Jewish Journal

Jews and baseball: An American news media love story

by Bill Boyarsky

Posted on Nov. 25, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Photo by AdStock RF/Shutterstock.com

Photo by AdStock RF/Shutterstock.com

For those of us who follow the careers of Jewish ballplayers — a small, eccentric niche of fandom — checking the Jewish Baseball News Web site is an essential part of our sports routine.

Scott Barancik, a former newspaper reporter turned Internet entrepreneur, works from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., posting news of vital interest to members of the Jewish sports fan tribe, among them: “Mazel tov to New York Mets infielder Josh Satin on his Nov. 9 marriage to Allyson Murrow.”

Or, showing the international range of Jewish ballplayers, “Former Cardinals prospect Kevin Moscatel spent the past year playing in Japan, but this fall the 22-year-old catcher is playing in his native Venezuela for Caribes de Anzoategui.”

Barancik’s frequently updated Jewish Baseball News (jewishbaseballnews.com) provides more than statistics and news items. It also offers a fascinating window into evolving Jewish life. If you are interested in sociology and demography as well as sports, you can see trends such as how Jewish families have settled into suburban life, with its youth sports leagues and other activities, where being Jewish may or may not be important in their lives.

Sometimes Jewish Baseball News reports great news, as when Brad Ausmus, who is Jewish, was named manager of the Detroit Tigers this year.  Ausmus had completed a long and illustrious career as a catcher, finishing up with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ausmus also coached Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, helped by two fellow Jews, former Dodgers star Shawn Green, and Gabe Kapler, who had many successful years in the major leagues after playing for Taft High School and Moorpark College.

And sometimes there is bad news. Jewish baseball hero Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers was suspended for 65 games for his involvement with Biogenesis, a Florida clinic that was being investigated in the baseball doping scandal. “Say it ain’t so, Ryan,” we fanatics said, echoing what a tearful kid was supposed to have cried when Shoeless Joe Jackson was implicated in the 1919 Black Sox bribery scandal: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

I called Jewish Baseball News editor Barancik recently and asked him how he got into this arcane activity. “It was a confluence of changes in my own life,” he said.

He had been laid off from the St. Petersburg Times, where he was a business reporter. So he created a business of his own. “You find out when you are laid off how resourceful you are,” he said. “I identified a niche for myself.”

News media were not covering the civil courts, which he knew were the source of much news, ranging from juicy divorces to ugly business quarrels. “Every kind of conflict is represented there, and conflict is the spine of a story,” he said. He started baylawsuits.com, a tip sheet of hot cases out of two local courthouses. He advertised, “In 60 seconds or less, you learn the story behind a lawsuit — and whether it is newsworthy.” He publishes his short tips four days a week. “My clients are the local news media, and they pay by the month,” he said. “Getting laid off is no fun, but working for myself is a lot of fun.”

There were two other changes in his life. Barancik and his wife, Rebecca, who have a daughter, joined a synagogue. “I grew up with very little Jewish identity,” he said.  “My wife grew up ‘Conservadox,’ and we began attending this synagogue in earnest.”

The second change was his return to his boyhood baseball fandom, an event prompted by his immediate post-layoff leisure time and a good local baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays. “Suddenly, there was this fascinating local team with its no-name players,” he said. He became a born-again baseball fan and a born-again Jew at about the same time.

Friends told him there were only one or two Jews in the major leagues, he said, but when he started researching he found more than a dozen. “I started gathering string,” he said. “I don’t know how many dead ends I ran into.”

Help came from the Jewish Sports Review (jewishsportsreview.com), edited by Ephraim Moxson, who lives in Pico-Robertson, and Shel Wallman of Manhattan’s West Side. 

Moxson and Wallman collect the names of Jewish athletes in sports ranging from football, basketball and baseball to table tennis. It is the national go-to spot for information on Jewish athletes, and Wallman and Moxson were willing to share with Jewish Baseball News. “They are the gold standard,” Barancik said.  

I called Moxson. “We go through the rosters of all major sports,” he told me. “We review every roster of every college, men’s and women’s, including small Christian schools in the South. You never know.”

Tips come from many places. A woman called Moxson and complained that her major league ballplayer son, Jason Marquis, hadn’t been mentioned in the Jewish Sports Review. “He’s not Jewish,” Moxson said. The woman replied that he was. “Our name was Marcus,” she said.

As he began Jewish Baseball News, Barancik had to struggle with a question that has long troubled our religion and probably never will be settled: Who is Jewish? Rather than consulting the rabbis, he accepted the criteria established by Moxson and Wallman in the Jewish Sports Review several years before: An athlete needs one Jewish parent, is not practicing any other religion and is willing to be identified as Jewish in public. Interestingly, their broad definition was not much different than that of the Pew Research Center in its recent public opinion survey of Jews: Those who “say their religion is Jewish (and who do not profess any other religion)” or “people who describe themselves … as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, but who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and who still consider themselves Jewish in some way.”

As I pursued this column, I felt I was learning something important about Jewish life in the United States.

I wondered why the number of Jewish ballplayers in the major and minor leagues is increasing. “In the ’50s and ’60s, there were five or six [in the majors]; now there are 15,” professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College, an intense scholar of the game, told me. “All but three [of the major leaguers] came from mixed marriages. To the extent there is a Jewish gene in baseball, it’s an intermarriage gene.”

Barancik and Dreier also attribute the growing number of Jewish baseball players to Jews becoming part of suburban life and being affluent enough to afford the expenses of youth sports — the expensive equipment, private coaching and travel.  

In addition, Dreier said, the major leagues are increasingly looking to colleges for players, and the schools with the best programs happen to be in areas with large Jewish populations — Florida and California.

We fanatics focus on numbers, but actually what we are witnessing is how Jewish life is changing.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

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