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The Vanishing Jewish Baseball Player

Whatever happened to Jewish baseball players? Not that they’re an extinct species – several Jews are currently playing in the major leagues or working their way through the minors – but Jewish baseball fans will tell you the present-day crop is relatively unaccomplished and unknown.

Why is this generation different from other generations? Generations that boasted not just a slew of recognizably Jewish ballplayers, but at least one bona-fide Jewish star per decade? Where have you gone, latter-day versions of Harry Danning, Sid Gordon, Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen and Sandy Koufax?

To medicine and law, for starters. As professional opportunities opened up for Jews in the years following World War II, choosing a career as an athlete – never much encouraged by their parents in any event – became an ever less popular option for young Jewish men.

Then there was the matter of baseball’s color line being broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947. Suddenly and dramatically the available talent pool grew, as did the odds of Jews making it to the major leagues now that they had to vie with talented black and brown ballplayers for spots on major league rosters.

“A Wild American Runner”

The Jewish immigrants who poured into the United States at the turn of the last century were bewildered, if not appalled, by the attraction the game of baseball held for their sons.

“It makes sense to teach a child to play dominoes or chess,” a concerned father wrote in 1903 to the Yiddish Forward’s popular Bintel Brief advice column. “But what is the point of a crazy game like baseball….Here in educated America adults play baseball. They run after a leather ball like children. I want my boy to grow up to be a mentsch, not a wild American runner.”

Jewish ballplayers began popping up in the major leagues in the late 1800′s, and by the middle of the 20th century’s second decade there were actually some household names among them, including pitchers Erskine Mayer (whose maternal grandmother converted to Judaism and whose paternal grandparents were German Jews) and Barney Pelty.

It’s impossible to know the precise number of Jewish players of that era since not a few of them operated incognito for fear of anti-Semitism. Ford Frick, who would go on to serve as commissioner of baseball, said in 1925 that “there must have been at least half a hundred Jews in the game but we’ll never know their real names. During the early days… Jewish boys had tough sledding in the majors and many of them changed their name.”

Those name changes could even catch other Jews unawares. In an indispensable essay on Jewish ballplayers that appeared in the 1997 edition of Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, David Spaner tells a story concerning Jimmie Reese, who would go on to a long career in the majors, mostly as a coach but also as a player for the Yankees from 1930 to 1932 (rooming for a spell with someone named Babe Ruth).

While playing in the minors, Reese once took part in a celebrity game in which the opposing team used a Jewish battery of pitcher-songwriter Harry Ruby and catcher Ike Danning (whose brother Harry starred for the New York Giants). Rather than use conventional hand signals, Danning called the game in Yiddish, certain that nobody on the other team would understand. Reese collected four hits, and after the game a surprised Ruby remarked to him, “I didn’t know you were that good a hitter, Jimmie.”

“You also didn’t know,” Reese responded, “that my name was Hymie Solomon.”

Greenberg Busts the Stereotype

Until the emergence of Hank Greenberg in the mid-1930′s, there had been no true Jewish superstar in the major leagues. A number of average-to-good players, yes – Andy Cohen, Sid Gordon, Moe Berg, Buddy Myer, Harry Danning – but none approaching Hall of Fame caliber.

Signed at age nineteen by the Detroit Tigers, the Bronx-born Greenberg enjoyed his breakout season in 1934, when he hit .339, driving in 139 runs and helping the Tigers win the American League pennant.

Peter Levine summed up Greenberg’s career in From Ellis Island to Ebbets Field, an examination of American Jews and sports: “A perennial American League All Star, ‘Hammerin’ Hank’ batted a lifetime .313 in a thirteen-year career interrupted by four years of military service during World War II. Four times the right-handed first baseman led the American League in home runs and runs batted in. Four times he led the Detroit Tigers into the World Series. In 1935 he won the league’s Most Valuable Player award. Three years later he hit 58 home runs in a furious chase to reach Babe Ruth’s record 60. Hank’s career totals placed him among the [top 100 all-time] leaders in batting average, home runs, slugging average, ratio of home runs to at-bats, and ratio of RBI to at-bats.”

The hero worship Greenberg inspired among American Jews is impossible to understand without taking into account the currents of anti-Semitism that were blowing across the country as he began his ascendancy.

The most popular radio personality of the time was the anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin, whose weekly diatribes were eagerly followed by millions of listeners. Those were years when the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes prevailed — when Jew were commonly seen as being manipulative, untrustworthy, physically weak and un-American.

It was in this milieu that Greenberg – all six feet, four inches, two-hundred and ten pounds of him – strode into the national spotlight. The fact that he played in Detroit, virtually in the back yard of Father Coughlin, whose Shrine of the Little Flower was located in nearby Royal Oak, made Greenberg’s accomplishments all the sweeter to a generation of Jews starved for a genuine hero.

Though he was anything but religious, Greenberg made national headlines in 1934 when he chose not to play on Yom Kippur. The poet Edgar Guest paid tribute to Greenberg in verse:

Come Yom Kippur – holy fast day world wide over

to the Jew –

And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the

old tradition true,

Spent the day among his people and he didn’t

come to play.

Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose

the game today!

We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him

at the bat.

But he’s true to his religion – and I honor him

for that!”

Despite being subject to verbal abuse from some pposing players and fans, Greenberg had more than his share of non-Jewish admirers. Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, a broadcaster with the New York Mets since the team’s inception in 1962, was a young player with the Pittsburgh Pirates when Greenberg joined the team in 1947, the twilight of his career. The two immediately hit it off, with Greenberg becoming a mentor to the younger Kiner.
 
“Hank taught me to live with dignity and class,” Kiner has written.

