Editor’s note: This article was written by Andrew Wolfenson, who writes at open.salon.com/blog/andywolf.
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Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers has been named the winner of the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award. He is the first Jewish player to be showered with shouts of “mazel tov” for capturing the MVP award since 1963. This comes at a time when published reports indicate that three former Jewish major leaguers have thrown their support behind Israel’s bid to host the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The concept of a Jew being named MVP for the first time in almost half a century and the Jewish homeland being selected to host a world baseball tournament is staggering. While it is unlikely that the Classic will be awarded to the always-volatile country, the mere fact that it is being considered, along with the successes being achieved by Braun and other current Jewish ballplayers, signals the beginning of a new era in Jewish baseball.
Up until this point, one would have been hard-pressed to term baseball a “Jewish” sport. Only three Jewish-born players are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and only five Jews, including Braun, have won Most Valuable Player awards. The 1930s through 1950s — a time when most Jews lived in the country’s major cities and their abilities to purchase athletic equipment was limited — created an era of Jewish basketball all-stars and boxing champions, but few baseballers. Now, a trio of current superstars — Braun, Boston’s Kevin Youkilis, and Texas’ Ian Kinsler — have established this as the most prolific generation of major league baseball ballplayers.
Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish superstar in the Major Leagues, and the man known as “Hammerin’ Hank” (prior to future home run king Hank Aaron) paved the way for future Jewish players much like Jackie Robinson later did for African-American ballplayers. I wrote about Greenberg on my blog last New Year’s Day, which would have been his 100th birthday. Despite enduring rampant anti-Semitism and missing four years while serving in World War II, Greenberg, a hulking first baseman, compiled a .313 lifetime batting average to complement his 331 home runs and 1,276 RBIs. He won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award twice, in 1935 and 1940, and set major league records for both home runs (58) and RBIs (183) by a right-hand hitter. Also, although he played first base at the same time as Yankee legend Lou Gehrig, he was still selected to play in five All-Star games. Following his retirement, he held ownership interests and front-office positions with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956, the first Jew so enshrined.
Most importantly, however, Greenberg, a true mensch, as he withstood the vitriolic comments and insults being hurled at him by anti-Semitic opponents and fans. As his former teammate, Birdie Tebbets, said, “There was nobody in the history of the league who took more abuse than Greenberg, unless it was Jackie Robinson.… I was with Hank when it was happening and I heard it. However, Hank was not only equal to it, he was superior to most of the people who were yelling at him.… Hank consistently took more abuse than anyone I have ever known.… Nobody else could have withstood the foul invectives that were directed toward Greenberg …” (The Story of My Life, by Greenberg with Ira Berkow).
Greenberg’s heroics blazed a difficult trail to follow, but two members of the 1940s-50s Cleveland Indians attempted to take the mantel from him. During a fifteen-year career, Lou Boudreau won the 1944 batting championship and, while a player-manager for the Indians, captured the 1948 American League Most Valuable Player award. He also served as the radio voice for the Chicago Cubs for several decades, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970. His teammate, Al Rosen, was one of the standouts on the 1954 championship-winning Indians, a four-time All-Star, and won the 1953 MVP award. Rosen later served in front-office positions with the Indians and the New York Yankees, his stint with the Yankees taking place during the team’s “Bronx Zoo” successes of the late 1970’s.
The greatest of all Jewish players, however, was Sandy Koufax. Arguably the best left-hander ever to pitch in the majors and on everyone’s short list for best pitchers of all-time, the Brooklyn-born Koufax simply dominated the National League from 1961 through 1966. In the four seasons from 1963 through his retirement in 1966, he posted three seasons of sub-2.00 ERA, leading the National League in each season, and led the National League in wins three times. In fact, in 1963, 1965, and 1966, he led the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, capturing pitching’s equivalent of the “Triple Crown.” (as a side note, his totals in each of those years would have led the American League as well, further evidencing his dominance during that period).
Koufax pitched four no-hitters, including a perfect game, was selected as the Cy Young Award winner (there was only one for both leagues) in 1963, 1965, and 1966, and captured the NL MVP award in 1963, the last Jew to do so. Retiring at age 30 after only twelve seasons (ten full) due to recurring arm troubles, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
Koufax also made the legendary decision not to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. The Dodgers’ other superstar pitcher, Don Drysdale, took the mound for Los Angeles that day and did not pitch well, giving up seven runs in less than three innings. When manager Walt Alston came to the mound to replace him during the game, Drysdale remarked “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.” In 1934, it should be noted, Greenberg also refused to play on Yom Kippur. He did, however, play on Rosh Hashana, receiving a rabbi’s blessing to play and slamming two home runs.
