Sports Nut

Jews on First

Shawn Green tells the story like this: He’s digging in at the plate against the Cleveland Indians. He looks back and notices Jesse Levis catching. Calling balls and strikes is Al Clark. “Hi, Yids,” Green says. The men laugh. It’s a few days before Rosh Hashana and the three around the plate—star outfielder, opposing catcher, and longtime ump, all Jewish—wish each other a happy new year.

For years, Jewish boys who dreamed of playing in the big leagues could look only to black-and-white photographs of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax for inspiration. As recently as the mid-1990s, there was barely a smattering of Jewish ballplayers. Nobody even knew that the ones who lasted on big-league rosters—Ruben Amaro and Jose Bautista—were Jewish. Jewish baseball fans have long looked forward to the day when a minyan (10 men, the number allowing Orthodox Jews to conduct a formal prayer service) would make it to the show. This year, such sports-minded Messianics may finally get what they’ve been praying for.

The number of Jewish ballplayers on big-league rosters or expected to see action this season has swelled to 11. Eight Jewish players are in the bigs right now: Los Angeles Dodger Shawn Green, Atlanta Brave Jason Marquis, Texas Ranger Gabe Kapler, Philadelphia Phillies Mike Lieberthal and David Newhan, Houston Astro Brad Ausmus, and Anaheim Angels Scott Schoeneweis and Al Levine. Two more are almost guaranteed to be on a big-league roster before the season is out: Cleveland Indian Scott Radinsky underwent Tommy John surgery and will probably throw out of the Indians bullpen by the All-Star break. Keith Glauber was called up by the Cincinnati Reds last September and will likely be called up again this year. The 11th player and longest shot, Jesse Levis, hoped to join the Atlanta Braves for the first week of the season but was optioned to the minor leagues instead. But injuries to the Braves’ catchers may cause Levis to be called up this year.

The major-league minyan goes a long way toward destroying the second-most offensive stereotype about Jews in America: that we suck at sports. Jewish athletes have been disproving that myth for some time. Quarterback Jay Fiedler is Dan Marino’s successor in Miami. Swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg won three Olympic gold medals for the United States in Sydney. And everybody knows about gymnast Kerri Strug. But it’s baseball where the box score seems most dramatic. Three of the Jewish ballplayers are current or potential all-stars. Kapler hit over .300 last season. Lieberthal solidified himself as one of the game’s best young catchers. And Green (in an off year) hit .269 with 24 homers and an equal number of stolen bases.

Does it matter? To most, it doesn’t, and that’s a good thing. Fifty years after Jackie Robinson, baseball has become America’s most diverse sport. As more ballplayers reach our shores from Asia, Australia, and Latin America, the World Series finally isn’t a misnomer. That Jewish ballplayers are increasingly a part of America’s pastime is a victory for America’s Jews just as Robinson’s presence was for blacks and Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park are for Japanese- and Korean-Americans.

Why it’s taken so long to see such numbers is open to a number of sociological explanations. One theory has it that as Jews emigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, they embraced more “urban sports” such as basketball and boxing. Baseball required technical coaching, lots of space, and plenty of equipment. So it was only after Jewish families began moving to the suburbs that more Jewish youngsters took up the game. To this theory, add that for years sports weren’t viewed in many Jewish households as an honorable profession. Baseball was seen as a child’s game, and it’s only been with assimilation that more Jewish parents have supported their children in both athletic and scholarly pursuits.

What’s unquestionable is from Greenberg to Green, baseball has long held a soft spot in Jewish hearts. A Jew by the name of Lipman Pike was the first professional baseball player, when in 1866 he accepted $20 a week from the Philadelphia Athletics to play third base. Barney Dreyfus, who owned the Pittsburgh Pirates, is credited with founding the World Series. And over the years, players from Billy Nash to Jimmy Reese to Larry Sherry to Most Valuable Player Al Rosen to Cy Young Award winner Steve Stone have made their mark on the game.

As, likely, will Green, who is widely considered one of the best young players in the sport. Raised with negligible religious upbringing, Green says the support he’s received from Jewish fans in every baseball town he visits has inspired him to learn more about his heritage. So maybe George Carlin was right. Baseball is about coming home.