The Greenberg-Kiner relationship extended decades beyond both men’s playing days. And then on September 4, 1986, while broadcasting a game, Kiner was called aside by Mets public-relations director Jay Horwitz. “Ralph, I hope I’m not the first one to tell you this, said Horwitz, “but it just came over the wires that Hank Greenberg has died.”

Kiner would later write: “When I resumed my place behind the microphone, I said, ‘I’ve just received the saddest news I could possibly have heard.’ And I informed the Mets’ television audience of what Greenberg had meant to me and the game of baseball.”

Greenberg was never particularly comfortable in the role of Jewish hero, but in retirement he would reflect on his career with a new appreciation for what he represented. “When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer,” he said. “I wanted to be known as a great ballplayer, period….Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer. I realize now, more than I used to, how important a part I played in the lives of a generation of Jewish kids who grew up in the 1930′s.”

Greenberg was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1956, the first Jew accorded that honor.

Rosen to Koufax

As fate would have it, 1947 was not only Hank Greenberg’s last season as a player but also the year that Al Rosen, a promising young third baseman with the Cleveland Indians, experienced his first brief taste of the major leagues.

Fate would soon link the two Jewish ballplayers even further: When the Indians brought Rosen up from the minors for good in 1949, the decision to do so was made by a gentleman who’d purchased a minority share of the team in 1948 and went on to serve as its minor league director and then general manager – Hank Greenberg

In 1950, his first full season with the Indians, Rosen hit more home runs (37) than any previous American League rookie. Rosen’s best year was 1953, a dream season in which he just barely missed winning the Triple Crown, hitting .336 (a point behind batting champ Mickey Vernon’s .337) while leading the league in home runs (43) and runs batted in (145). At season’s end Rosen became the first player to win the Most Valuable Player award by unanimous vote.

Always up front about his Jewishness, Rosen was quick to respond to any perceived slights. In 1951 the television impresario Ed Sullivan, in his popular newspaper column, wrote about Rosen: “Of Jewish parentage, he is Catholic. At the plate, you’ll notice he makes the sign of the cross with his bat.” Enraged, Rosen insisted on a full and public retraction, pointing out that the mark he always made with his bat was the letter “x.”

Rosen told the sportswriter Roger Kahn that as a young player in the minors he had moments when he wished his name were not as obviously Jewish as Rosen. But after he became a major league star, he actually considered changing his name to Rosenthal or Rosenstein so that no one could possibly mistake him for anything but a Jew.

“When I was up in the majors,” he said, “I always knew how I wanted it to be about me….Here comes one Jewish kid that every Jew in the world can be proud of.”

The 1956 season was Rosen’s last as a player (he retired with a .285 lifetime batting average and 192 home runs over seven full seasons and parts of three others.)

In the years immediately following Rosen’s retirement, a young Jewish left-handed pitcher from Brooklyn struggled to prove himself with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. From 1955 to 1960 Sandy Koufax was the epitome of mediocrity, compiling a won-lost record of 36-40 and raising doubts about whether his performance would ever match his potential.

But beginning in 1961, three years after Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles, Koufax embarked on a six-season odyssey of almost superhuman accomplishment – winning 129 and losing just 47, tossing four no-hitters, leading the major leagues in strikeouts four times, posting the National League’s lowest earned run average five straight years, copping three Cy Young awards (as the league’s best pitcher) and helping the Dodgers win three pennants and two World Series.

Koufax, who like Greenberg made headlines for not playing on Yom Kippur, retired due to an arthritic elbow in the prime of his career (he won 27 games in 1966, his final season). In 1971 he became the youngest player elected to the Hall of Fame.

The Vanishing Jewish Ballplayer

No Jewish player in the past forty years has come close to matching Koufax in terms of accomplishment and celebrity, though a number have enjoyed varying degrees of success. The 1970′s in particular featured several Jewish players who, while never in any danger of being mistaken for stars, had their moments: players like Art Shamsky, who hit .293 with 11 homers for the 1969 “Miracle Mets”; Richie Scheinblum, a .300 hitter for the Kansas City Royals in 1972; Mike Epstein, a slugging first baseman nicknamed “SuperJew” who hit 30 homers for the old Washington Senators in 1969 and 26 with the Oakland A’s in 1972; Ron Blomberg, who for a while in the early 1970′s looked to be on the brink of stardom with the Yankees; and Steve Stone, a journeyman pitcher who won the American League Cy Young award in 1980.

The best Jewish pitcher in the post-Koufax era was Ken Holtzman, who fashioned a solid 15-year career with four teams and was particularly effective between 1972 and 1975, winning 77 games for the Oakland A’s. The best Jewish position player during that period has been the outfielder Shawn Green, recently traded by the Dodgers to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The number of Jewish major leaguers may have steadily diminished over the past 25 years – the list is even shorter than is commonly believed unless one uses the most elastic of criteria to define Jewishness – but Jews are more influential than ever in the baseball universe. The commissioner of Major League Baseball (Bud Selig) is Jewish, as are many team owners (including the Mets’ Fred Wilpon), executives (including Theo Epstein, the general manager of the World Champion Boston Red Sox), broadcasters (including the Mets’ Gary Cohen and Howie Rose) and reporters.

However many or few the number of Jews actually plating the game, baseball has always had a special place in the hearts of Jewish sports fans, perhaps for its rich and unsurpassed lore and history, or maybe simply because it is a less brutishly physical game than football or hockey.

It is also a uniquely fair and democratic game, a point eloquently made by Earl Weaver, manager of the great Baltimore Orioles teams of the late 1960′s and 70′s, when asked to explain the difference between baseball and other sports.

“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock,” said Weaver. “You’ve got to throw the ball over the plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”


Jason Maoz can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com 

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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