Most people think of the 24th Ward on the west side as the birthplace of Jewish politics and patronage, as the springboard of old-timers like federal judge Abe Marovitz and the late political kingmaker Jake Arvey. But Harry Heller sees it as a place where old-time Jewish sports legends like welterweight champion Barney Ross and outfielder Milt Galatzer were born; to Heller, Arvey will always be a baseball fan first, a party boss second, and Marovitz will always be a boxer–even though he traded his boxing gloves for jurist’s robes a long time ago.
Even though Harry Heller thinks it’s nice that since the Depression local Jewish families have made enough money to send their kids to law school and business school and medical school, he bemoans the fact that recent generations of Jews have neglected their athletic prowess.
“There’s a Jewish sports mystique,” says Heller. “Maybe it goes back to when David threw the stone, or to the Maccabiah Games. There always used to be a lot of famous Jewish athletes–lots of Jewish boxers and ball players. The New York teams used to go around the country looking for outstanding Jewish ball players to please the Jewish population in New York. In Chicago, they found Phil Weintraub and Harry Danning.
“Jews love sports. That’s all I can say. Do you know how sports-minded Jewish people are? At any sporting event, half the audience are Jews. All right, well, maybe it’s only 40 percent. But half the teams in the NBA are owned by Jews. But today not many Jews go into pro sports for a career. They go into things like law. Why do you think you get so many Jewish agents?”
Heller is the retired owner of a Glenview children’s camp–National Athletic Camp–which closed after 25 years in 1978, when he sold the land to residential developers. For the last 28 years he has been active in the Chicago Sports Lodge–for the last 10 he’s been its president. His group, with 1,200 members the largest local chapter of the B’nai B’rith, the international Jewish fund-raising and fellowship organization, bases all its meetings on some sports theme.
Heller played basketball for Central Missouri State University, and in the 40s he played minor-league baseball for the Cleveland Indians and the Cubs. In the late 1970s he attended a dinner in Los Angeles honoring outstanding Jewish athletes. “Out of the 18 being honored–the number 18 represents good luck and life to Jews,” says Heller, “6 were from Chicago. So I said, ‘Gee whiz, if that’s true, shouldn’t we have a Jewish hall of fame here?'”
In 1982 Heller founded the Chicago Jewish Sports Hall of Fame; since then nearly 100 local Jewish sports figures have been inducted. Members include former football players Sid Luckman, Irv Kupcinet, and Marshall Goldberg; former pitchers Ken Holtzman, Steve Stone, and Marv Rotblatt; former Tribune sportswriter Linda Kay; White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn; basketball player “Bimbo” Gantman; wrestling champ “Ruffy” Silverstein; and softball player “Niggy” Branman.
Heller says “Chicago Sports Lodge is particularly appealing to young people, which pleases the national B’nai B’rith, because many of the chapters are losing members–and not attracting the younger generation, which we do with a sports theme.
“You know, Jewish kids aren’t going to Hebrew school like they used to,” says Heller. “So maybe instead it’s good for Jewish kids to learn . . . that a lot of Jews have become famous through sports. It’s good for their Jewish identities. It’s good for young people to try to follow in the footsteps of past Jewish glories and to try and fulfill the dreams of the Jewish old-timers. Like Al Rosen. He’s a good role model for Jewish kids–an outstanding baseball player and the GM of the Giants. And when [Buffalo Bills coach] Marv Levy went to the Super Bowl this year, there was a spark of Jewish pride.”
Heller’s B’nai B’rith chapter has one of the country’s largest memberships and is one of the highest fund-raisers. That may be due, in part, to his continual quest for “attractions”–sports celebrities he persuades to come to meetings.
For instance, a few years ago, while visiting Las Vegas, he wanted “to get a line” on a particular Jewish basketball player for a sports gossip column he writes for the Sentinel, a local Jewish magazine. “I walked onto the court and said to a guy, who was talkative and cooperative, ‘Tell me something about this Berkowitz.'” The “guy” turned out to be UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, on whom Heller can now depend for guest appearances at his fund-raisers.
Another time, Heller was introduced to a coach in the Cubs organization, Frank Lucchesi, who he booked months in advance for a lodge visit. Coincidentally, on the day of Lucchesi’s appearance, the Cubs named him manager to replace Gene Michael and finish off the 1987 season.
“It created a lot of excitement at the meeting,” says Heller.
The Chicago Sports Lodge’s 27th scholarship dinner takes place this Sunday, May 5, at the Westin Hotel, 909 N. Michigan. Marshall Goldberg, Irv Kupcinet, and NFL referee Jerry Markbreit are expected to attend. Cocktails start at 5, dinner’s at 6, and more information can be had at 708-272-3457.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.