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January 24, 2017 / 26 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Al Rosen’

The American Jewish Love Affair With Baseball: An Interview with Director Peter Miller

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

             In September I wrote in my Baseball Insider column (which appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press) of my very positive reaction to an advanced screening of the new documentary “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.”


The film debuts Nov. 5 in movie theaters inNew York (at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, Malverne Cinema in Long Island, and Kew Gardens Cinema in Queens) before opening in cinemas in Los Angeles and Kansas City on November 19 and after that in theaters and film festivals all over the country. (A listing of screenings is available at www.jewsandbaseball.com).


“Jews and Baseball” director Peter Miller – an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose works include “Sacco and Vanzetti,” “A Class Apart,” and “The Internationale” – spoke recently with The Jewish Press about baseball, Jews, and his new film.


             The Jewish Press: Why did you choose to make a film about Jews and baseball – what does the subject say to you?


              Miller: The relationship between Jews and baseball serves as a wonderful lens for looking at the broader experience of Jews in America. The story of a once marginalized people finding their way into the American mainstream offers lessons for a country that continues to grapple with its ideal as a place where talent should overcome prejudice, where we can retain our differences while still being American, where anyone who can hit or pitch or run can be a part of the magic and drama of our national game.


             How comprehensive is the film?


There have been over 160 Jews out of the 17,000 players who have made it to the majors. Our story goes from the first Jewish baseball star, Lipman Emanuel Pike in the 1870s, to the stories of Jewish stars like Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, Sandy Koufax, as well as the present crop of great Jewish players. In recent years there have been many Jewish All-Stars, including Shawn Green and Kevin Youkilis – and there was more than a minyan of Jewish players in the majors this past year.


Jews have also played an important role as owners, executives, writers, and fans.


How difficult was it to make a documentary like this?


            We found that many Jewish ballplayers were eager to help bring this story to life. Our first interview was with the amazingly articulate slugger Al Rosen, who was a big star in the 1950s. We were able to film an interview with the legendary Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, who rarely gives interviews but felt that is was important to participate in this film.


           We also interviewed Jewish ballplayers including Ron Blomberg, Elliott Maddox, Kevin Youkilis, Shawn Green, White Sox leftie Marv Rotblatt, as well as two gentile Hall-of-Famers, Bob Feller and Yogi Berra, and we filmed with family members of Hank Greenberg, Harry Danning, and others.


We had the honor of filming with players’ union legend Marvin Miller, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, and team owners Fred Wilpon of the Mets and Charles Bronfman of the Expos. And we interviewed writers Roger Kahn (The Boys of Summer), Peter Levine and the late Maury Allen, as well as Jewish baseball card-maker Martin Abramowitz and passionate fans including the film director Ron Howard – a huge Sandy Koufax fan – and the talk show host Larry King.


Where did you grow up and did you have a favorite team?


             I grew up near Boston, and have always been a Red Sox fan. The teams of my childhood in the late 1960s and early ’70s always had a way of breaking our hearts, but I think watching their struggles offered valuable life lessons. Of course they also had some terrific players and some great personalities. I especially loved Bill Lee and Luis Tiant, two of the great characters in baseball.


Have you always rooted for Jewish players?


As a kid I connected early on with the Jewish players I was aware of. I remember prizing Mike Epstein’s baseball card back when he was a member of the Washington Senators. And while I was too young to remember Sandy Koufax as a player, his name was definitely spoken in my home late every season in relationship to the high holy days. So while my team was the Red Sox, I began to define my affiliation more broadly: rooting not only for Jewish players but for underdogs of all kinds.


Then in the 1980s I married a New Yorker and moved to Manhattan where I have taken on the Mets as my other favorite team in addition to the Red Sox. It’s been a challenging last few seasons for the Mets, but I am always optimistic. And it’s great to watch their exciting rookie first baseman Ike Davis, who may well be one of the next great Jewish baseball stars.


