Friday, September 12, 2008
While combing through the many wonderful family photographs and mementos given to me by my cousin, Dorothy, I came across a couple of interesting pieces concerning a man named Si Rosenthal.
In all likelihood, you've never heard of Si. Here's a link. Please go there, read the tiny bit of information available - it won't take you more than a minute or so - and then we can continue. Si Rosenthal, on Wikipedia.
Now, if you wish, Google the name "Si Rosenthal." What comes up - with one notable exception, which I'll get to in a bit - is a small mountain of pages which give you his skimpy major league playing record. There are one or two mentions of how the Red Sox held a day in his honor in 1947, but little mention of why they did so.
I hope to shed a bit of light on the why. And maybe help to preserve the memory of a man who, from all accounts I have in my possession, deserves one hell of a lot more tribute than just those concerning his baseball career.
I said there was one notable exception to the lack of information. Aside from the two artifacts I obtained from Dorothy, which I will reproduce here later on, I'll be quoting extensively from the website Baseball In Wartime, by Gary Bedingfield. It's magnificent. Bedingfield has written the most complete account I can find - anywhere, outside of the clippings in my possession - concerning Rosenthal. The site has numerous other interesting and compelling stories, including Bedingfield's own. If you're any sort of a baseball fan, you'll be there for hours. Even if you loathe baseball (Heathen!) the stories of these truly heroic men are worth reading and remembering.
Here is Si Rosenthal's story.
Si Rosenthal was born in Boston, in 1903. At the age of 22, he was signed to play ball by his hometown team, the Red Sox. He did so for two seasons, 1925 and 1926, mostly as a backup outfielder, compiling a .266 lifetime batting average. And that tells you not much more than any of the other pages you'll find by Googling Si's name.
Here's the stuff you should know about Si Rosenthal.
First, as you might have suspected, Si was Jewish. Back in the 1920's, there weren't a heck of a lot of Jewish ballplayers. Some of this was due to Jewish culture itself - physical prowess was not prized above the scholarly - and some was due to outright prejudice. An illustration of the prejudice comes to light via a quote from Rosenthal himself (although he seems to have not been aware of it. Or, perhaps, he knew, but cast it in a better light. That would fit his personality, as you'll find out later.) In any case, when he came up with the Red Sox, Hugh Duffy was the manager. According to Rosenthal...
"Duffy wanted me to change my name to Rose because it would fit easier in box scores. But I told him that I wouldn't do it. I was born with the name Rosenthal. It won't make any difference if my name is Rose, Rosenthal, or O'Brien, I'll rise and fall on my own name."
If his name had been Bob O'Connell - one space more needed to fit it into a box score than "Rosenthal" - do you think they would have asked him to change it to "O'Conn"? Hardly likely. I suspect Duffy (or, more likely, Red Sox management) wanted the name change so that it wouldn't be readily obvious to the fans that there was a Jew playing the outfield. Perhaps I'm impugning Duffy and The Sox unfairly. Whatever the case, you had to be one tough Jew to play major league baseball in those days. Rest assured, Si Rosenthal was one tough Jew.
Before making the major leagues, he played in Albany, Pittsfield, and San Antonio. He hit .376 in San Antonio, making him one of the top prospects for the Sox. He was called up, as I said, for two seasons. After his time in the bigs, he played for minor league teams in Louisville, Chattanooga, Dallas, Nashville, Galveston, Atlanta, Mobile, Quincy and Beckley. He was a baseball hobo. He ended his career, in 1935, with Peoria.
Thus far, you've got a man with a slightly interesting baseball resume. The fact that he was Jewish adds a bit of color. It's not much to treasure, unless you're a complete Red Sox fanatic. When we move ahead a few years to World War II, however, Si's story becomes much more memorable.
From Bedingfield's site:
In 1943, Rosenthal – aged 39 – entered military service with the Navy. He had previously been rejected for service on physical grounds because of bad teeth and damaged cartilage in his knee. He had the cartilage removed and got a new set of upper teeth. "The next time I tried, they accepted me," he told The Sporting News on September 24, 1947. "So I liquidated my business - I had been manufacturing tin cans in South Boston - and pretty soon I found myself on a mine-sweeper."
At this time, his 17-year-old son, Irwin 'Buddy' Rosenthal, was serving with the Marine Corps in the Pacific. "I had been corresponding with Buddy pretty regularly and, on putting in at Norfolk, in February 1944, I found a mass of my letters to him had been returned. And I had received no word from him in a long time. Then I learned of his death."
On the day after Christmas Day, 1943, 'Buddy' Rosenthal went ashore at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, with the 1st Marine Division. "They went through some tall grass - I learned later - and, as they went along, they couldn't locate the Japs. My boy deliberately exposed himself for an instant. The instant was too long. A second later he was dead."
So, here's a man way past the usual age for enlistment, and with physical problems that disqualified him in an earlier attempt. He doesn't need to serve his country. That is, nobody would think any the less of him for staying home and taking care of his business concerns. His son is already in the Marines, in combat. So, what does he do? Out of a superb sense of duty and patriotism, he fixes, as best he can, the physical problems that disqualified him, and he tries to enlist again. This time, he is successful. The Navy takes him. He serves his country.
