Helluva Ball Club

First in war. First in peace. Last in the American League. — Legendary pundit remark about the old Washington Senators (later the Texas Rangers, formerly owned by President Bush).

There is something about baseball, war and commanders-in-chief that eternally binds us to our national pastime. Presidents want the baseball teams to play, and the fans want to take their minds off of wars, economic problems and domestic troubles. So it’s a win-win situation.

Such is baseball, where hope springs eternal. It is FDR throwing out one of his 11 first pitches on opening day during the Great Depression and later during World War II. A confident JFK in 1963 — just six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and seven months before his assassination — is seen smiling in a famous photo tossing out the first pitch in Washington.

No matter how intense world affairs are, there is something comforting and consistent about baseball, and it even gives the president a moment of relief from pressing issues.

For this die-hard Angels fan, 2002 helped me through a most difficult period in my own life. The Angels captured their first World Series title. I could now fully understand why even presidents have found it so necessary to take a moment to enjoy this relaxing, yet emotion-filled sport.

I have followed the Angels since they were known as the Los Angeles Angels and played in Dodger Stadium. There are not too many of us who have rooted for President Richard Nixon’s favorite team.

Even fewer Jews — and they love their baseball anywhere, anytime — dared trek to the then very WASPish and John Birch Society Orange County in the early years to see the Angels. The team moved to Anaheim (a city named by a German Jewish landowner in honor of a burg in his native country) in 1966, when the trees were orange, the people white and Disneyland was the greatest place on Earth.

The only angels Jews have faith in are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel from our bedtime prayers. From the perspective of the Jewish baseball fan, his or her loyalty has mostly belonged to the Dodgers.

Arguably, they have traditionally been Jewish America’s team. When they played in Brooklyn, they had more than a million Jews pulling for them.

They appealed to the Jews’ love of the underdog and seemingly had the only fans to yell with joy about the arrival of the first black major league player — Jackie Robinson — who made his debut significantly on Passover Eve 1947, the festival of freedom from bondage.

A decade later and a transfer to Los Angeles, along comes a shy, soft-spoken lefty named Sandy Koufax. He was a representative of everything a Jewish fan most admired. He was handsome with his pronounced left dimple, intelligent, tall and a mensch on and off the field.

A proud Jew, Koufax wouldn’t pitch in the first game of the World Series in 1965 because it fell on Yom Kippur. He made up for his adherence to a higher calling in synagogue by pitching brilliantly on just two days’ rest between starts to give the Dodgers the championship.

Then the unthinkable happened. Koufax broke his covenant with the Dodgers in February over an untrue gossip item that appeared in a New York newspaper that happens to also be owned by the same company that controls the Dodgers. That piece angered Koufax, not to mention his legion of loyal fans.

So what are Jewish fans to do about the divorce between Koufax and the Dodgers? Short of a Shawn Green 50-homer season, fans might want to look down I-5 and take a serious look at my Angels.

It may seem like eating brisket on white bread, but there are a lot of hidden Jewish Angel connections both now and in their virtually unknown past.

The media played up the fact that the Angels are playing for the “Singing Cowboy in the Sky,” the late Gene Autry, their longtime owner who could never quite bring the team to the pennant.

That was until a new owner came in 1999 from the Magic Kingdom. Michael D. Eisner, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., who grew up in Manhattan rooting for the Yankees, bought the Angels. He completely overhauled the team like the prince in the “Beauty and the Beast.” This team is a Walt Disney production all the way.

Last year’s team included two Jewish players — pitchers Al Levine and Scott Schoeneweis. To give you an idea of how significant a milestone this is, most teams don’t have even one Jewish player. The most Jews a team has ever had on its roster at one time was four (the Los Angeles Dodgers once had three — Sandy Koufax and the brothers Larry and Norm Sherry from 1959-62).

If Major League Baseball had been more willing to just say no to then-Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley in 1960, a group of high-profile Jewish investors — not Autry — would have been the original owners of the Angels. Angel fans would probably not have had to wait so long for a pennant.

Here’s the inside story: In 1960, Hank Greenberg, another prominent Jewish baseball star from an earlier era, put a syndicate together to establish and purchase a Los Angeles-based American League expansion team. O’Malley, the Dodgers’ owner, feared Greenberg and didn’t want an American League team in Los Angeles at all.

Greenberg would have put together a ball club that would seriously compete against the Dodgers in a short time on both the playing field and at the box office, and O’Malley knew it. As an executive, Greenberg helped bring a world championship to Cleveland in 1948 and a pennant to the Chicago White Sox in 1959.

From 1958-60, O’Malley’s Dodgers were broadcast on Gene Autry’s radio station, 710 AM, but O’Malley complained he couldn’t hear the games from his Los Angeles-area mountaintop home.

That ended O’Malley’s and Autry’s radio partnership but not their “friendship.” O’Malley quietly arranged with the lords of baseball to transfer the ownership option of the nascent Angels to an owner that couldn’t win. Thus, Greenberg was “traded” for Autry.

The Angels would never seriously compete against O’Malley’s Dodgers.

So, as it says in Ecclesiastes, “futility of futilities.” Years of near misses, last-place finishes, murders, suicides, sudden deaths of players and guns in the clubhouse between feuding teammates became the norm.

While I am not suggesting that Jewish fans change their allegiance (I like the Dodgers, too), people should realize that Autry’s Angels actually had more Jewish players and executives in their history, even though it didn’t help:

Jimmie Reese (originally Hymie Solomon), Babe Ruth’s former roommate with the New York Yankees, who was the Angels’ fungo-hitting coach for 23 years until his death in 1994 at age 92. So beloved was Reese by Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, that the all-time strikeout king decided to name his son for Reese. No, Ryan did not choose Hymie or Solomon. He is Reese Ryan.

Award-winning sportscaster Irv Kaze, the Angels’ public relations director during their entire stay in Los Angeles, had the dubious task of promoting a team with only one recognizable name: Jewish playboy (on his mom’s side) Bo Belinsky. And it had more to do with Belinsky’s choice of girlfriends — Ann-Margaret, Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield — than his ability on the pitcher’s mound.

Kaze, who died last year, was a proud and observant Jew. He once shared with me that he asked the gabbai (official) at a Chicago shul to say a misheberach (a special prayer asking for a speedy recovery of those who are sick) to end an Angels’ losing streak (and there were many more opportunities).

Angels’ skippers Harold “Lefty” Phillips and Norm Sherry were the only two Jewish managers hired by a major league team on a noninterim basis since Boston Braves’ owner Judge Fuchs decided to hire himself to manage his team in 1929.

Richie Scheinblum and Mike Epstein were all-stars (with other teams, naturally) before they joined the Angels in the 1970s, near the end of their careers. They wore black armbands in memory of the Munich 11 out of Jewish solidarity.

Fairfax High School star pitchers Larry Sherry and Barry Latman were picked up by the Angels late in their careers in a futile attempt to lure Jewish fans.

Similar to the Boston Red Sox who have been cursed to not have won a World Series since the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, the Angels had been haunted since Greenberg and friends were denied their rightful ownership in 1960.

Then came Eisner. Just in case this is a one-year fluke for my Angels, the mighty Yankees better keep looking behind their backs. The Yanks’ historic archrivals, the Red Sox, recently hired 29-year-old Theo Epstein (Jewish, bright, single, handsome and rich) as the team’s general manager.