Baseball celebrated itself again this week with the All-Star Game, played in Anaheim, and Jewish fans had reason to celebrate. Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun, whose father is Israeli, started for the National League. Texas Rangers’ second baseman Ian Kinsler was an American League reserve. First baseman Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox narrowly missed making the American League roster.
After a decline in the number of Jewish major leaguers, the numbers started rising again more than a decade ago: most notable was ex-Dodgers and Mets outfielder Shawn Green, a two-time All-Star whom many consider one of the best Jewish ballplayers of all time.
The first half of this season saw the promotion to the Mets of hard-hitting first baseman Ike — real name, Isaac Benjamin — Davis, who is named for his Lithuanian-born great-grandfather.
For a Jewish take on the All-Star Game, The Jewish Week turned to Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University and an expert on Jews in sports.
Q: One Jew in the starting lineup, another one coming off the bench, one who narrowly missed making the roster. Is Jewish baseball at the major league level making a renaissance?
A: While throughout the years there have always been famous and iconic Jewish ball players who have made it to the Big Show, actually we are not so much in a renaissance but in a heyday in terms of numbers of Jews in big-league lineups [about a dozen this year, according to estimates]. It is some degree a remarkable development as it belies the idea that as Jews have advanced economically in the U.S — and surely they have — they would be playing, and their best would be succeeding, in country club sports like tennis and golf rather than a blue-collar game like baseball.
More Jews in the majors. Good for the Jews? Good for Mel Gibson?
May their numbers increase. As far as anti-Semitism is concerned, who cares about Mel Gibson? But it does answer any critics who still think that Jews are not strong, non-athletic and therefore somehow un-American.
More than football or basketball or hockey, baseball has long held a symbolic place for American Jews. It’s the sport of choice for Jewish novelists. Why?
Although Jewish athletes of the immigrant generation were more likely to play basketball or box, they idolized baseball because it was the American game. It was part of their identification with this country even if most did not have open fields to perfect their swings.
Jewish ballplayers like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg were a source of ethnic pride in their generations. Are today’s “Jewish athletes,” who are Jewish on one side or less connected to the Jewish community than a few generations ago, still as popular in Jewish circles?
Jews as a group follow their athletic heroes’ exploits more than most ethnic groups. They check out their averages in the daily newspapers. But today, American Jewish athletes are less standard-bearers for our community. It has much to do with how accepted we are in this country. I think that pride has shifted to Israeli athletes who achieve on that world stage in an international atmosphere that is often very hostile to our people and our land.