Samuel Ralph Nahem -- big-leaguer in many ways
Monday, May 3, 2004Samuel Ralph Nahem, a lifelong activist, sharp-witted raconteur and former major-league pitcher, has died at the age of 88 in the Berkeley home he lived in for almost four decades.
"He was a really good player on some really bad teams," said his younger son, Andrew Nahem of New York City.
Mr. Nahem, who died in his sleep on April 19, was incongruous to the core. A bespectacled Shakespeare-reading leftist athlete in an era when Jewish players were uncommon, he interrupted his big-league career by enlisting in the Army and never regained his earlier form.
"I'm now pitching batting practice to the batting-practice pitchers," he told one sportswriter.
Mr. Nahem was born in New York on Oct. 19, 1915. He grew up in a family - - and a neighborhood -- of Syrian Jews, who spoke Arabic and lived in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. His father, a well-to-do merchant with an import-export business, drowned when the British steamer Vestris sank off the Virginia coast in November, 1928.
Mr. Nahem, one of eight children, was particularly close to his brother, Joseph.
"They were atheists," Andrew Nahem said. "My father rebelled against Hebrew school when he was 13."
Mr. Nahem graduated from Brooklyn College, where he was a quarterback on the football team, and got a degree from St. John's University School of Law. Although he passed the bar and was a licensed attorney, Mr. Nahem didn't care for the law.
His first big-league team was the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938.
Ivan Nahem, of Hoboken, N. J., said his father impressed team manager Casey Stengel "by accidentally whacking Van Lingle Mungo on his big backside."
"Stengel said, 'If you could make that big S.O.B. yell like that, you must have something on your fastball,' " recounted Nahem's older son.
Mr. Nahem, nicknamed "Subway Sam," was traded to the 1941 St. Louis Cardinals and had his most promising year, winning 5 games, losing 2 and ending the year with the league's 10th-best ERA at 2.98. He went on to the 1942 Phillies and played in 35 games (1 win, 3 losses) before joining the Army. In Europe, he was assigned to a baseball team to help entertain the troops.
Ivan Nahem said his father coached an integrated ragtag squad to the European championship in Nuremberg, Germany, against a heavily favored all- white group of major-league stars.
After the war, Mr. Nahem returned to the 1948 Phillies, one of the most atrocious teams in the history of baseball. He quit the sport at the end of the year. Career total: 10 wins, 8 losses, 224 innings pitched, 4.69 earned run average.
"It's been really, really helpful in my life," said Andrew Nahem. "I don't follow sports, but whenever I'm in a group of manly men who know sports, all I have to say is, 'My father played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.' That's enough."
In 1949, after leaving baseball, Mr. Nahem married art student Elsie Hanson, who died in 1974. The Nahems, who had three children, moved to the East Bay in 1955 and to Berkeley in 1964.
The move was prompted partly by the red-baiting era of Joseph McCarthy. Mr. Nahem, at times a lawyer, an "abysmal salesman" and a longshoreman who had unloaded banana boats on New York's East River, was a Communist until the late 1950s and was having trouble finding work because of his political views.
He eventually ended up at Chevron Chemical in Richmond, where he became a head operator, and stayed there 25 years. He was also a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers of America.
Ivan Nahem said the move to Chevron followed a conversation with friends, in which his father remarked, "We're all a bunch of intellectual Jews here, and we're supposed to be proletarians."
Whatever his environment -- baseball diamond, factory or Chez Panisse, a favorite restaurant -- Mr. Nahem always managed to be irreverent and entertaining.
"He and his brother, they were like the poor man's Marx Brothers," Ivan Nahem said.
Andrew Nahem described his father as "one of those people who gets energy from talking with people."
"He loved absurd humor and outrageous humor," he said. "Our family's humor is all based on insults and putdowns. You can really go over the line with that, and he often did. But he usually calibrated it really well -- to be shocking and not insulting."
Mr. Nahem's sons said their father found a true home in Berkeley.
"His absolute favorite was Peet's on Solano," Andrew Nahem said. "He was a real fixture on that bench there on Solano Avenue. He loved the coffee but it was really about sitting on the bench."
Mr. Nahem's companion of 14 years, Nancy Shafsky of Kensington, said he was also an excellent cook.
"Cinnamon chicken was what he was famous for," she said. "And he loved baguettes. They'd get like stone and he'd still try to eat them."
In his latter years, Mr. Nahem volunteered at the University Art Museum in Berkeley.
"His job was telling people where the bathroom was," Andrew Nahem said.
In addition to his sons, Mr. Nahem is survived by a daughter, Joanne Nahem of Minneapolis; a brother, Al Nahem of New Jersey; a sister, Vicki Silvera of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.
Donations in Mr. Nahem's name can be sent to Doctors Without Borders, P.O. Box 1856, Merrifield, VA 22116-8056.