The Chosen Game

Adam Perry (@Peza100) returns to Bat Flips and Nerds to look at Jewish baseball players in the US.

I am not a religious person, in fact the only time I look for divine intervention is when the Red Sox are up by 1 or 2 runs and reliever Matt Barnes comes to the plate. I am however Jewish and culturally proud of the fact.

As a Jew growing up in North London in the 80’s and 90’s, there were very few Jewish sporting icons. Sure we had Hollywood actors, directors, comedians and even musicians, but sportsmen or woman..not so much. We could support as good a game as any but save the occasional introduction of an Israeli footballer into the Premier League, often with comedic effect (see Ronny Rosenthal) there was very little to aspire to.

I fell in love with baseball in my early twenties with my first ever visit to Fenway Park and have never looked back. One particular visit to Fenway in the early 2000’s, The Red Sox were playing the Blue Jays and I was in attendance with a fellow Jew from Toronto. My friend pointed to the Red Sox first baseman (a rookie at the time) Kevin Youkilis and said “Jew!” He then pointed out the Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler and repeated “Jew!” Two Jewish players on the field at the same time, and both on my team? I puffed out my chest in pride, maybe there is a sport that we can genuinely compete in?

I was to discover there was actually a long tradition of Jewish ball players throughout the history of the game, and some of them were damn good.

As per recorded American history, we can trace Jewish baseball players back to start of the game. Lipman (Lip) Pike was one of the first three players to receive a contract for playing baseball, $20 a week in 1866 for the Philadelphia Athletics. Pike moved to the Troy Haymakers for the first year of the National Association of baseball in 1871 and proceeded to lead the league in Home Runs for the first 3 seasons. Admittedly home runs were a lot scarcer in those days, Pike hit 4 in 1871, 6 in 1872 and 4 in 1873.

Jews were moving to the US in ever increasing numbers at the turn of the century, escaping persecution in Eastern Europe. Baseball was of course America’s game and for first generation Jewish Americans, it was deemed the best way to integrate into American society. October 1929 saw the Great Depression sweep across the country. This did not impact on the appetite for baseball at the time which also saw the introduction onto the scene of the first true Jewish sporting superstar Hank Greenberg.

Greenberg was born in New York in 1911; his 6 foot 4 frame helped him become of the greatest sluggers the game had ever seen. Signed to a minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers in 1930, he was in the ‘big game’ within 3 years. In 1934, Greenberg was the first Jew not to play on ‘Yom Kippur’, the holiest day of the Jewish year where Jews observant and secular take the day off to fast and atone for their sins for the year. This was to become a regular theme throughout the history of Jews in baseball. The Hall of Famer led the Tigers to their first World Series win in 1935 named AL MVP after hitting .328 and leading the league in home runs (36), extra-base hits (98) and RBIs (170). Greenberg’s RBI total was an amazing 51 higher than the next closest player, Lou Gehrig.

Hank Greenberg” src=”” width=”1080″ height=”608″ />

Greenberg had given Jews an identity across the country. Here was a giant of a man (in all senses of the word) who was at the top of the game. It would not surprise you to know however, that Greenberg encountered anti-Semitism from both the stands and the benches in all ball-parks he played. The original shout of “throw him a pork chop” was one of the few printable observations that were barked at him.

In 1938 Greenberg was seeing the ball better than ever and after the all-star break he was ahead of the chase to beat Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. It was during this time in Europe that news was getting out about the appalling treatment of the Jews in Germany by Hitler and the Nazis. Greenberg saw his accomplishments as a personal vendetta against Hitler. Some believe that many people did not want to see a Jew beat Ruth’s record. Greenberg being the man he was, has always denied this, he was however walked an extraordinary amount of times in his pursuit of the record.

Still two home runs short on the final day of the season; the Tigers faced a double header against the Indians. The legendary Bob Feller pitched the first game. Feller was one of the few pitchers who had Greenberg’s number and he reduced Greenberg to 1 hit. In the second game Greenberg managed 4 hits but alas they were all singles. The game was eventually called due to darkness and Greenberg ended up 2 runs shy.