And then, he receives news of his only son's death in battle.
Si returns to duty following this devastating news. Again, from The Sporting News, via Bedingfield:
On May 5, 1944, Si Rosenthal set sail on a minesweeper for European waters.
"My minelayer - the USS Miantonomah - got around quite a bit. On D-Day she was off Omaha Beach, performing a few minor services for the USS Texas. She seemed to be a pretty lucky minelayer, and September 25, 1944, she had just come out of Le Havre [France], heading for Plymouth, England. From there she was going to Boston."
(Note: For Si, this meant she was headed HOME.)
"It was a raw day. It was around 2:30 in the afternoon. I was to go on watch in about 20 minutes and I was sitting on deck reading The Reader's Digest - the article, I think, was 'They Take The Wounded Off Normandy.’
"Next thing I knew, there was an explosion and I was pirouetting through the air. Then I was in the water. I couldn't swim, but my life-jacket was holding me up. Soon I felt a terrific heaviness from the waist down.
"After a while, I could see our chief pharmacist swimming over towards me. He grabbed me and pulled me over to a life-raft. He got me on it somehow, and I sort of half-landed, half-rolled onto a couple of other men.
"More time passed and a small British boat - a lot like one of our PT boats - came out and took me aboard. The men on the British boat looked at the two men on whom I was lying. Both were dead.
"I never have walked since then. For the past three years, my life has been in hospitals - in France, England, and Massachusetts."
He had completely given up his business to serve his country. His only son was dead. Now Si himself was a paraplegic.
The Red Sox enter his life again in 1947. They hold a "Si Rosenthal Day" at Fenway Park in Boston. The objective is to raise money for Si - a true war hero - to have a house built without staircases or any other hindrances to his mobility via wheelchair. They are successful in raising $12,500, which is half the price for building the house.
(Remember the time period. In the late 1940's, the price of a normal home was in the $10,000 range. Comparing with today's prices in the Boston area brings the realization that Si needed to raise the equivalent of about one million dollars for his specialized home, of which the Sox were successful in raising half. This was at a time when tickets to a ballgame might have been two dollars, tops. Very nice.)
A couple of years pass, and in 1949, Si is presented with a $10,000 check, from Edith Nourse Rogers, US congressional representative from Massachusetts. This completes the building fund.
Let's sum up. What we have thus far is a story with tragedy that most of us will never have to deal with in our lifetimes. Si can't walk, his only son is dead, and he is depending upon the goodly charity of others to have as near to a normal life as is possible.
Some people, at this point, might have thrown in the towel. And who would blame them? That's enough hurt and pain for any TEN men. But, remember: Si Rosenthal is one tough Jew. And he is also an amazingly loving one.
Si Rosenthal doesn't call it a day. Not by a long shot. What he does, instead, is devote the rest of his life to raising money for others he considers less fortunate than himself. From his wheelchair, he works tirelessly to raise funds to fight Polio - to fight blindness - to fight Cerebral Palsy - to fight... well, you name it. Si Rosenthal was a fighter. Got a charity that needs a hand? Give Si Rosenthal a call. He never says "No."
And this is where my family enters the picture, and why I have the clippings to show you.
There was a priest named Charles Burns. Father Burns hailed from Greenville, Mississippi. While stationed in the Boston area, he became acquainted with my relatives, the Sullivans from Jamaica Plain. They, in turn, were friends with Si Rosenthal. My Great Uncle Jim worked for the Curley and Dever gubernatorial administrations, and he was a former state representative. He had become acquainted with Si while working on legislation to provide funding to charitable organizations, as well as handicapped accessibility issues.
When Father Burns mentioned needing to raise money for a gymnasium building in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi (his southern United States parish) my relatives made a monetary contribution. Much more important than that, though - they introduced Father Burns to Si Rosenthal.
Here is a brochure produced to help raise funds for that gymnasium. I believe it speaks for itself. I will note that there are slight discrepancies between this account of Rosenthal's military service and that given above. Doesn't matter. Both versions are heroic.
The money was raised. The gymnasium was built. Well, of course it was. Si Rosenthal had fought for it. So far as I can gather from my research on the internet, the building still stands in Bay St. Louis, carrying on the good works of both Si and Father Burns.
(Finding information concerning Father Burns current whereabouts was even harder than finding stuff about Si. From the tiny bits and pieces I did find, I saw that he went on to pastor for a mostly black parish of Los Angeles, St. John Of God, on 60th and Crenshaw. He left that post in 1994. No other information is readily available. It is hoped that he retired to comfort, perhaps in Bay St. Louis.)
The Sullivans mentioned are all dead. I've written some, in the past, about my Great Uncle Jim. I'm sure I'll have more to say about all of them at some time in the future.
Si Rosenthal died in 1969. He was only 65 years old. Here is his obituary. Most of us could only dream about something so beautiful being written about us. Si made it a reality by refusing to wallow in self-pity.
I haven't the slightest doubt that Si is now walking with his son in Heaven.
Soon, with more better stuff.