             Dustin Hoffman narrates the film. Were any Jewish play-by-play broadcasters considered for that role?


When our filmmaking team – my producing partner Will Hechter, writer Ira Berkow, editor Amy Linton, and I – first sat down to discuss who would narrate the film, we immediately thought of Dustin Hoffman. We didn’t have a second choice or a fallback position, which was probably foolish since Dustin doesn’t often narrate documentaries and is obviously in great demand. Fortunately, after he screened a cut of the film Dustin committed to record the narration, and his gorgeous voice lends a gravitas and clarity to the film that I think no other actor or announcer could have provided.


Working with him was a treat; he is a brilliant actor and a delight to work with. There have been a great many wonderful Jewish baseball announcers, and I’m certain many would have also been excellent choices to narrate, but Dustin’s voice and humanity are an irreplaceable part of the film.

Irwin Cohen

They Will Be Missed

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

He was the oldest former major league ballplayer when he died last month at the age of 100. Bill Werber was a teammate of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth with the Yankees in 1930 and again three years later. He also played for the Red Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants before retiring in 1942 with a .271 career batting average. He outhit Hank Greenberg .370 to .357 in the 1940 World Series, leading the Reds over the Tigers in seven games.


Werber is the answer to this trivia question: Who was the first batter in the first-ever televised major league baseball game?


It happened in 1939 at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Werber led off for the Reds. The game was described by play-by-play man Red Barber, who was stationed in the upper deck behind third base next to a camera (the other NBC camera was placed behind home plate). NBC’s experimental station W2XBS was headquartered in the Empire State Building with a limited range of only fifty miles, reaching an estimated one hundred households.


After baseball, Werber entered the insurance field. He credited his long life to a great 70-year marriage (his wife died in 2000) and his having refraining from smoking and drinking.


As we approach spring training, it’s a good time to remember some other former players who died in recent months.


● Mickey Vernon’s playing career spanned four decades (1939-1960) and he won two batting championships as a member of the Washington Senators (1946 and 1953). Cleveland third baseman Al Rosen was heading for the triple crown in 1953 as he led the American League in three categories going into the last game of the season. However, Vernon’s two hits in the last game gave him the batting title, one point ahead of Rosen’s .336. Rosen had to settle for leading the league in home runs (43) and RBI (145).


Vernon, who lived to age 90, had many thrills as a player and manager of the Senators. The biggest, he claimed, was in 1954. “It was opening day in Washington,” he related years later at an Old Timer’s Game. “I hit a home run in the bottom of the 10th to beat the Yankees. President Eisenhower was sitting near our dugout and stayed for the whole game. He sent some Secret Service men on the field after I crossed home plate. They escorted me to his box and the president told me I was his favorite player and he wanted to congratulate me. That was my most memorable day in baseball.”


● Preacher Roe had one of the most memorable faces on baseball cards to us yeshiva kids. His wide cheeks and small chin reminded us of the popular comic strip hero Popeye. Roe was a pitching hero to Brooklyn Dodgers fans in 1951 when he won 22 games and lost only three. From 1951 through 1953 he won 44 games while dropping eight. Roe, who died at 92, was very popular with the press, his teammates and the fans.


Most thought that since he was from a tiny town in far off Arkansas, Roe was just a country hick. Roe played the hillbilly role well but he actually graduated from Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas, and once taught high school mathematics. He started his big league career as a 29-year-old rookie with Pittsburgh in 1944 and was traded to Brooklyn in 1947 – the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Roe hung up his spikes in 1954 at the age of 39, after compiling a career record of 127-84 with a 3.43 ERA.


● Herb Score, the fireballing Cleveland Indians pitcher who was rookie of the year in 1955, died at 75. I was with my young yeshiva classmates when Score held our hometown Tigers scoreless. We thought Score was going to be the greatest lefthander of all time. Sandy Koufax broke in with the Dodgers that year (1955) but wasn’t a great pitcher until the early 1960s. Score, though, was great in his rookie season.


