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Interfaith Celebrities Take You Out To The Ballgame

July 8, 2008

Three's a Crowd

It's a record year for Jewish baseball players. Three Jewish players have been named to Major League Baseball's All-Star Game on Tuesday, July 15--only the third time in history (1939 and 1999) more than two Jews were selected to an All-Star Game. Two of this year's trio have interfaith backgrounds and one--Interfaith Celebrities favorite Kevin Youkilis--is engaged to a nice girl who isn't Jewish.

Kevin Youkilis
Kevin Youkilis hits a home run against the Detroit Tigers, May 7, 2008. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

After several years of displaying solid hitting, great on-base skills and ever-improving defense, Boston Red Sox first baseman Youkilis was elected to his first All-Star team at 29. As of this writing, he was batting .311 with a .382 on-base percentage, good for 11th in the American League. But none of that's surprising for a player nicknamed "The Greek God of Walks" by Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane. (Youkilis is a Greek name, but it's one that Youk's Romanian Jewish grandfather adopted.) What's unusual this year has been Youk's power--he has 13 home runs, three shy of his single-season best, as well as the 10th best slugging percentage in the American League. It remains to be seen whether he can keep it up. Historically, he's always had much better first halves than second halves.

As I noted in a previous column, Youkilis it is proud of his Judaism. He bases his philanthropic activity with his charitable foundation, Kevin Youkilis Hits for Kids, on the grounds that giving to charity is a mitzvah and part of his religion as a Jew. He's not just a good baseball player--he's a mensch.

In addition to his professional successes this year, Youkilis is engaged to Enza Sambataro, 29, who previously dated Ben Affleck and has a child by a previous marriage. Sambataro, who isn’t Jewish, is CEO of Hits for Kids.

Ryan Braun and teammate
Ryan Braun, right, greets teammate Joe Dillon. Reuters/Allen Frederickson.

Ryan Braun, of the Milwaukee Brewers, was elected the starting left fielder for the National League squad. The son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, Braun has been taking batting practice on Major League pitchers since being called up last year. In 198 career games, he's hit 55 home runs, which averages to 45 home runs per season. This year, he has 21 home runs, good for seventh in the National League, and a .544 slugging percentage, 10th in the senior circuit. I discussed Braun's loose but amiable relationship to his Jewish identity in a previous column.

Also named to the American League team as a reserve was Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler. Kinsler was neck-in-neck to start the game but eventually was beat out by Dustin Pedroia, Youkilis' teammate on the Red Sox, by 34,000 votes. It's a shame, because Kinsler is having an exceptional season: he's batting .322--first in the AL--with 14 home runs, 53 RBIs, 23 stolen bases and 79 runs--also first in the American League. After a terrific June and early July, his name is all over the leaderboards of the junior circuit. Like Braun he's the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother and was raised in no religion. Don't be surprised to see the two of them starring in All-Star games for years to come--Kinsler is 26 and Braun is only 24.

As for those other two record-setting years, the three Jewish All-Stars in '39 were Hall-of-Fame slugger Hank Greenberg, solid New York Giants catcher Harry Danning and Morrie Arnovich, a light-hitting outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies who was having a career year. In '99, it was Detroit Tigers catcher Brad Ausmus, who is still calling signals for the Houston Astros at 39, recently retired outfielder Shawn Green (playing for the Toronto Blue Jays at the time) and longtime, and also recently retired, Philadelphia Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal.

All-Star Song

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the famous song, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The Songwriters Hall of Fame just gave it its Towering Song award and Major League Baseball ran a contest to select a fan to sing the song during this year's All-Star Game. The post office will even issue a special stamp this summer to honor the song.

The song’s music was written by Albert Von Tilzer (1878-1956), who was Jewish, and the lyrics were penned by Jack Norworth (1879-1957). "Take Me Out" was first sung and made popular by the huge vaudeville star Nora Bayes (1880-1928). Bayes was married to Norworth at the time they first wrote and performed the song. Bayes, who was born Leona Goldberg in Joliet, Ill., was a dark-haired Jewish beauty. Philadelphia-born Norworth is described in a few biographies as the wayward son of an Episcopal Church choirmaster and organ player.

Von Tilzer was born Albert Gumm in the Midwest (Tilzer was his mother’s maiden name). Albert’s older brother, Harry Von Tilzer, preceded Albert into the songwriting business and established his own music publishing company, publishing his songs and those written by his brother and others. The Von Tilzer brothers were among the most successful of early Tin Pan Alley songwriters and they turned out hundreds of tunes on every imaginable subject, including baseball. Harry’s biggest hits--all written before 1910--were "Bird in a Gilded Cage," "When the Sun Shines Nellie," and a song that could only be written before Sigmund Freud’s theories became well-known, "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad." Albert’s biggest hit, after "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," was "Apple Blossom Time."

Nora Bayes
Nora Bayes, about 1910. From the cover of the sheet music, "When It's Apple Blossom Time," 1912. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bayes, while hardly remembered today, led quite a life and was, in the context of her time, a liberated woman who ran her own career. She performed as an amateur in Chicago until she was 18, when she began a career in vaudeville.

Vaudeville was the biggest thing in entertainment in the United States from the beginning of its golden age in 1900 until the advent of sound in the movies; "talkies" and the Great Depression killed the form in the early 1930s. Top vaudeville entertainers were superstars, and if a songwriter wanted his song to be a hit, the best way was to have a top vaudeville singer perform it. If the singer "put over the song," tens of thousands ran out to buy the sheet music and played the song on their home pianos. Bayes had a husky voice and audiences loved her. She also had a talent for comedy and was much in demand as the lead in light musical comedies, mostly presented on the New York stage.

Despite being important fixtures in family entertainment, Bayes and Norworth were both married five times! They were together from at least 1907 though 1912. Bayes and Norworth performed together on stage, usually with the following sign in front of the theater: "Nora Bayes, assisted and admired by Jack Norworth." In 1908, they co-wrote the famous song, "Shine on Harvest Moon." The same year Bayes introduced this great standard at the famous Ziegfeld Follies stage revue. Bayes went on to appear many other times with the Follies and she even built her own theater in New York. Sadly, she died from surgical complications in 1928 at 48.

According to popular myth, Albert Von Tilzer and Norworth wrote "Take Me Out" in less than an hour. It was just another novelty number to them and they had no idea what a hit it would be. After Bayes introduced it, other singers had a hit with the tune. But it really exploded in popularity when it was shown in movie theaters in 1908.

A primitive slide projector was set up in the theater. Slides of pro baseball fields were projected on to a screen. Then, the theater’s pianist played the song’s music while the lyrics were simultaneously projected onto a screen. The theater audiences were invited to sing along with the song’s chorus. Apparently, the theater crowds went nuts as they sang "buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don’t care if I ever get back."

"Take Me Out" was by far the biggest hit of 1908. The irony was that neither Jack Norworth nor Albert Von Tilzer had ever seen a Major League Baseball game before writing the song! It would be decades more until they finally decided to actually go to the ballpark.

Appropriately, this year's All-Star Game will be at Yankee Stadium, in the Bronx--about eight miles north of the historic Tin Pan Alley.

Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Yiddish term for an honorable, decent person, usually means "a person of integrity and honor," someone of good character and a deep sense of what is right.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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