes in the next day’s Hutchinson News. “The Rabbi of Swat now has 11 home runs.”
It is only May and the weather in Kansas is only just warming up.
* * *
Mose Solomon was the son of a Russian immigrants who eventually found their way to Columbus, Ohio, where Benjamin Solomon worked as a junk dealer. It is unclear if they named their son “Moses” or simply “Mose” — the official record suggests Mose or the Hebrew Moshe (though this did not keep the newspapers from going Biblical and calling him Moses).
Mose Solomon was a fantastic athlete — strong and fast and driven. Football was his better sport — he was a quarterback, a defensive back and a punter — but professional football wasn’t much of an option in the 1920s. Baseball and boxing were everything in America then.
He ended up going to Hutchinson because an old teammate, Marty Purtell, had become manager of the team. Purtell was a baseball lifer who had kicked around minor league baseball since he was 17 years old, and he wanted Solomon’s bat in his lineup. Hutchinson is about an hour away from Wichita — it had gained a little national attention a 17-year-old local named Smoky Joe Wood show up and pitched for the Wheat Shockers.
By all accounts, Mose Solomon never considered changing his Jewish sounding name. This was a time in America when many Jewish people did change their names, particularly in entertainment and sports. An odd little item appeared in the July 20 Hutchinson News about the shame of boxers changing to Irish names — i suspect it was, in an odd way, a small homage to local baseball hero Mose Solomon.
What’s the strange lure in an Irish name? The prize fighters think it means luck and drawing power at the box office.
Joe and Benny Leonard were born Leiner. Willis Jackson’s correct name is Tobler. Jimmy O’Catty and his brother Packy are Italians, the eminent Scotch mop Johnny Dundee is really Signor Carrora. Tommy Burns was Noah Brusso.
Acclaim must be given however to Barney Williams. As Barney he flailed away to the top ranks and then one day said to himself, “Why should I be an Irisher? There ain’t no real good Jewish fighters, leastways under their own names. I’m going to be Levinsky again.” He carried out his threat and as Battling Levinsky he’s still going strong.
When that appeared, Mose Solomon was hitting a Southwestern league-leading .383 and had just hit his 24th homer of the season. He was hitting home runs faster than any minor league baseball player ever had. In fact, the only person at any level who had ever hit home runs so often was Babe Ruth himself. Some around the league were calling him “Hickory Mose” for his type of bat and others were calling him the Jewish Babe Ruth. The Hutchinson News insisted on calling him the Rabbi of Swat or just the Rabbi — it was as if the author just KNEW he had a golden nickname and he was going to stay with it until everyone else caught up.
Solomon’s crazy home run total had fans in places like Salina and Muskogee and Sapulpa and Topeka griping about the short right field fence at Gano Park in Hutchinson. Exact measurements seem lost to history, but at the foul line the fence was less than 300 feet away. Games at Gano Park would often have football scores like 22-13 or 18-14. These complaints about the validity of Solomon’s home runs were a bit of a sore point with the baseball writer at the Hutchinson News. He wrote on numerous occasions that the Rabbi of Swat was a straightaway hitter, punishing most of his home runs to center or right-center, where the fence was longer than some of the other parks in the league. The short fence, he insisted, did not help the Rabbi at all.
“If Solomon had played in a Salina uniform,” grumped the Fanning Bee Hive late in the season, “he probably would have beaten Ruth’s record of 59 homers.”
As it was, Solomon had a shot at 50 home runs which was simply unheard of in minor league baseball. It was clear to everyone in Hutchinson that Solomon was not a great baseball player in the traditional sense of the word. He was, even for Class C baseball, an atrocious first baseman. He disliked the position and continuously asked for a chance to play in the outfield. But, again from the Bee Hive, “on the few occasions when he was tried in the outfield he looked equally bad.” Still, he kept hitting and hitting. His average stayed around .400. And in addition to leading the league in homers, he led in doubles and triples too. He was scoring more than a run a game.
And in late July, the world was turning in a way that was about to change his life.