Score had won 38 games in the big leagues when he took the mound against the Yankees on May 7, 1957. His career would be shattered that night as a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald caught him in the eye, breaking his nose and several facial bones.


Score spent the rest of the year recovering and though he stayed on in the majors from 1958 to 1962, he wasn’t nearly as effective. He won only 17 games over that four-year span while losing 26. Popular with Cleveland fans and an accomplished speaker, he went on to spend 30 years as a broadcaster for the Indians.


I saw Score often on the baseball beat and recall many of our conversations. He was born in New York and grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and adopted outfielder Pete Reiser as his favorite player. Score credited teammate Al Rosen with helping him get over a severe case of the jitters the first time he faced Mickey Mantle and the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.


● Former pitcher Dock Ellis was an outgoing, outspoken fellow and probably remained so until the end when liver disease claimed him at 63. He was a writer’s dream, funny and quotable. He was the Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock of the baseball world.


Ellis broke in with the Pirates in 1969, pitched a no-hitter the following year and had a 19-9 record in 1971. Traded to the Yankees after the 1975 season, he was the toast of New York in 1976 as he posted a 17-8 record.


I did a lengthy interview with Ellis around the batting cage in Yankee Stadium during that summer of ’76 when He admired my straw cap and placed it on his head while putting his Yankees cap on my head. It must have looked strange to early arriving fans, but it wasn’t strange to his teammates. He didn’t move the caps back until after the interview.


The Yankees moved Ellis to Oakland the following season, then it was on to Texas, the Mets and back in 1979 to Pittsburgh where he wrapped up his career, finishing with a 138-119 mark and an ERA of 3.46. His numbers would have been good enough to earn him an annual salary exceeding some $15 million today.


But enough about yesterday. I’m off to follow the sun and spring training. Tell you about it next month.


Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His Baseball Insider column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, is available for speaking engagements and may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.

Irwin Cohen

Greenberg To Green To…Braun?

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

        The 1947 baseball season was Jackie Robinson’s first and Hank Greenberg’s last. It also marked the debut of another Jewish slugger, Al Rosen. Three years later, at the age of 26, Rosen became the regular third baseman of the Cleveland Indians and batted .287 with a league-leading 37 home runs.


         The following season, Rosen dipped to .265 with 24 homers but bettered it in 1952, batting .302 with 28 home runs. In 1953, Rosen nearly won the Triple Crown. His 43 home runs and 145 RBIs led the American League, but his .336 average was one point lower than Mickey Vernon’s league-high .337.


         Rosen had a pretty good year in ’54 (.300 average, 24 homers, 102 RBIs) at the age of 30, but his skills eroded rapidly. His .244 average and 21 home runs in l955 was followed by final season stats of .267 and 15 homers.


         Rosen could have played another season or two, but Hank Greenberg, by that time the general manager of the Indians, had a trade worked out sending Rosen to the Boston Red Sox. Rosen refused to go as his wife had some health issues and he made a name for himself as a stockbroker in Cleveland during the off-season.


         Rosen’s career stats – batting average of .285 with 192 home runs – were fairly impressive, but hardly Hall of Fame material. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg hit .313 over 13 seasons and his 331 home runs averaged about six homers more a year than Rosen.


         Shawn Green, who’ll be 35 in November, has a career batting average a couple points lower than Rosen’s and probably will overtake Greenberg’s career home run total early next season, making him the all-time Jewish home run leader. But when Green does pass Greenberg, it will have taken him some 2,000 more at-bats than the 5,193 it took Greenberg to reach his 331 home runs.


         A Jewish slugger on the rise is rookie Ryan Braun. The 23-year-old Milwaukee third baseman made his major league debut the last week of May and is on pace to end the season with great big league numbers, with a plus .300 average and almost 30 home runs.


