“Spherical, like a ball . . .”
Maimonides, Torah Laws and Principles, 3:4
“Damages done at the time of the fall of the pitcher . . .”
Talmud, Tractate Baba Kamma
“If the catcher moves to catch it, he is liable . . .”
Talmud, Tractate Shabbos
“On a diamond, one must be a maven.”
Discourse by R. Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch
“Four cubits was the length of one base . . .”
Kings I 7:26
“The path of the righteous runner is beset on all sides by the inequities of running surfaces . . .”
“One man would remove his glove and hand it to his neighbor . . . such was the practice in the House of Israel . . .”
The Targum on Megillat Ruth
“Inadvertent errors may be forgiven . . .”
Leviticus, Chapter 4
“In the big inning . . .”
* * * * *
In 1920, Henry Ford, a virulent anti-Semite, wrote: “if you want to know the trouble with American baseball, you can have it in three words: too much Jew.” (Of course, in Ford’s world, every trouble was somehow “too much Jew.”)
Several years ago, the financial backers of the IBL (Israel Baseball League) did not agree and, though well-aware that baseball was not very popular in Israel, they nonetheless believed it could gain a following and ultimately prove profitable.
They were wrong.
The IBL was a grand, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort, as six teams played in 2007 through one disastrous, albeit amusing, season. Israeli fans, who were few and far between, were mystified by the rules and largely unconcerned about learning them, and the soccer fields on which the games were played did not serve as proper baseball diamonds.
The mix of nationalities sometimes lead to uproarious “Tower of Babel” scenarios – for example, one on-field dispute included an umpire who spoke primarily German, a pitcher who spoke little but Japanese, and a Dominican infielder who spoke nothing but Spanish.
On February 26, 2007, an IBL press conference was held in New York, where former Jewish major league stars Ron Blomberg (Bet Shemesh Blue Sox), Ken Holtzman (Petach Tikva Pioneers), and Art Shamsky (Modi’in Miracles) were introduced as managers. The other three team managers were Steve Hertz (Tel Aviv Lightning), Australian Shaun Smith (Ra’anana Express), and Ami Baran, an Israeli originally from Chicago (Netanya Tigers).
The league held tryouts in California, Massachusetts, Florida, Israel, and the Dominican Republic; selectees included current and former U.S. minor leaguers, professional baseball players from other countries, and college players. The IBL had 120 players from nine countries: the United States (77 from 19 states), the Dominican Republic (16), Israel (15), Canada (9), Australia (7), Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, and Ukraine. About 40 percent of the league was Jewish, and league organizers hoped that least 25 percent of the players would be Israeli the IBL’s fifth year.
In a symbolic move, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax was the last player chosen in the draft. “His selection is a tribute to the esteem with which he is held by everyone associated with this league,” said Art Shamsky.
Jews in Israel and around the world still recall with great affection Koufax’s refusal to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series so that he could observe Yom Kippur. (A story told in my September 30, 2016 column “Rosh Hashanah Greetings from Sandy Koufax.”)
The IBL commissioner was Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, and the league’s Board of Advisors included Wendy Selig-Prieb, former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers; Marshall Glickman, former president of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers; Marvin Goldklang, a minority owner of the New York Yankees; Randy Levine, Yankees president; and Bud Selig, Major League Baseball commissioner.
Exhibited with this column is a rare copy of the 2007 yearbook for the Israel Baseball League (Hebrew: Ligat ha-Beisbol ha-Israelit). Also shown are greetings from Bud Selig, who as baseball commissioner established interleague play, instituted wild card and divisional playoff games, introduced revenue sharing, and became infamous as the “Steroids Commissioner” due to the drug scandal during his reign. In his written remarks, Selig describes the IBL as a natural byproduct of the globalization of baseball, but his interest in the league was probably also related to his Jewishness.
League officials considered building a baseball stadium in Netanya, considered by many to be Israel’s principal “sports hub,” but it never happened. Instead, games were played at three ballparks: the Yarkon Sports Complex (which seats 15,000) in the Baptist Village in Petach Tikva just outside Tel Aviv; the Kibbutz Gezer Field, about 25 minutes from Jerusalem; and Sportek Baseball Field in the southern end of Tel Aviv’s largest outdoor public park, a 10-minute walk from seaside Tel Aviv hotels.
Opening day, which was aired in the U.S. by PBS in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Miami, took place on Sunday, June 24, 2007 at the Yarkon Sports Complex with an attendance of 3,112. Subsequent games, which were played Sunday through Thursday evenings and Friday mornings – no Shabbat games – were seven innings, with a “home run derby” held to decide a tie at the end of regulation (i.e., no extra innings.)
The season, which ran for eight weeks, concluded on August 19 when Ron Blomberg’s Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, which had finished with the best regular season record in the league (29–12), shut out Art Shamsky’s Modi’in Miracle 3–0 in the IBL’s inaugural championship game. Several traditional baseball awards were handed out (MVP, best pitcher, etc.), but my favorite was the delightfully-named “Schnitzel Award” (only in Israel!) for Player of the Year, presented to Leon Feingold, a former Cleveland Indians minor leaguer from Oceanside, NY.
Feingold is a fascinating character who gained an international reputation as a competitive eater, achieving a rank as high as #12 in the world by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Among other accomplishments, he won the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest Regionals three times and appeared in the U.S. Open of Competitive Eating and the Glutton Bowl (yes, such things exist). He has also served as president and director of the Greater New York chapter of Mensa, the world’s largest chapter of the renowned high-IQ society.
Though the IBL was a grand failure, it did have two mild measures of success. First, one of the purposes of the league was to afford talented ballplayers the opportunity to showcase their skills, extend their baseball careers, and possibly be “discovered” and play in the Major Leagues. IBLers Eladio Rodriguez and James Rees were signed by the New York Yankees, and Josh Doane and Noah Williams were invited to try out with the Boston Red Sox.
Second, the league did generally increase Israeli interest in baseball. The IBL used its fields for only two months but during the rest of the year they were used by local community baseball programs as part of the Jewish National Fund’s “Project Baseball,” a partnership between the IBL and the JNF to build and enhance baseball fields for use by local baseball programs.
The good will and enthusiasm the league generated carried over into the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where Team Israel, an unheralded rag-tag group of American Jewish players accompanied by their mascot, “Mensch on a Bench,” swept their first round, defeating South Korea, Taipei, and the Netherlands. And they beat a very powerful Cuba team in the second round. Although they ultimately went down to defeat, Israeli baseball had climbed to new heights of popularity.