Rubin: Stirring the melting pot with a baseball bat

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Forget Ernie Harwell, the baseball fan was saying. Not literally, of course; that’s impossible, and who’d want to?

It was just a figure of speech. David Higer of Farmington Hills was talking about his sainted grandmother, the woman who introduced him to baseball, and he was putting a time stamp on her passion.

“Forget Ernie Harwell,” he said. Rose Gurra came to Detroit from Poland in the 1920s, and when she listened to her favorite team on the radio, the voice she heard was Ty Tyson’s.

Higer was at the Detroit Historical Museum to see a display called “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming America,” and without even being there, his grandma was Exhibit A.

The premise of the show is that baseball has been a uniting force in these United States, especially for immigrants and minorities searching for a foothold in our vast batter’s box. The culture was new and the adjustment was hard and so was the work, and Gurra’s parents had no time for sports.

But as Gurra became part of the nation, she embraced the National Pastime. She taught Higer’s mother to love it and then she taught him, and he absolutely remembers his first trip with her to Tiger Stadium in 1954, when he was 6 years old and Al Kaline belted a home run.

Kaline was Higer’s Tiger. Gurra’s was big Hank Greenberg, partly because he was terrific and also because he was Jewish, like her.

There’s a larger-than-life photo of Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio in “Chasing Dreams,” in living black-and-white. A quotation with it from Greenberg tells of “remarks about my being a sheeny and a Jew.”

But if he could take it, so could she.

A shared identity

The exhibition in Detroit, which closes Nov. 27, was spun off from a more ample production at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

That one was immense, said Wendy Rose Bice, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. There was no way to fit 20,000 pieces into the museum in Midtown, but the curators fashioned a traveling show out of eight large panels and then allowed the local group to refocus two of them on Detroit.

So it is that a spotlight falls on Greenberg, and on a Polish-American pitcher from Hamtramck named Steve Gromek, and on a Macedonian-American infielder from Detroit named Mike Ilitch who never made the big leagues but found a way to stay connected with baseball anyway.

“Baseball represented a shared American identity,” reads one of the original panels, “melding immigrants and natives. Yet sometimes it also highlights our differences. It is, in short, a mirror of America.”

The mirror today reflects South Koreans, Latin Americans and players from obscure global pinpoints like Curacao.

Immigration has become a testy issue, but not when the immigrant can hit .300 or throw a fastball 96 mph. No one can sensibly argue that baseball is still the national game, but if talkin’ baseball can lead to talking about other things, maybe it carries a bigger stick than we realize.

Local lore

The actual pieces of history in the exhibit came from local collectors: A cap signed by Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, a yarmulke signed by Sandy Koufax, Willie Horton’s bat.

It’s all in a circular room on the first floor, surrounded by the Allesee Gallery of Culture. The gallery is a 20th-century timeline of Detroit that blends with “Chasing Dreams” so well that it seems intentional.

Here a Louis-Schmeling fight poster, there a flier from the first mayoral campaign of Coleman Young. Strolling through it were Sanford and Adrienne Guss of West Bloomfield.

He’s a member of the Eddie Lake Society, a band of baseball zealots named for a postwar Tigers shortstop that was holding its monthly meeting at the museum.

Sanford, 79, learned baseball from his second-generation father and taught it to his sons, who live in Chicago but follow the Lions and Tigers.

“Walking around here,” he said, “it all comes back.”

Root, root, root for the home team — and for the roots.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

Extra innings

Two special events are scheduled before “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American” closes Nov. 27. Visit or call (248) 432-5517.

Oct. 27: Nosh Gen: Chasing Dreams. A casual evening of baseball food, fun and history from 6:30-8:30 p.m. with hosts Mike Stone of WXYT-FM (97.1) and Dick Purtan alumnus Big Al Muskovitz. $40.

Nov. 6: Family Day. Special guests, kosher hot dogs, a broadcast booth and other events from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with a late afternoon program called “Old Jews Talking Baseball.” Free.