(New York Jewish Week) — As a child, Holocaust survivor Leo Ullman attended baseball games at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn with his aunt, who believed it would help him become more American.
Yesterday, Ullman, a longtime New York Mets fan and prolific memorabilia collector, made an appearance at Citi Field. But this time, he was on the mound.
Ullman, 83, threw out the first pitch at the Mets game against the Philadelphia Phillies Thursday afternoon before a crowd of more than 38,000 fans. The event was organized by the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. (Ullman’s first pitch comes just weeks after another survivor, Helen Kahan, threw out the first pitch at a New York Yankees game in Tampa.)
“It wasn’t a perfect strike, but at least it got to the catcher,” Ullman said after the game. He had been practicing his throw for weeks and had watched videos of failed first pitches.
At 83, Ullman is likely among the youngest Holocaust survivors. He was born in the Netherlands in 1939 and when the Nazis invaded, his parents put him into hiding with a policeman’s family in Amsterdam, where he hid for two and a half years before being reunited with his parents with the help of the Dutch Resistance.
“I think it’s important for people to know that they have to fight hatred in every way they can, including antisemitism,” he said yesterday. “And it’s very, very important to not be a bystander, but to confront hatred when you see it.”
The Ullmans immigrated to Long Island in 1947. Ullman still lives in Sands Point today.
Ullman would go on to serve in the Marines, attend Harvard and Columbia, and become a successful lawyer. He has been involved with various Holocaust organizations, including the U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Anne Frank Center USA. He has also competed in more than 145 triathlons.
But ever since he was a child, Ullman’s primary love has been baseball. When his Brooklyn Dodgers left New York, Ullman was heartbroken — until the Mets were born in 1962.
In 1995, when Ullman traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for the birth of his grandson, he went to a card show near the hospital and bought 12 Nolan Ryan baseball cards for one dollar each. That moment would become the start of a collection that eventually grew to 15,000 pieces — or, as MLB.com put it, “the largest collection of Nolan Ryan merchandise on the planet.” Ryan played four seasons as a Met at the start of his career in the late 1960s.
Ullman donated his collection — which was valued at $1.2 million — to Stockton University in New Jersey last year.
At Citi Field on Thursday, Ullman was surrounded by family, dressed from head to toe in regalia for the team he has loved since its inception.
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“It’s very thrilling to be out there at this beautiful stadium with all the people,” he said.
Ullman wasn’t the only person to throw out a ceremonial first pitch on Thursday afternoon. Jewish indie rocker Ira Kaplan, of the band Yo La Tengo — who for years played a series of Hanukkah-themed shows on each night of the holiday — also threw a ceremonial pitch before the game. (His throw was more of a strike.)
Kaplan is a lifelong Mets fan, and the band was named after a nugget from the team’s history: During their first season, in 1962, the team’s center fielder Richie Ashburn kept colliding with the shortstop Elio Chacon while trying to catch fly balls. Ashburn began calling “Yo la tengo!” (“I got it!” in Spanish) to remedy the situation.