Jews & Baseball

Why do we idolize Jewish baseball players?

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It had not been long before Greenberg's emergence as a star player that the Ku Klux Klan had reorganized in the wake of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, and he was hardly the only Jew who faced violent anti-Semitism in that era. A few years before Frank was dragged from his jail cell, an anti-Semitic police riot broke out in New York with uniformed officers shouting "Kill those Sheenies [Jews]! Club them right and left!"

In the 1920s, just a few miles from where Greenberg would bring fans, Jewish and gentile alike, to their feet in the 1930s, American icon Henry Ford published his deeply anti-Semitic Dearborn Independent. It was shut down in 1927 after a libel lawsuit, but Ford remained an influential figure in American life.

In the face of such attitudes, it's less than surprising that American Jews would flock to those figures who found acceptance in mainstream American circles. Before Greenberg stepped foot in the batter's box, American Jews were celebrating the ascendance of legal scholar Louis Brandeis, for example.

In a sense, whenever a Jew climbs to the heights of society, it shows that any Jew can be just as American as their next door neighbor. It's that much better when a Jew does it and stays true to their faith, better still when mainstream America applauds that devotion.

Pride and Heroics

Of course, while Jews are proud of successful figures in law, politics, medicine, and scholarship, they hold a different appreciation for Jewish entertainers and sports figures. Brandeis evoked pride. So did Joe Lieberman when he became the first Jewish American on a major presidential ticket in 2000. Yet neither man approached the lasting mystique and popularity attached to Jewish sports heroes.

Jewish major leaguers have received their own special baseball cards, courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, and it's no one-time deal. They've been updated annually, and the sellout success of the 2003 edition prompted a weekend seminar on Jewish players at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

It's further telling that in the summer of 2007 Israel inaugurated its own baseball league with legends of the Jewish baseball world at the helm. The aforementioned Art Shamsky was named manager of the Modi'in Miracle, while Ken Holtzman--holder of the most career wins by a Jewish pitcher in the majors--managed the Pioneers of Petach Tikva.

Ron Blomberg, the Jewish Yankee who made history as the first designated hitter in the major leagues, led the Blue Sox of Bet Shemesh. In his autobiography, he told of his first arrival in New York to an entourage of yarmulke-donning Jews. He was nothing more than a rookie prospect, but he got fan mail by the sack: "Every Jewish mother in the world wanted to introduce me to her daughter, and each letter included a photograph," Blomberg wrote. "Jewish girls were writing to me, saying they wanted to come to the stadium to meet me."

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Bradford R. Pilcher

Bradford R. Pilcher is the Managing Editor of American Jewish Life magazine. His writing has appeared in venues such as Wired News, PopMatters, Jewsweek, and he has served as an advisor to the National Museum of American Jewish History.