Nearly a century ago, when Minneapolis was considered one of the most anti-Semitic cities in America and Jews were clustered on the North Side, a group of young Jewish athletes formed a club that served as a source of pride for its entire community.
The Mercury Club, formed in the 1920s, soon moved beyond athletics and began offering a variety of social and educational activities. As the first members married and started families they kept in close touch, passing pride in their heritage along to the next generation.
But the members never lost their interest in sports. They played sports, they watched sports, they argued about sports. And when one of the founding members of the club, Hy Truman, died in 1936, his surviving friends created an award in his honor: the Hy Truman Memorial Award, to recognize the best Jewish high school athlete-scholar in the Minneapolis area.
On Sunday evening, the Mercury Club will gather at Oak Ridge Country Club in Hopkins to present the award for the 80th time. It’s now named for both Truman and Donald Goldberg, another late club member, and for the past 30 years has been given to female as well as male athletes. It’s believed to be the longest-running award for Jewish athlete-scholars in the United States.
This year, the award carries with it a scholarship of $1,000 courtesy of the family of Marvin Wolfenson, the businessman and founding owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Wolfenson, who died in 2013, won the Mercury Award in 1944 while at North High School.
Despite many accomplishments in a long life, Wolfenson treasured his Mercury Award above all other honors, said his daughter, Ellyn Wolfenson. She said the award sat on a shelf across from where he sat until the day he died.
“He went to the award ceremony every year, even when he was sick and had to go in a wheelchair,” she said. “It was important to my father, because it recognized Jews when there was a lot of anti-Semitism. The Jewish community here is small but very cohesive. We need to support it every year, because memory is only so long.”
This year’s winners are Cade Gleekel, of Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park, and Ellie Fromstein of Hopkins High School. A special honor, the Spirit of the Maccabees Award, is being given this year to Jordan Klein, an adapted athlete from Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth.
A ‘little-known treasure’
It may be difficult today to understand how strong the anti-Jewish bias was generations ago in the Twin Cities.
Jews “weren’t welcome to live in most neighborhoods, and they weren’t able to get jobs, so many of them started their own businesses, often as junk peddlers,” said Laura Weber, editor of Minnesota History and a scholar who wrote her master’s thesis on anti-Semitism in Minneapolis.
“There was a lot of struggle and discipline and pride, and hope to build a better life for their children,” she said. “There was this whole little self-contained ethnic community in north Minneapolis, and it included athletics.
“There was a lot of interest in athletics in those days to counter stereotypes of Jews as non-athletes.”
Steve Waldman, who won the Mercury Award in 1969 at St. Louis Park High School, grew up steeped in the lore of the club and its importance to Jews in Minneapolis. His parents were friends with some of the original club members.
“I played [sports], and people had things to say about my religion. But I can’t imagine what those guys went through,” said Waldman, who now lives in Minnetonka. “They weren’t allowed to play sports, so they formed their own group, and not only did they play those other guys, they beat them. They told me, ‘We showed people it was important to be Jewish and we could stand out.’ ”
The club doesn’t really meet any more, Waldman said, but the annual award keeps its spirit alive. Waldman’s son, Jake, won the Mercury Award in 2003, and there are many other multi-generation family winners.
Ellyn Wolfenson’s son, Ben Stein, was honored in 2004, following not only his grandfather but his father, former Gopher great Bob Stein, who won in 1964. The first female honoree, Deborah Levin Stillman in 1987, is the daughter of 1954 winner Marshall Levin.
As the Jewish population has assimilated and become more mainstream, the award has lost some of the prominence it once had. Where once every Jewish high school athlete in Minneapolis dreamed of winning the award, now the committee aggressively seeks out nominees — contacting parents, coaches and athletic directors and encouraging them to put their students forward.
But the pride that motivated a bunch of young Jewish jocks a century ago hasn’t died.
“This little-known treasure somehow continues,” Ellyn Wolfenson said. “It continues because people think it’s important. The purpose and the reason it exists is still there.”