* * *
John McGraw — known in the papers as “Little Napoleon” or “Napoleon of the Diamond” — was the irascible, feisty, brilliant and marginally honest manger of the world champion New York Giants. There are countless stories about him though one I like is that when he was manager of the Baltimore Orioles at the turn of the century, he would order the groundskeeper to keep the area in front of home plate as hard as stone. This way he and his players could hit directly down on baseballs and chop high-bouncing balls that could be beaten out for singles.
To this day, high-chopping ground balls are known as Baltimore Chops.
McGraw was troubled in 1923. He had built the best team in baseball … and he was losing New York. Giants attendance was tumbling, and McGraw knew exactly why; people had grown infatuated not with the unruly and fierce brand of baseball that marked his life but with the thrilling home runs of crosstown hero Babe Ruth.
McGraw had an idea how he would win back the city.
He would sign a Jewish baseball player.
“Today,” he wrote in a column in the New York Evening World on July 23, 1923, “I would give $100,000 for a Jewish player who had even the prospect of being a real star.”
McGraw did not hide his motivations. Yes, he said that he wanted a Jewish player because “I have never yet seen a Jewish player who was not unusually ambitious.” He wrote a bit about how Jewish people “have always been great lovers of sport” — going back to Ben Hur. He offered his reason why there were not more Jewish players in baseball (at the time there were only two in the Big Leagues).
But the core of his reasoning was not hidden at all:
“Another reason is that fifty percent of the patrons of baseball, especially in New York, are Jewish, and for years they have been hoping for one of their faith to be a member of the Giants. That is but natural.”
Of course, that percentage is absurdly high — there were roughly 3.5 million Jewish people in the entire country in 1923, about three percent of the U.S. population — but the point was clear. McGraw wanted a Jewish player to increase attendance and interest. He wrote this column in the Evening World, but he also gave dozens of interviews on the subject to more or less anyone willing to talk about it. He was sending out casting call.
Wanted: Jewish baseball player. Willing to pay top dollar.
And, even while he was talking, McGraw already had his eye on one.
“I have tried out a number of candidates,” McGraw wrote. “In fact, I am working with a youngster now.”
* * *
On August 5, Mose Solomon went four-for-four and hit his 30th home run. He had been in something of a lull — his batting average had dropped to .383 — so the good day was welcomed by everyone. He pummeled the ball for a week, hitting his 31st and 32nd home runs and pushing his average back up to .398.
“Mose Solomon is once more the king of hitters, sheik of bludgeon wielders or to us, our own humble offering, Rabbi of Swat,” wrote the Hutchinson News. The Wheat Shockers (yes, their name was the Wheat Shockers) went to Salina, and Solomon banged three more home runs in three days. He was up to 37 by August 18. And it was right around then that the rumors proved too loud to ignore — big league teams were interested.
The team that seemed the most interested was the St. Louis Browns — they sent their top scout Pat Monahan, who has a fascinating story all his own. Monahan would scout for Cardinals for a quarter century and was supposedly such a great story teller that other scouts would show up early for games just to hear him spin yarns. Monahan reportedly made an offer to the Hutchinson team for Solomon that was so insultingly low, it ended all conversation. But it didn’t really matter what he offered. John McGraw had sent a telegram: Hold off on making any moves with Mose Solomon. He was sending Dick Kinsella, his right hand man, to take a look.
Kinsella too is a fascinating story — rabbit holes everywhere. He and McGraw had more than their share of wild adventures. Aa few years later he would happen upon a young pitcher named Carl Hubbell. Kinsella went to Independence, Kansas to see the kid play. On that day, Solomon went four-for-four with two long doubles.
Two days later, this story appeared in the Hutchinson News:
MOSE SOLOMON REPORTED SOLD
Jewish Boy Said To Be Slated For Trial With World Champions Next Season
Mose Solomon, star first sacker for the Wheat Shockers, premier hitter and home run slugger for the Southwestern league, is reported to have been sold to the New York Giants. Rumors for several days have had the “Rabbi of Swat” sold to the St. Louis Browns and New York Giants, but there was a report which seemed to come from a reliable source today that Sol had been sol, and the local ballclub will realize a tidy coin for the sale.
The “tidy coin” would become a nasty point of contention, but the point was clear: John McGraw had gotten his Jewish player. Solomon stayed in Hutchinson and punched his batting average above .400 again.
