As its rich literature attests, baseball is the quintessential American experience, with particular meaning for immigrants and minority populations. For immigrants, baseball opens a door to American culture and language. For minority populations, baseball can offer both a respite from the challenges of assimilation and a possible pathway to acceptance and even success. All of this is particularly true for American Jews, an immigrant, minority group for which baseball has held almost mystical meaning as a ticket into the American mainstream.
As an American Ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, in addition to trying to explain American policy (often as confusing as the rules of baseball), I also tried to explain what makes America tick — how we think, why we do the things we do and what our society is really like. I talked about baseball to help foreigners understand why Americans are so attached to the game and what the game has meant to Americans over the years. I stressed that, to understand us as Americans, one needed to understand our national pastime — baseball.
To be honest, no one in the Middle East was interested in baseball. Some told me it was too hard to understand or too boring. Many had never heard of baseball and were quite content to leave things at that. They were unimpressed with the rich literature of the game, or the deep philosophical teachings of the likes of Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel. It meant little to them that, for example, in February 1992, more American homes watched The Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat” than a first-run The Cosby Show or the Winter Olympics.
What finally caught the attention of some, at least in Israel, was the fact that many Jewish immigrants to the United States, like others who reached these shores, gravitated to baseball as a means of cultural assimilation — knowing how to talk, what the idioms are, what “normal” Americans like. Baseball became part of the American Jewish landscape. Baseball, in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, was the metaphor for assimilation and the challenges America poses to traditional ways of life.
Take, for example, the advice given by the editor of a “Bintel Brief”, an advice column in the Yiddish-language Forward newspaper, to a reader about 100 years ago: Let children play the “wild American game [of baseball]…Don’t let your child grow up a stranger in his own country.” Or listen to the lyrical prose of columnist Jonathan Tobin in describing the Jewish affinity for the game: “Baseball is a game that can break your heart, and to a people whose history has had more than its share of sadness, it was a perfect fit.” Indeed, can this explain the special affinity some Jews have for the Mets and the Cubs?
What Jewish kid hasn’t dreamed of growing up to throw a 90 mph fastball or smack 40 home runs every season, to be the next Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg? How many hours have Jews spent in synagogues focused less on the rabbi’s sermon and more on the comparison of Mantle and Mays, Williams and DiMaggio? And, today, how many Jews are confused by the intersection of Jewish sports heroism—Ryan Braun in 2011 as Most Valuable Player—and performance-enhancing drugs—Ryan Braun in 2013 suspended, first crying anti-Semitism, and then publicly apologetic?
One need not look far to see the seamless connection of Jews to America’s national pastime. Compare Bart Giamatti, the Yale philosopher and university president-turned baseball commissioner–“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”—with Jonathan Tobin–“The return of baseball every spring is like the coming of Passover: a sign of continuity and life.”
There have been many ways of celebrating baseball and its particular meaning for Jews. There is a complete set of baseball cards focused on Jews who played the game. There was, for one season in 2007, a professional baseball league in Israel. And there will be an ambitious exhibition next spring in Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History aptly named “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Jews in America.” The dream of baseball and the dream of integration and acceptance in American mainstream life will continue to motivate America’s Jews.
In this High Holy Day season, is the model for American Jews Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, who observed the Yom Kippur day of fasting, repentance, and renewal and whose Hall of Fame careers were enhanced by this display of character? Or is the model Ryan Braun, so talented and yet so tainted? Will our heroes be men and women of principle – recall the words in The Big Lebowski: “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax…”—or will we be left with anti-heroes reliant on performance-enhancers?
As American Jews reflect on the recent Yom Kippur liturgy and sometimes longer rabbinical sermons, perhaps they can consider the final lines of the poem written in 1934 by Detroit Free Press columnist Edgar Guest about Hank Greenberg’ decision not to play on that holy day:
“We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat; but he’s true to his religion — and I honor him for that!”
Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, teaches Middle East policy studies at Princeton University. In 2007, he served as the commissioner of the professional Israel Baseball League.