Those four players formed the veritable “Mount Rushmore” of Jewish ballplayers until the current era. There were other successes: Ken Holtzman was a key member of the 1970’s Oakland A’s champions (along with fellow Jew Mike Epstein) and threw two no-hitters during his career. Orioles’ pitcher Steve Stone captured the AL Cy Young Award in 1980. Other Jews were notable for various reasons, such as World War II spy Moe Berg and Ron Blomberg, who famously served as the first designated hitter in Major League history and later managed a team in the sole season of the Israeli Baseball League, winning a championship.
History is also replete with Jewish owners and front-office leaders, including current commissioner and former Brewer owner Bud Selig and a quarter of machers who currently serve as their team’s general managers Ruben Amaro, Jr. (Philadelphia), Jon Daniels (Texas), Theo Epstein (Chicago Cubs), and Andrew Friedman (Tampa Bay).
The three former players who are now supporting Israel’s bid for the World Baseball Classic are Brad Ausmus, Gabe Kapler, and Shawn Green. A catcher who spent the majority of his career with Houston, Ausmus won three gold glove awards, was selected to the All-Star game in 1999, and stroked over 1,500 hits over his 18 big-league seasons. Kapler, who was once considered to be one of baseball’s best prospects and was nicknamed the “Hebrew Hammer,” toiled for six teams over a twelve-year career. Sporting various tattoos, including a Star of David tattoo on his left calf and a Holocaust-inspired tattoo on his right, his career was unfortunate example of unfulfilled potential. He did, however, enjoy some naches and celebrated as a member of the 2004 Red Sox championship team.
The best of these three is unquestionably Green. Over a fourteen-year career spent primarily with the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers, Green slammed 328 home runs, hit 445 doubles, and knocked in 1,070 runs. His 49 home runs in 2001 are the most ever by a Dodgers’ player, and he exceeded 40 homers in a season three times. A two-time All-Star, he also won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 1999.
The current crop of major leaguers, including the three All-Stars noted above, are the best group ever to be playing at one time. In his five seasons, Braun has already stroked 161 home runs and amassed 531 RBI’s to go along with his .312 batting average. Widely recognized as one of baseball’s premier players, he has been selected to the All-Star game and has been awarded baseball’s Silver Slugger award, given annually to the best hitters at each position. Youkilis was a key member of the Red Sox 2007 championship team, has been a three-time All-Star, and a 2007 Gold Glove winner. Kinsler, along with fellow Jew Scott Feldman, has been a key member of the Rangers’ team that has advanced to the World Series in each of the past two years, and was selected to the All-Star game in 2008 and 2010. Both he and Braun were members of the “30/30 Club” (home runs and stolen bases).
And there are other notable Jewish players: Mets’ first baseman Ike Davis (his mother is Jewish) and Tampa Bay outfielder Sam Fuld are stars in the making, and Arizona pitcher Jason Marquis has won over 100 major league games.
Israel is one of 16 teams which has been invited to play in next year’s World Baseball Classic qualifying round, and the top four teams from that competition will advance to the 2013 WBC tournament. According to Israeli baseball officials, the Israeli team, if it were to qualify for the WBC, would seek to recruit Jewish professionals to play for the team. Green has also indicated his desire to again put on a uniform and play if asked, meaning that the Israeli team could possibly be set up as follows:
1B Ike Davis
2B Ian Kinsler
SS Danny Valencia (the Twins’ third baseman would move to SS)
3B Kevin Youkilis
OF Ryan Braun
OF Sam Fuld
OF Shawn Green
C Brad Ausmus (he is 42 and retired since 2009, but still the best option)
P Jason Marquis/Scott Feldman
With the exception of the aged Ausmus, this would be a pretty formidable line-up. This minyan could contend with the Latin powerhouse teams of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and, with a little bit of mazel, could unseat the two-time defending champs, Japan. If nothing else, a good showing by the team will allow Jews over the world to kvell over its accomplishments, and could go a long way toward erasing the stigma against Jews’ inability to excel in sports, as was so memorably stated in the movie Airplane. The heroics of the current crop of Jewish all-stars, I would urge, is certainly sufficient to fill much more than a light-reading leaflet.