Ties between U.S. Jews and Baseball Go Deep

By Peter Ephross


This article is reprinted with permission of the JTA. Visit www.jta.org.

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y., Aug. 31 (JTA)–So what is it about Jews and baseball anyway?

What makes 300 people show up at a museum in upstate New York on a hot summer weekend to celebrate the history of Jews in baseball–the first celebration of ethnicity in baseball ever held at Hall of Fame?

Most answers at the conference this weekend on Jewish major leaguers revolved around the importance of Jews in American history, and of the role athletes have played in building Jewish identity.

“I’ve always been a positive Jew,” said Sanford Altschul, 64, of Chicago, who said he “looks for Jewish success in different areas of life.”

The collector of Jewish sports memorabilia added: “I’ve always wanted to come to Cooperstown. The Jewish thing gave it an added plus.”

Jewish slugger Hank Greenberg once put these feelings of pride into words when he said that he felt his home runs were a blow against Hitler.

But a few participants at the conference looked deeper for answers–with one scholar half-jokingly offering some hidden links between Judaism and baseball.

In a baseball game, nine players take the field for each team. Together, then, the number of players in a match-up is 18, which in Hebrew stands for life, said James Young, who heads the Judaic studies department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Young added that a baseball field is diamond shaped, a “diamond district” if you will. Stretching the joke, he said: “What the announcers do is like what yeshiva bochers do,” talking back and forth and trying to understand the rules and interpreting the past in order to understand the present.

Having a few yeshiva students on hand might have helped at one of the conference’s panels–on defining who exactly is a Jewish baseball player.

Martin Abramowitz, whose 142-baseball card set of Jewish major leaguers was the impetus for the conference, said that in developing his collection he relied on a list compiled by the Jewish Sports Review.

The editors of the publication consider a baseball player Jewish if one his parents was a Jew, if he practiced no other religion while he played and identified as a member of the Jewish community.

“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a Jew,” said Ephraim Moxson, one of the editors of the publication.

Some members of the panel noted that this standard contravenes Jewish law, which holds that if someone’s mother is a Jew, they, too, are Jewish.

“It’s taking a rule–which is maybe a very good rule–and imposing it on the Jewish religion,” said Peter Horvitz, the author of The Big Book of Jewish Baseball. Horvitz cited the historical reason for such a justification: “For 4,000 years, Jews have been offered the choice–convert or die.”

Of course, this rule has led to some oddities: some players who converted to Judaism after they played were still “Jewish ballplayers,” while Joel Horlen, a Chicago White Sox pitcher in the 1960s who converted to Judaism after he retired as a player, did not get a card.

The panel discussed difficult cases: Lou Boudreau, a mid-century player and manager who was born to Jewish parents but raised by his adopted parents as a Christian; and Jose Bautista, a recent player from the Dominican Republic whose claims that he is Jewish are debatable. In both cases, the ruling was a split decision. although neither got cards.

Later, the panelists were asked how they got interested in researching what to most people seems an arcane topic. `

“I was always curious to know who was Jewish as a kid. And there wasn’t a list,” said Shel Wallman, also of the Jewish Sports Review.


About Peter Ephross

Peter Ephross is JTA's foreign editor, responsible for editing stories from overseas reporters and updating JTA's Web site with the latest breaking news. He joined the JTA staff in 1997.