Lee Lowenfish, Baseball Expert and Cultural Historian

Lee Lowenfish, a resident of 308 West 104 for forty years, is a foremost expert on baseball history and a cultural historian. His books include his award-winning Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (2007; 2009, paperback ed.), which examines Rickey’s long career as a player, manager, and executive who revolutionized the sport in various ways, including his momentous hiring of Jackie Robinson and other black players for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Lee’s other books are The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars (with Tony Lupien, 1980; 2010, 3rd ed.); Te Art of Pitching (with Tom Seaver; 1984; 1994, 2nd ed.); and The Professional Baseball Trainers’ Fitness Book (1988). Other writings of Lee’s on baseball, printed and/or online, consist of magazine articles, essays for books, and conference presentations, among the latter, ones at Cooperstown. Numerous of his pieces address the challenges of baseball scouts. Lee’s most recent essay is “Orange and Black Forever: How a New Yorker Fell in Love with Earl Weaver’s Orioles” in the anthology Baltimore Sports (due 2016). Lee’s article “Baseball-Loving Cubans Look Forward to Improved American Relations” (March 2016) can be found online at the National Pastime Museum.

Lee has never played baseball on any team; however, he developed a strong interest in the game as a boy while being raised in a densely populated but almost childless neighborhood of Manhattan, the West 50s near Carnegie Hall. His family’s apartment was at 200 West 58th Street, at the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue. His grade school, P.S. 69 (later the site of the Ziegfeld Theater on West 54th Street), was so small that classes were doubled up. Lee avidly listened to baseball on the radio and then also watched games on television, first through the window of P.J. Carney’s, a pub still on Seventh Avenue between 57th and 58th streets, and at home by 1953. Lee’s father, a dermatologist, good athlete, and devoted NY Giants fan, took Lee to Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, when it was still a widely open area, to play catch and practice batting. He also took Lee, and sometimes Lee’s sister, to professional games, as their mother, a retired singer, occasionally did as well, albeit, while bringing along her crossword puzzles. Some patients of Lee’s father were National League umpires, among them, Bill Stewart and Babe Pinelli, the latter of whom was invited to dinner on more than a few occasions. It was exciting for Lee to be in his presence, but he was told not to ask questions about baseball.

The close proximity of the family’s apartment to three major subways greatly facilitated going to the stadiums of three major league teams, the Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers, at respectively the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Except for 1948, from 1947 to 1958, at least one New York team was in the Worlds Series.

Lee graduated from high school at Bronx Science and received a B.A., with concentrations in American History and Government, in 1963 from Columbia University, where he was the equipment manager for the men’s basketball team for three years. He began graduate work in 1963 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and earned a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in America History by 1968. His dissertation title was “American Radicals and Their Views of Soviet Russia, 1917–1940.”

Lee has taught for varying periods at over ten different schools while specializing in American studies or baseball history. While at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, in 1968 and 1969, he gave a course on communism and the Cold War. From 1973 to 1975, he taught American Studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. For various reasons, he returned to New York in 1976. By 1978, he was writing his first book. In 2004 at Yale University, he led a seminar called “Jazz, Baseball, and Race Relations.” From 2007 to 2012, Lee lectured on the history of American sports in Columbia University’s graduate program in Sports Management. He has periodically taught sport history classes at Long Island University–Brooklyn and Montclair State University of New Jersey. And, indicative of his eclectic interests, from 1988 to 2003, he taught jazz appreciation at the 92nd Street Y.

Lee started out as a Giants fan, switched to the Mets after the Giants went to San Francisco in 1958, and became an Orioles fan in 1970 when teaching in Maryland. He continues to favor the Orioles and especially appreciates, in his words, “ how well the team members work together and how the team has a tradition of playing meaningful games in September and knowing how to win without bragging about it.” Lee’s favorite player is Brooks Robinson, who played with the Orioles for his entire twenty-three year career.

Lee enthusiastically continues to follow and attend games, including home games of the Mets and Yankees, and home and away games of the Orioles. He also follows baseball on the Major League Baseball television network. It seems as though Lee can give an informed answer to almost any question about baseball. When asked for this article about changes he has seen in baseball, he said that “pitchers are not expected to complete games and that their injuries are almost epidemic because they throw too hard and specialize too early in life.” He also pointed out that catchers frequently become managers because they are the only players who look at the field and noted that baseball is the only sport where the defense has the ball.

For his Branch Rickey book [683 pages], Lee received the coveted Seymour medal from the Society for American Baseball Research and won a Choice award from the American Library Association. He was interviewed about Branch Rickey for the highly praised film by Ken Burns on Jackie Robinson’s career that aired on public television in April 2006. Interviews and conversations with Lee are available on his website http://www.leelowenfsh.com, from which his blog can also be accessed.

On his way to teach in August at upstate Chautauqua, the adult education mecca, Lee stopped to tape an interview with Gregory Peterson, a co-founder and board member of the Robert A. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York. It was on baseball and American culture and Lee’s interests in both.

By the way, Lee sees the league championships as more wide open than ever this year, with every team having a weakness. He is hoping, though, that the Orioles will play the Giants.

–By Trudie Grace

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