NJ Jewish News features and sports editor Ron Kaplan was asked to write the foreword for Jews and Baseball, Volume 2: The Post-Greenberg Years, 1949-2008, by Burton and Benita Boxerman (McFarland, 2010). With Spring Training beginning this week, it seems like appropriate reading.
The Jewish Major Leaguers included in the first volume of Burton and Benita Boxerman’s watershed Jews and Baseball faced problems that were basically the tenor of the times in the late 19th and early 20th century: stereotypes at best (“Jews make poor athletes”) and outright anti-Semitism at worst (when a Jewish batter came to the plate, an unruly fan would urge the pitcher, “Throw him a ham sandwich. He won’t bite.”). Those players who stuck it out might have changed their names to hide their identity not only from those who would beleaguer them with taunts, but also to hide their profession from their families. Nice Jewish boys were expected to get an education and improve upon their situations, working toward a better life than their shopkeeper or laborer parents, not fool around with a roughhouse sport.
But an article in the Yiddish-language newspaper Jewish Daily Forward urged parents to learn this strange game, to embrace it and understand it, and so truly become American.
Many of the ballplayers from this period were raised in Jewishly observant households, with parents who came over from “the old country,” where religious observances were considered of the utmost importance. But after Detroit Tigers superstar Hank Greenberg — the original “Hebrew Hammer” — showed that a Jewish ballplayer could be both an outstanding player and “true to his religion” (in the words of poet Edgar Guest), those who followed had a somewhat easier time of it. Sure, you still had a Ron Blomberg, who grew up in the Deep South and had Klansmen as teammates, but as the generations became further removed from their predecessors, hiding one’s religion became less of an issue.
Some players — most notably Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green — still felt obligated to refrain from playing games on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, regardless of how crucial those contests were. Koufax passed on the opening game assignment for the 1965 World Series, causing Don Drysdale to fill in. When manager Walt Alston came out to relieve Drysdale following rough treatment by the heavy-hitting Minnesota Twins, the tall righty said to his skipper, “I bet you wish I was Jewish too right about now.”
The post-World War II years have had their share of high-profile players, including Al Rosen, Mike Epstein, Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman (who won even more games than Koufax), Cy Young-winner Steve Stone, and the aforementioned Blomberg (who used his fame as the DH for another meaning in his autobiography: Designated Hebrew).
Since the beginning of the new century, baseball has seen an unprecedented influx of Jewish players. More than a minyan (the Jewish quorum of 10 necessary to conduct services) appeared in 2009, including a few bordering on stardom such as Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun, and Ian Kinsler, with several touted rookies waiting for their chance.
The Boxermans have expanded their labor of love to include new generations of Jewish Major Leaguers. The profiles in this second volume reflect that story of progress and success (not always the same thing).
Like many of their coreligionists, these young men have become more assimilated with time, and a debate has grown over who should be considered Jewish. Traditional Jewish law holds that the mother’s religion dictates that of the child, but, for example, the bimonthly Jewish Sports Review employs more liberal criteria. JSR’s philosophy: Athletes are Jewish “if they have at least one Jewish parent, do not practice another faith, and identify ethnically as a Jew.” So by their definition, Ryan Braun, the son of an Israeli father and Christian mother, is a Jew.
Several athletes are the products of “mixed marriages,” some celebrate parts of their Jewish heritage, some none at all. It makes no difference: Jewish fans embrace all these players regardless of levels of observance. Nevertheless, they kvell all the more when a Jason Marquis recalls his bar mitzva for a story in an Israeli newspaper, or a Kevin Youkilis appears in a documentary about the Israel Baseball League.
And it’s not just players. Where would the game be without the contributions of Allan Roth? For better or worse, he’s the one responsible for the plethora of statistical analysis that has given broadcasters the material to fill those interminable rain delays and pitching changes, not to mention opening the door for a new industry: fantasy baseball. And where would the players be if not for the yeoman’s work of Marvin Miller, whose exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame is a shande? Certainly a lot lighter in the wallet.
It doesn’t matter if these players were just up for a cup of coffee or they enjoyed long and fruitful careers. Like any proud parents, we love all our children.
Adapted from the foreword to Jews and Baseball, Volume 2: The Post-Greenberg Years, 1949-2008 by Burton and Benita Boxerman (McFarland), 2010; used with permission of the publisher.