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Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Greatest Sports Story Never Told

Posted By on Thu, Apr 4, 2013 at 3:33 PM

click to enlarge After getting shelled in 1940, Subway Sam Nahem told a New York Daily News reporter "I am now in the egregiously anonymous position of pitching batting practice to the batting practice pitchers."
  • After getting shelled in 1940, Subway Sam Nahem told a New York Daily News reporter "I am now in the egregiously anonymous position of pitching batting practice to the batting practice pitchers."

Despite the bizarre casting of Sylvester Stallone and 48-year-old Michael Caine alongside an international team of the world's greatest soccer stars, Victory remains one of the best of all sports movies. A team of POWs overcomes a crack squad of Nazis -- in a fixed match, no less! -- and escapes to glory.

Victory was inspired by a true 1942 story of Ukranian untermenschen, who defeated a team composed of The Master Race, 5-3. There was no escape to glory, however. Only a trip to the camps -- and, for many, death. World War II is not the richest vein from which to mine true-to-life, feel-good yarns.

And yet, there is one little-known WWII story practically screaming to be made into a heartwarming Hollywood blockbuster. And no whitewashing of death and despair would be necessary. That would be the amazing 1945 triumph of the ragtag, integrated Overseas Invasion Service Expedition baseball squad over the mighty 71st Division squad -- which was stocked with Major League talent and, by definition at the time, all white.

A stirring article about the games by Robert Weintraub appeared yesterday on Slate. Weintraub briefly notes that the sole "name" player on the OISE squad was journeyman Major League Pitcher Sam Nahem; this article doesn't have a lot to say about him. But Nahem was a man with a lot to say. Fifty-eight years after the games in front of 50,000 soldiers packing Nuremburg's Hitler Youth Stadium, we walked into Nahem's sunny Berkeley living room.

"Subway Sam" Nahem -- who earned his moniker from country teammates who'd never before met a New Yorker -- wasn't like other ballplayers. He was bald. He wore glasses. He was a college graduate. He had a law degree. He read Balzac on evenings and off-days instead of chasing tail (though he did note the following: "I remember even the almost ethical guys would chase women. You know, I wasn't a natural woman-hunter, and most players, even the successfully married ones, were skirt-chasers, they really were. I wasn't too happy at that. [But] the class of women in the big leagues was higher than in the minor leagues. That was another reason to aspire to the big leagues.").

click to enlarge sam_nahem_cartoon.jpg

Nahem was also Jewish -- which certainly adds a wrinkle to the story of a diverse team playing its games in Hitler Youth Stadium. And, despite the fact that integrating the big-leagues would be most harmful to marginal players like him, Nahem was an ardent egalitarian.

"I was in a strange position," he recalled in 2003. "The majority of my fellow ballplayers, wherever I was, were very much against black ballplayers, and the reason was economic and very clear. They knew these guys had the ability to be up there, and they knew their jobs were threatened directly, and they very, very vehemently did all sorts of things to discourage black ballplayers.

"In New York if you're young and Jewish you're political," he continued. "And I did my political work there. I would take one guy aside if I thought he was amiable in that respect and talk to him, man to man, about the subject. I felt that was the way I could be most effective."

Nahem -- who was 87 when we spoke with him -- remains one of the most erudite and compelling people we've yet met. If memory serves, he linked a thought referring to Shakespeare and Guy de Maupassant to a quick assessment of then-San Francisco Giants hurler Kirk Reuter as "a shitball pitcher."

In later life, Nahem worked as a union leader for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers of America. No one would ever suspect this slight intellectual pitched in the Big Leagues. No one would suspect this Arabic-speaking Jew played in Hitler Youth Stadium.

But that was part of Nahem's deep past -- and he didn't talk about it all that much. Baseball is "one of those things in life that passes and you don't go back to," he recalled. He didn't miss "getting the crap knocked out of me -- which is a big job, because there's a lot of crap in me."

Subway Sam Nahem died in 2004. He was 88 years old.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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