On September 1 — in one of those baseball promotions that show just how long ago 1923 really was — there was a doubleheader of sorts. First, Hutchinson would play a baseball game. And then, afterward, several of the Hutchinson players would box each other. Yeah. Box each other. Solomon was matched up in an eight-round bout against a pitcher called “Scrappy Morbitzer.” The result of the fight also appears lost to history though there are hints that Solomon — who had to endure countless insults for being Jewish — was not to be trifled with when it came to fighting.
On September 3, Solomon hit his 44th home run and had seven games left to get to No. 50. By now, word of his signing was beginning to make the papers around the country. Some reported accurately that Solomon had been purchased for $4,500 — about $62,000 today. But many papers, especially in New York, conflated Solomon’s actual signing with McGraw’s boast of paying $100,000 for a Jewish prospect. A legend was building.
Solomon came into the final weekend series needing three home runs in three games to hit 50. But it wasn’t just any final series — Hutchinson was playing the Muskogee Mets, a team that had given up midseason. Owner Ensley Barbour, a booking agent, had been so angry about his team’s underachieving that he sold off or released all his players and replaced them with people he found around town. The Mets finished the season losing 38 games in a row. Another rabbit hole.
Solomon went eight-for-eight with two homers against Muskogee in the final three games — this, even though he pulled a muscle and had to leave one game early. He hit one double off the top of the wall and he hit a sure home run that went a foot or two foul. He also had two home runs washed out by rain. He officially finished with 49 home runs, which was still a minor-league record — third in the history of organized baseball behind only Babe Ruth’s 1920 and 1921 seasons. In fact, it was a point of pride in the papers that Solomon would end up outhomering the Babe in 1923, 49-41.
The day after the minor league season ended, the Fanning Bee Hive had an item stating that Mose Solomon was angry because he had bet a Muskogee sportswriter five dollars that he would hit forty home runs, and there was some problem with the pay-off. It seemed kind of an odd thing to include, but there would be a decidedly cooler narrative about Mose Solomon in the Hutchinson paper after the season ended.
* * *
In mid-September of 1923, America’s interest revolved almost entirely around the Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo fight (the fight where Firpo would knock Dempsey through the ropes but was knocked down seven times himself). When the fight ended, and America looked for something new, Mose Solomon became a minor sensation.
Here is the wire service story that appeared all over America:
INTRODUCING NEW $100,000 GIANT DRAWING CARD
New York, Sept. 18 — Ladies and gentlemen —
Allow us to present Mose Solomon, until recently holding down the first sack at Hutchinson, Kas., in the Southwestern League.
He’s now appearing here under the able direction of Mr. John McGraw.
Mr. Umpire, call the game!
“But where is Hutchinson?” you ask. Now that’s a foolish question.
Don’t you remember you heard all about it back in 1912 when Smoky Joe Wood turned back Jawn’s Giants? And do you know Babe Adams, veteran Pirates pitcher and Ivan Olson of the Dodgers once wore its colors?
And Mose says he’s going to keep the town in the limelight. If he keeps on going the rate he was when he packed his trunk and started for New York, he certainly will.
His bid for big league honors lies in his hitting. He was hitting .402 with 37 home runs when Howe’s latest statistics were promulgated. And since then, he banged out a couple more homers.
Gossip has it that McGraw paid $100,000 for Mose, knowing he’d be a good drawing card.
And there was this in Baseball Magazine:
Best smile of waning season: McGraw’s discovery of a Jewish ballplayer. John announced some weeks ago that he wanted a smart Hebrew player and would give $100,000 for one. It was generally supposed that John was hinting at Sammy Bohne of the Reds. But there are two Hebrews in the big show and the other one, Moe Berg of Brooklyn, is as yet undeveloped and uncertain. But John got his find elsewhere — Moses Solomon of Hutchison, Kansas.
Mr. Solomon, a big first baseman, is a mighty home run hitter. In the minors, a real ball player in the minors, and a fighting, dashing sample of athlete in every way. If he can make good in the big show he will be a tremendous drawing card.