Greenberg was not the only Jewish success story in the 30’s and 40’s., Harry (Hank) Denning was a 6 time all-star catcher for the New York Giants who at one time had 5 Jewish players in the starting line-up. Denning and his colleagues, in a pre-cursor to the kind of treatment black players received, were sometimes refused admittance to hotels whilst on the road, due to their religion.

In 1940 Greenberg was once again the MVP for the Tigers as they successfully won another pennant. America soon joined in the war. Initially drafted for 6 months, as great patriot, Greenberg served over 4 years overseas.

Greenberg’s final year in the majors was in 1947 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was also the same year that a certain Jackie Robinson was playing his first season for the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black player to play in the majors. In one particular game, there was a collision between the two players at first base. Greenberg picked up Robinson (in a time when many white players refused to speak to him), dusted him down and told him to ignore the name calling which he himself had suffered for so many years. “You are a great player and you’re going to make it” Greenberg told Robinson. Robinson was asked after the game what had taken place, he responded “Hank Greenberg is a class act; class sticks out all over the man”.

Greenberg retired that year. In the times and context that Hank Greenberg played, some have called him the most important American Jew ever to have lived.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were as important as religion for many Jewish ball fans. Brooklyn was (and still is) a heavily Jewish populated area, with the Jews making up a huge proportion of Dodger crowds. These Jewish fans were proud that it had been their club that had broken the colour barrier. To many residents of Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson had been their ‘first Jewish hero’.

Al Rosen (nicknamed ‘The Hebrew Hammer’) was also a hall of fame slugger whose career spanned 10 years, all with the Cleveland Indians . In 1953 Rosen led the American League in home runs (43), runs batted in (145), runs (115), slugging percentage (.613), and total bases (367). Rosen was unanimously voted the league MVP, the first time that this had ever happened.

There is no Jewish player that has ever caught the imagination however than one Sandy Koufax. Koufax was a left-handed pitcher known as a true artist of his trade.

Koufax was born in Brooklyn and attended the University of Cincinnati. Originally it was thought that he was going to be a professional basketball player and was heavily touted to wind up with the New York Knicks. But baseball was to become Koufax’s game of choice and he was signed by the Dodgers, making his major league debut in 1955.

Koufax was inconsistent at the start of his career and he lost the fifth game in the 1959 World Series. The Dodgers went on to win the series 4-2, the unlikely hero being another Jewish pitcher, reliever Larry Sherry who was named MVP, with two wins and two saves; the first time any pitcher had appeared in all 4 winning games of a World Series.

Koufax truly broke out at the start of the 60’s and pitched no-hitters in 62, 63 and 64. Facing the Yankees in the 1963 World Series, Koufax beat the legendary Whitey Ford 5–2 in Game 1 and struck out 15 batters-including the first five. The Dodgers swept the series with Koufax also winning Game 4.

In 1965 Koufax did the unimaginable and became the sixth pitcher of the modern era, and eighth overall, to throw a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. Vin Scully was the (now Los Angeles) Dodgers announcer. Scully’s calling of the game is one of the great pieces of sports commentary. In the last few innings when history was beckoning, Scully quoted the time and date after each of Koufax’s successful pitches. It is truly worth listening to. Koufax sat down all 27 batters to face him.

In that year, the Dodgers once again made the World Series. Koufax was due to start game 1. The game fell on Yom Kippur and like Greenberg before him, Koufax decided to honour his religion. The number 2 pitcher for the Dodgers, Don Drysdale started in his place and proceeded to give up 7 runs in the first 2 and one third innings. When the Dodgers Manager, Walter Alston collected the ball from the beleaguered Drysdale, he was reputed to have said to Alston “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish too”.

Koufax came back to win game 5 and 7 and gain his second World Series MVP award.

He continued to break records but an arthritic condition that had been plaguing him for a number of years forced him to retire after the 1966 season. It was a huge loss for the game of baseball. Casey Stangel, one of the all-time great Managers for the Yankees was asked late on in his life who was the best left-handed pitcher he had ever seen? He simply answered “The Jewish kid”.

