Spring training is underway, and the 2016 baseball season has begun. Players are doing drills and working on skills. Fans and pundits are making predictions and filling out fantasy teams. All are preparing for opening day, April 3. Fair Lawn’s Steve Plotnick prepares for the season by scouring teams’ rosters in search of Jewish players.
Plotnick, a lifelong Mets fan (don’t hold that against him), describes himself as a “Jewish Athlete Hobbyist.” He is one of the foremost collectors of Jewish athlete trading cards in the nation. Plotnick’s collection includes approximately 3,000 PSA-graded cards of Jewish athletes and Jewish owners and sportscasters. (Professional Sports Authenticator or PSA is a third-party grading organization; cards are graded from 1-10 with a 10 meaning that the card is in mint condition.) In addition to cards, Plotnick has a few other pieces of memorabilia including signed baseballs, and posters of Jewish athletes endorsing products.
Like many boys, Plotnick played Little League and collected baseball cards. “I was a serious collector. I purchased and sold stuff as I became interested and/or bored of it.” That collection includes every regular and traded Topps Mets card made from 1962 to 2000. It was 15 years ago that Plotnick started focusing on collecting Jewish memorabilia. The desire to focus on Jewish-themed memorabilia came from spending time coaching his sons in the Yavneh little league. “I wanted to be able to talk to the kids, and I wanted them to know that there were Jewish athletes.” Plotnick found that the kids were interested, which inspired him to start collecting.
Over the years, Plotnick has been giving out cards to the children at his shul (Congregation Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn) on Shabbos morning. He believes sports is a great way for men and boys to bond. It gives them something they can talk about together. The cards make Plotnick popular among the younger people at the shul. “Some boys still seek me out to ask baseball questions. They know I collect and have seen my collections.”
When asked the secret to his collection, Plotnick gives a simple one-word answer: eBay. He purchased the Big Book of Jewish Baseball which was the first attempt to document Jewish players in history. Since then, Plotnick has turned to eBay to make his purchases of cards and other memorabilia. “You can find significant amounts of memorabilia there, and it’s easy to search.” For those considering starting a collection, Plotnick advises doing the same. He notes it’s better to purchase from another collector rather than in stores because prices are higher there. “Be happy with what you can afford. If you want a rookie Sandy Koufax, get it and enjoy it (the lower the grade, the more affordable the card).” He adds that it’s easy to get addicted, but collectors are better off simply enjoying a piece of memorabilia from a player they like.
Plotnick secured his favorite card via eBay. That card is a 1929 Kashin (company that produced the card) Moe Berg rookie card. Its PSA grade is 8, and Plotnick estimates its value is approximately $800. Regarding Berg, Plotnick said, “He’s one of the most fascinating players of all time. He was an agent for the predecessor of the CIA.” Berg was selected for an MLB All Star team that traveled to Japan. While Berg was a good defensive player, he was primarily a backup catcher. His purpose in Japan was to secretly take photos, which he did from the tallest building in Tokyo. The photos were later used to guide a bombing raid during World War II. Plotnick noted that Berg’s parents were religious and didn’t approve of him playing.
While the Berg card is Plotnick’s favorite, it’s not his most valuable. That title belongs to a 1910 JuJu Drum (company that produced the card) Barney Pelty. Pelty was one of the first openly Jewish players and was known as the Yiddish Curver. The card has a PSA grade of 8 and is the only known one in existence. Plotnick purchased it for $4,000 dollars 15 years ago and guesstimates its current value as somewhere in the $10,000 range. Both the Pelty and Berg cards are on display shelves that house Plotnick’s favorite cards of the moment. Plotnick likes keeping them handy so he can look at them. By the way, he keeps the cards in hard plastic slabs to protect them.
While Plotnick enjoys his collection, he has another passion regarding Jewish athletes which he feels is more important. “My greatest contribution to Jewish Athlete Hobbyists has been my compilation of every team’s Jewish major leaguers.” It is for this compilation that Plotnick will be scouring major league rosters come opening day. (If you are interested in the list, contact him at [email protected].)
By Larry Bernstein