But where can John put him, with Kelly on the payroll? Possible make an outfielder of him. Anyhow, Moses Solomon is in for a merry time. Imagine the fun the baseball writers will have with those names! The Wisdom of Solomon. The Proverbs of Solomon. Solomon in All His Glory. The Commandments of Moses and Moses Spoils the Egyptians! Yes, there will be lots of fun around the circuit, and Mr. Solomon, if he has the good, will get a world of free advertising and become a popular idol.
And so on. A story moved on the wire about Solomon signing autographs before he’d even played. On September 30, he made his big league debut against Boston and hit a game-winning double in the bottom of the 10th inning. That made all the papers. A week later, he went two for four against Brooklyn’s Dutch Henry. He was not eligible to play in the World Series, but McGraw wanted him to stick around anyway, wear the uniform, be on the bench.
This might be the first moment when the Rabbi of Swat fully realized that he was a publicity stunt.
* * *
Mose Solomon’s feelings have not been recorded for posterity. But there are lines, and they can be read between. In mid-October of 1923 it is clear that Solomon began to question some of the things that were happening around him. For instance, he wanted to know why the Hutchinson team received $4,500 for him and he didn’t get a penny of that purchase price. He also wanted to know why he was supposed to stay in expensive New York for the World Series when the Giants were not paying him — he could be back home in Columbus making money playing football or working at the junkyard.
This not-well coded little story in the once friendly Hutchinson News tells a straightforward story:
Mose Solomon will probably look longingly at those $4,300 checks each Giant receives for his World Series booty. Mose is on the outside looking in as these checks, each one representing a little more than his salary for next year, is distributed.
If Mose is a wise Jew though he will just be thankful for the good fortune which gives him a contract calling for $700 a month for the 1924 season and, incidentally, a rattling good chance to get into the world’s series.
He was the Rabbi of Swat no more. He was a greedy little Jew who needed to remember that he was lucky to live in a nation that gave him such amazing opportunities.
Mose Solomon left anyway. He skipped out of New York before the World Series and went home to play football. A week later, stories appeared in newspapers all over the country about how popular he was in New York, but the papers were behind — already the tide had turned. A month later, John McGraw released Mose Solomon, working out a deal for him to go play for Toledo. McGraw said that he still had high hopes for Solomon.
But again, reading between the lines, it’s pretty clear that McGraw did not. Various “strongly substantiated reports” appeared expressing doubts about Solomon’s fielding and general readiness for the big leagues. These reports were probably strong substantiated because they came from McGraw himself.
* * *
The end came faster than the beginning. McGraw got word out that Solomon simply wasn’t a good enough fielder to play in the Major Leagues — this was almost certainly true but didn’t seem to bother McGraw when he signed Solomon and brought him to the big leagues. It seems likely that Solomon’s decision to leave before the World Series ticked off McGraw and thus ended the experiment.
John McGraw kept looking for a Jewish ballplayer he could use to draw in the big crowds. In 1926, McGraw and the Giants purchased a ballplayer named Andy Cohen out of the Texas League for $20,000. Cohen was a decent player, he was with the Giants for a couple of seasons before being sent down and forgotten. In 1930, McGraw brought up a guy named Harry Rosenberg and gave him six plate appearances. That didn’t work either.
In the end, McGraw never did find his Jewish star. The best part of that story is that in 1928 a young New Yorker sent word to McGraw that he would love to just shag fly balls during Giants batting practice and show the team his ability. According to that New Yorker’s son, McGraw sent back discouraging word: “Henry Greenberg has already been scouted by the Giants, and he will never make a ballplayer.”
Meanwhile, Moses Solomon hurt himself playing football after his remarkable 1923 season and was never the same as a baseball player. Various stories would emerge in newspapers about him for a while — stories lingered longer in those days than they do now. The Hutchinson News never seemed to tire of telling people that Solomon wanted part of the sales price paid to the team. At different times, in different papers, there were stories of him reemerging as a big league prospect. But he never really did. He hit just five home runs in 1924 while playing for four teams, and two the year after that. His home run record was broken in 1924 and broken again the year after that. Mose Solomon disappeared into the background.
Solomon did play a little more baseball, a little more football, but soon he went into real estate where he made his living. He died in 1966. His Baseball Reference page is somewhat barren, but it does show a career .375 lifetime batting average. That’s three-for-eight. And it shows up top that he was nicknamed “The Rabbi of Swat.”