Jewish ball players continued to thrive throughout the 60’s, 70’ sand 80’s and were now defined by their ability on the field and not their religion. Ken Holzman was one of the premier pitchers of his era and between 1965 and 1979, he amassed 174 victories, even more than Sandy Koufax.

On April 6th 1973, Jewish New York Yankee Ron Blomberg became the first ever designated hitter in a game at Fenway Park thus securing a place in the record books for all time. For the record he was walked by Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant with the bases loaded in his first appearance at the plate of the game. The bat Blomberg used can now be viewed in the Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame.

Unlike today, at that time, there had been very few Jewish owners. Bud Selig was one of the first and decades of Brewers fans have him to thank for bringing a team to Milwaukee (Selig’s hometown), moving the Seattle Pirates there in 1970. Selig was also appointed the first Jewish commissioner of baseball in 1992 (something that would have seemed unimaginable just a few decades prior). Despite sometimes being a decisive figure, Selig was at the helm when baseball truly became international with the introduction of Latino and Japanese players. Selig also wrote the blueprint for interleague play which revolutionised the game to this day.

The premier Jewish player of the 1990’s and 2000’s is one MLB UK’s newest friends Shawn Green. Many would have witnessed Green knocking the ball all over Hyde Park in the recent event in London, attended by over 20,000 people.

The tall and handsome Green was the toast of every Jewish community where he ended up playing ball. There was talk of Rabbis climbing over each other in LA and Toronto to have him join their congregation. Green was one of the first of a number of Jewish Blue Jays to grace the Sky Dome. The tradition of Jewish stars ‘up North’ continues today in the form of popular centre fielder and web gem master Kevin Pillar.

To this day, Green holds a number of impressive records including highest number total bases in one game (19), in a four home run, five extra base hit game against the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002. Of Jewish major leaguers, only Hank Greenberg, with 331 home runs and 1,276 RBIs, has more Major League home runs and RBIs than Green.

Shawn Green this year, hitting the ball out of Hyde Park” src=”” width=”1080″ height=”765″ />

Possibly the unluckiest ball player of all time, Jewish or otherwise was Adam Greenberg. Selected in the 2002 draft by the Chicago Cubs, he was called up for his first appearance in the majors as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning against the Florida Marlins, in a game on July 9 2005., Greenberg was hit directly in the back of his head by a 92 mph fastball on the very first pitch from Valerio de los Santo of the Marlins.

Greenberg suffered a concussion (deemed mild at the time) and came straight out of the game. The injury was far more serious than first thought and Greenberg was never to face another ball in the majors until 2012. After an online petition, Greenberg was signed to a one game contract (this time for the Marlins themselves) in order to get his ‘at bat’. This is a story I fully intend to cover in more detail in another post.

Jewish baseball gained even more headlines this year with the unexpected success of ‘Team Israel’ in the WBC; a team cobbled together of retired and active major and minor league Jewish American ball players including World Series winners Craig Breslow and Ryan Lavarnway, Major League veterans Ike Davis and Jason Marquis and current Mets farmhand and Twitter sage Cody Decker. Theirs is a story for another time.

The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, New York which is dominated by baseball players. There are Jewish Major Leaguers Baseball card sets and websites that will give you a daily update on the performance of Jews in both the Majors and Minors. On the day this is being written, there were particular good outings for Ryan Braun (RF, Brewers), Alex Bregman (SS, Astros), Ian Kinsler (2B, Detroit) and Danny Valencia (1B, Mariners).

Baseball truly is the Jewish game. To my end (even though I do indulge in pork products), I always make sure I buy a Hebrew National Kosher Hotdog that is available in ball parks all around the country. They are a delicious foot long of beef goodness and well worth a try. This is my own particular way of honouring my Jewish baseball heritage!

The story will no doubt continue for many years to come. Jews in sport have always been a bit of a running joke but the joke stops when you look at the history (and the present) of America’s game.

One comment

  1. This is a fabulous article; really well researched, nicely thought out and packed with fascinating insights and information. As some Jewish people might say: “who knew?”

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