         Braun played for Triple-A Nashville before his call-up and tore up the minor league’s highest level with a .354 average and 10 home runs. So he’s the real deal – and much faster than either Greenberg or Rosen, so he’s always a threat to steal a base. The 6-foot-2-inch right-handed batter from southern California could be to hitting what Sandy Koufax was to pitching.


         Braun’s already been dubbed “The Hebrew Hammer” and he says he’s cool with that. His big test, as far as most of us are concerned, will come on Friday night and Saturday, September 21 and 22. That’s Yom Kippur, and the Brewers are scheduled to be playing in Atlanta with both clubs figuring to be in the pennant race.


         Will Braun play? Will he suit up and just watch from the dugout? Will he stay away from the ballpark? Kevin Youkilis was in uniform last Yom Kippur and watched his Red Sox teammates from the dugout. Because he didn’t play, one of the papers called Youkilis an observant Jew. I call him a Jew who observed the game from the dugout.


* * * * *


         Coaches have been dodging bullets for decades without tragedy. Every season has its share of injuries (usually not serious) and near-misses, especially in pre-game batting practice with so many players on the field.


         During games, coaches station themselves according to their own scouting reports. When Gary Sheffield bats, third base coaches move some ten feet backward because the Tigers right-handed slugger hits many wicked line drives and grounders outside the foul line.


         For decades, Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully has been trumpeting the use of batting helmets for third- and first-base coaches. Third-base coaches should use a lefty batters helmet and first-base coaches a righty helmet. “That way,” Scully says, “the flap will protect the part of the face closest to the batter.”


         Would Mike Coolbaugh still be alive and coaching first base in the minors if he had worn a helmet? As you recall, last month a line drive foul hit Coolbaugh in the back of the neck, just below the left ear. A ruptured artery resulting in blood loss to the brain caused his death. A runner on first base may have diverted some of Coolbaugh’s attention until it was too late.


         Only 35, Coolbaugh had two little kids and a pregnant wife. He was a wonderful guy, a great father and husband. He wasn’t a great player and had been released by nine teams on several levels. He was good enough, however, to play a short time in the majors as an infielder. Being a former infielder and 35 meant he was younger and more agile than big league coaches. Still, he couldn’t dodge the ball.


         Baseball is the toughest of all sports to excel in (usually one must succeed on several minor-league levels before making it to the big leagues, and superstars from other sports, such as Michael Jordan, have tried baseball and discovered they weren’t even good minor leaguers), but what most casual observers don’t realize is just how dangerous baseball is.


         Former Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey told me there’s no such thing as a batting slump. “Most players,” Garvey said, “go through times when they’re scared of the ball.”


         Yankees manager Joe Torre’s experience while playing for the Atlanta Braves some 40 years ago may explain it best. Torre missed almost a month after being hit in the left side of the face. He returned to the lineup and couldn’t hit well because he feared being hit again. As his average fell, Torre psyched himself up and his fear of embarrassment became greater than his fear of the ball.


         I was twice hit by balls during batting practice. A liner off the bat of George Brett found my toe while I was well in foul territory near the Kansas City dugout. Luckily, my shoe absorbed most of the blow.


         I could have used a batting helmet the other time. I was interviewing Reggie Jackson, and the Yankees star decided we’d sit in the on-deck circle to the third-base side of home plate. Yankees coach Yogi Berra was hitting fungoes to right field, tossing a ball up and hitting it when it came down.


         A Yankees outfielder was catching Yogi’s offerings and tossing them back on a bounce or two. Berra would stop the ball with his bat and the ball would roll a few feet before stopping. One ball popped off Yogi’s bat about 40 feet southeast and caught me on the left cheek. Hospital x-rays revealed a broken cheekbone. Even though the ball didn’t come off the bat as fast as pitchers throw it, it made a lasting impression.


         If you’re a baseball insider, you quickly learn respect for the ball and the talent it takes to play baseball.


         Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major-league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.

Irwin Cohen

The Vanishing Jewish Baseball Player

Wednesday, April 6th, 2005

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 

Jason Maoz

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