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Jewish World Review April 16, 2001 / 23 Nissan, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Big League Jews

Scouting the all-time Jewish baseball all-stars -- THOUGH Jewish success is commonplace in almost every sector of American life, there is still one place where a Jew succeeding seems out of the ordinary: sports. Great Jewish athletes are more the exception than the rule.

That’s why claiming ballplayers as Jewish heroes remains a popular pastime. Admittedly, we have come a long way since the days when the exploits of baseball star Hank Greenberg could play a meaningful role in building pride in their identity among young American Jews. Greenberg’s decision not to play in a crucial game that fell on Yom Kippur in 1934 is part of the folklore of American Jewry, along with the similar refusal of pitching legend Sandy Koufax to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series that also occurred on the Day of Atonement.

Greenberg’s exploits inspired a brilliant documentary — Aviva Kempner’s “Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” — which appeared in theaters last year and will be aired on HBO on April 28. Greenberg’s posthumous 1988 autobiography, "Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life" , is also being reissued by Triumph Books.

Given the enormous changes that have taken place in American society, whether or not today’s ballplayers show up for work on the High Holidays does not carry much significance any more. But for those of us for whom the arrival of spring primarily means the beginning of a new season for America’s national pastime, the role of Jewish players in baseball is still an intriguing subject.

The New York-based Jewish Sports Review publication puts the number of Jews who have suited up for a major-league club since professional ball was first played in 1869 at more than 130.

Though most of us know the two Hall-of-Famers (Koufax and Greenberg), there were many fine Jewish players down through the years, dating back to the earliest days of organized baseball, when a Pennsylvania Jew named Nathan Berkenstock appeared in a few games in 1871 for the Philadelphia Athletics of the National Association.

Jewish big leaguers include a batting average leader (Buddy Myers of the Washington Senators in 1935), home-run king (Al Rosen of the Cleveland Indians in 1950 and 1951), an earned-run average leader (Saul Rogovin of the Chicago White Sox in 1951) and a Cy Young Award winner (Steve Stone of the Baltimore Orioles in 1980).

One of the big problems in compiling such a list is determining, in this age of intermarriage and mixed identities, who is a Jew. For instance, does a player with Jewish parentage (or at least one Jewish parent) count if he converted to or was raised in another religion? I would say not.

Nor, tempting as it would be, does the great Rod Carew count as a Jew. A Hall of Fame infielder who played in the 1960s and ’70s, Carew married a Jewish woman and raised his children as Jews. But, contrary to rumor, Carew never converted to Judaism.

Another hard case is that of current Philadelphia Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal, who has a Jewish father. But when contacted by the Jewish Exponent for an interview, the Phillies told us that Lieberthal does not wish to identify himself as a member of the Jewish community. That’s his right (the fact that the photo of Lieberthal’s family that appeared in the Phillies 1999 Yearbook showed them posed in front of a Christmas tree was a good clue) and good enough for me, even though Jewish Sports Review and other publications still count him, and others with similar feelings, as Jews.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who converted to Judaism, such as 1981 World Series Most Valuable Player Steve Yeager and 1960s’ Chicago White Sox hurler Joel Horlen. By my lights, both count as Jews, though, for some reason, Jewish Sports Review counts Yeager but not Horlen.

One Jewish baseball fanatic is doing something more than merely speculating about Jewish players. Martin Abramowitz, a Jewish communal professional in Boston, is working on a project to create a set of baseball cards dedicated solely to Jewish major leaguers.

A card collector who worked on the hobby with his young son, he found that many of the Jewish players never had a card made in their honor. But Abramowitz is determined to see that all of the Jewish players will one day get their due.

Accordingly, he has embarked on this difficult project, called “Jewish Major Leaguers.” He has been hard at work digging up photos of all the players, with the assistance of the Brace Photo Archive in Chicago, and has found pictures of nearly all the Jewish players. When I talked to him last month, he was down to the last three missing Jewish players, all of whom were from the 19th century.

He has also enlisted some interesting assistance. On the backs of the cards, along with the player’s lifetime statistics, Abramowitz includes a brief bio. In some cases, he has recruited relatives or friends to write the blurb. In one instance, playwright and film director David Mamet has consented to write the back of the card for Greg Goosen, who was a catcher for the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Senators from 1965-70. Mamet has gotten to know the ex-player because Goosen currently works as a stand-in in Hollywood. Abramowitz is negotiating a joint marketing plan with the American Jewish Historical Society that he expects to come to fruition this spring, but he is still at least one year away from production. Even after all the photos are found and cards created, he still has to negotiate a licensing agreement with Major League Baseball, which will be difficult.

