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April 15, 2012

Why Jews care about their MLB stars

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/why_jews_care_about_their_mlb_stars_20120415/

The summer game is back in full swing, and the Dodgers have jumped out to an 8-1 start. (I’m thrilled, but not making too much of it considering the Boys in Blue have played only the Padres and Pirates so far.) And this brings up a favorite topic on this blog.

I write often about Jews in sports, and when I do, it’s most often about Jews in baseball. It’s mostly a numbers game—they’re just aren’t that many Jewish basketball stars these days or in football ever.

But baseball has long been filled with Jewish stars. From Greenberg to Koufax to Shawn Green to last year’s NL MVP (and lots of guys in between). This has provided a lot of fodder for this blog and for Peter Miller’s documentary “Jews and Baseball.”

Why do Jews care about MOTs playing the national pastime? Here is Peter Ephross’ theory, via JTA:

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.

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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 and Ian Kinsler come to mind—the statistics even may have improved since 2002.

Read the rest here.

I agree that the social messages matter, but the bigger factor for most Jews, especially young Jews (or men for whom sports keep them young at heart) is just seeing someone from a similar background out there on the field. It’s not so much about breaking down stereotypes—Ryan Braun is not Abe Foxman—as it is about providing a hero in the sports world.

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