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Jewish Journal

Jewish Major Leaguers and why we care about them

by Peter Ephross, JTA

March 22, 2012 | 3:33 pm

Hank Greenberg in 1937. Photo by Harris & Ewing

Hank Greenberg in 1937. Photo by Harris & Ewing

Nearly all fans of baseball history have heard of Hank Greenberg. Most have heard of Al Rosen. But fewer have heard of Cal Abrams, and hardly any, it’s safe to say, have heard of Lou Limmer. All four are members of a compelling team—the 165 American Jews who played Major League Baseball between the 1870s and the end of the 2010 season.

Why should we care about Jews who played in the Major Leagues?

Baseball helped American Jews feel at home and helped non-Jewish Americans feel comfortable around them. For instance, there’s the famous Greenberg story of sitting out a game on Yom Kippur in 1934. The actions of the slugging Tigers’ first baseman along with his home runs made him a hero to Jews and non-Jews.

The conundrum of whether to play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, has resurfaced for many players, from Sandy Koufax deciding not to pitch in the first game of the 1965 World Series to, more recently, outfielder Shawn Green, both of the Dodgers. Every time a star player rests on the High Holidays, it generates national headlines and fosters Jewish pride. Of course, non-stars have to make the same call.

The story of Jews in baseball goes beyond the well-trod turf of the “High Holidays dilemma.” Rebutting anti-Semitism and fighting hecklers was not uncommon for Jewish players, even when the hecklers were on the opposing bench. In particular Rosen, a former amateur boxer, wasn’t shy about taking on hecklers.

Racial awareness is another theme. Most Jewish players understood some of the prejudices faced by black players. Some, like Abrams, felt a special bond with their black teammates.

“I associated with them because we had a rapport about being with each other,” Abrams said of his black teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers, including Jackie Robinson. “We kibitzed around with each other, but I didn’t go out with them. I mean, I wouldn’t go into the end of town to go dancing with the black people, but whenever we could we were together clowning around and kidding around.”

Jewish pride is a recurrent trope, too. Ron Blomberg made many New York Yankees’ ushers happy when he made his debut for the team in 1967.

“Most of them were Jewish, with names like Hymowitz or Lichstein, and three or four of them told me they never thought they would ever see a Jew play baseball in Yankee Stadium,” Blomberg recalled. “They had tears in the eyes and said to me, ‘You little Yid, you’re someone I can look up to now.’ ”

Pride in being Jewish is one thing, but being actively Jewish is another—most Jewish players, like most American Jews, weren’t observant. Many were raised Orthodox—Al Schacht says his mother wanted him to be a cantor—but none seemed to have maintained this level of observance as adults. It makes sense: Eating kosher food and maintaining any sense of Shabbat, which restricts behaviors from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday, would be impossible while pursuing a professional baseball career.

The collective accomplishments of Jewish Major Leaguers likely would surprise most people. Jews, who made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population during the 20th century, made up just 0.8 percent of baseball players from 1871 to 2002, the latest year for which the nonprofit organization Jewish Major Leaguers has complete figures. But Jewish players on the whole have fared better than average. They hit 2,032 homers—0.9 percent of the Major League total, and a bit higher than would be expected by their percentage of all players. Their .265 batting average is 3 percentage points higher than the overall average.

Jewish pitchers are 20 games above .500, with six of baseball’s first 230 no-hitters (four by Sandy Koufax, including a perfect game, and two by Ken Holtzman). The group ERA is 3.66, slightly lower than the 3.77 by all Major Leaguer hurlers. With the recent influx of top-flight Jewish Major Leaguers—Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Max Scherzer come to mind—the statistics even may have improved since 2002.

The stat in which Jews have fallen short is stolen bases, with a total of 995 through 2002—many fewer than Rickey Henderson stole all by himself. Apparently, Jewish players have observed the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.”

Of the 141 Jewish Major Leaguers as of 2002, 122 were born into families in which both parents were Jewish and 13 had one Jewish parent (seven with a Jewish father and six with a Jewish mother). Six players—including Elliott Maddox, an African American—converted to Judaism. Sixty-eight players hailed from New York or California, and the rest were born in 21 other states, as well as Russia, France, Canada and the Dominican Republic. Ten players changed their last names, all but one of them before Greenberg played.

Limmer, by the way, was a slugger who played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951 and 1954.

(Peter Ephross is the editor of the recently published “Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players,” from which this piece was excerpted.)

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