In the meantime, Abramowitz is continuing his work and building a Web site for the project. Those who wish to contact him or offer assistance can e-mail him at

I decided to go one step further and determine just how good an all-time Jewish team would be. Using the FoxSports Web site, I decided to compile a team via Fox’s Diamond Legends game (, which allows baseball fanatics to play an ultra-sophisticated, online version of the old Strat-o-Matic Baseball board game I loved as a kid.

The game allows players to pick teams from the list of all retired players (thus, current stars, such as outfielder Shawn Green of the Dodgers, are ineligible), who play in a simulated season of 162 games played over a nine-week period.

The rub is that each major leaguer is assigned a salary level comparable to what he might have made had he played in the late 1990s, and game players are limited to a payroll of $50 million for 30 players. While that limit would prevent one from reassembling an all-time great team, such as the 1927 Yankees, my Jewish all-stars fit comfortably within the salary cap.

Competing against 11 other baseball nuts from around the globe (including one in England), I drafted an all-Jewish team I called the Maccabees.

Unfortunately, some of the players I wanted were not on the database which, though voluminous, does not have every marginal player from baseball’s distant past.

Thus, I wasn’t able to pick legendary U.S. spy and longtime third-string catcher Moe Berg for the team. It was said that the brilliant Berg could speak 12 languages but couldn’t hit in any of them. I have contented myself with the thought that while Berg couldn’t play for the Maccabees, he is nonetheless sitting in their dugout in cyberspace stealing signs from the other teams.

Putting a competitive roster together was no easy thing, as Jewish players have been disproportionately first basemen and left-fielders (the latter can be explained by politics, though not the former).

Here are my starters:

At catcher, I had a platoon of Yeager and 1930s’ New York Giants star Harry Danning. Hank Greenberg is at first and Buddy Myer at second. Shortstop is a problem since Andy Cohen, who played a couple of years for the Giants in the 1920s, wasn’t in the database. So, I cheated a little bit and picked a ringer — Hall of Fame Cleveland Indian shortstop Lou Boudreau, whom my research indicated had a Jewish mother. At third, I have slugger Al Rosen.

The outfield consists of Sid Gordon, a fine player for the Giants and the Braves in the ’40s and ’50s; Morrie Arnovich, who played for the Phillies from 1936 to 1940; and Elliot Maddox, an African-American convert who played for a number of teams, including the New York Yankees in the 1970s.

Ron Blomberg, a Yankee who had the dubious distinction of being the first-ever designated hitter, is my DH, with other backups, including Mike (“SuperJew”) Epstein, who played for the Senators, and Art Shamsky (a 1969 Met).

Among those pitching for the Macs are Sandy Koufax; Steve Stone; Joel Horlen; Saul Rogovin; Erskine Mayer (who pitched for the Phils from 1912 to 1918, and whose photo shows him to be a dead-ringer for Atlanta Jew Leo Frank, who was lynched by an anti-Semitic Georgia mob in 1914); Ken Holtzman, who starred for the Cubs, A’s and Yankees in the ’60s and ’70s; and Dodger reliever Larry Sherry, who was MVP of the 1959 World Series.

While this seems like a group that might have a chance to win, cyberspace ball has not been kind to the Maccabees. After 96 games played (of a 162-game season, just like the majors) against teams boasting some of the greatest players of all-time, they are currently a dismal 37 wins and 59 loses.

Blame the manager if you like, but injuries and inexplicable slumps have resulted in a dismal ride to a next-to-last-place standing. Hank Greenberg’s back injury early in the season has limited him to part-time duty and caused him to be ineffective even when playing (at least he can’t be drafted by the U.S. Army as he was in real life). Boudreau has been terrible, which, I suppose, serves me right. And our other Hall-of-Famer Koufax appears to be more the young Koufax who couldn’t get the ball over the plate than the unhittable Koufax of 1961-66.

Alas, my best hitter has been Blomberg, which is some consolation since he was a favorite of mine when he played for my beloved Yankees and had a brief moment of stardom when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated in the summer of 1973.

Still the game, as well as the research that went into it, has been a lot of fun. In the meantime, I will await the publication of Abramowitz’s set of baseball cards with anticipation and enjoy the new baseball season. See you at the ballpark!

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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