Monday, February 25, 2008


The movie Airplane, known for its many gags (Don't call me Shirley!) has one in which when asked for "light" reading, the flight attendant provides the very thin book "Jewish Sports Heroes". Jewish professional baseball and football players are interesting because there are so few of them. Most Jewish boys are taught at an early age that they have a better chance of owning a big league team than playing for one. Not that that's a bad thing.

I have a list of 150 Jewish baseball players who played in the major leagues. I can assure you that the list of Jewish chess players is a lot longer. Jewish parents encourage their kids to be mensches--doctors or lawyers, but "not to chase a ball around like children" as one concerned immigrant father wrote in 1903 to the Yiddish Daily Forward.

In scanning the list, there are of course the obvious ones--Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, not to mention Cleveland slugger Al Rosen who just missed winning the 1953 Triple Crown, batting .336 with 43 homers and 145 RBI's (Someone named Mickey Vernon batted .337 that season.) Then there are other pitching stars like Ken Holtzman, a fellow Illini and World Series star; Steve Stone, a former Cy Young Award winner; and Larry Sherry, another World Series pitching star. We have contemporary players like sluggers Shawn Green and Brewers rookie star Ryan Braun. Also, Astros star catcher Brad Ausmus, former Chisox pitchers Scott Schoeneweis, Scott Radinsky and Ross Baumgarten (who pitched a no-hitter); Cubs pitcher Jason Marquis and his pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Another Hall of Famer, Rod Carew, a Panamanian, married a Jewish lady, raised his kids Jewish and attended services although he never formally converted.

Some of the others are not so obvious, like Jose Bautista, a former Cubs pitcher from the Dominican Republic and Ruben Amaro, a Latin outfielder. Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, whom everyone assumed was Greek, turned out to be a Romanian Jew. Incidentally, the Cincinnati native had one line in the 1994 Melanie Griffith movie Milk Money, when he was 15.

Former Chisox pitching star of the 1960's Joel Horlen converted to Judiasm. How about the late Cubs announcer, manager and Hall of Famer, Lou Boudreau? I wouldn't have believed that either, but his mother was Jewish, although he was not raised Jewish.

In the 1989 World Series, both team owners, Bob Lurie (Giants) and Walter Haas Jr. (A's) even belonged to the same synagogue, Temple Emannuel in San Francisco.

The NY Giants of the 1920's, desperate for a drawing card to match the Yankees' Babe Ruth, signed up Mose Solomon, nicknamed "The Rabbi of Swat". He got the name when he hit 49 homers in 108 games playing for the Hutchinson (Kansas) Wheat Shockers, deep in the bush leagues. Unfortunately Solomon couldn't catch the ball, making 31 errors at first base in that short season. He did play two games for the Giants, swatting out 3 hits, but his poor fielding proved to be his undoing.

In the early 20th Century there were quite a few Jewish players who changed their names to fend off anti-Semitism, and so it would be impossible to recount all the Jewish players. One story is instructive:

Jimmy Reese, who coached in the Majors into his 80's had played for several years in the early 1930's for the New York Yankees. His roommate was a guy named Babe Ruth. Reese once recounted that he actually roomed with Babe Ruth's suitcase. The Babe, of course, was as well known for his carousing as his hitting.

One time in an exhibition game, the opposing team had a Jewish pitcher Harry Ruby, and catcher, Ike Danning who decided instead of using hand signals, to call the game in Yiddish, certain that nobody on the other team would understand. Reese, normally a weak hitter, pounded out 4 hits in the game. After the game Ruby remarked, "I didn't know you were that good a hitter, Jimmy." Reese replied that "You also didn't know my real name is Hymie Solomon."

Jewish players in the NFL are far and few between also. There are some Hall of Famers like longtime Chicago Bears QB Sid Luckman and San Diego Offensive Tackle Ron Mix. The late Defensive End Lyle Alzado was probably the greatest NFL lineman ever to come out of Yankton (S.D.) College. Some current Jewish football players include quarterbacks Jay Fiedler and Sage Rosenfels, Bears kicker Robbie Gould, and linemen Igor Olshansky (the first Russian born NFL player) and Mike Rosenthal (a Notre Dame alum).

The only current Jewish NBA player of which I'm aware is former UCLA star Jordan Farmar of the LA Lakers.

As few as they are, Jewish players are much better represented in baseball than some other ethnic groups. For example, very few baseball players were born in Europe where most people play soccer. The only player born in the Netherlands was pitcher Bert Blyleven, a perennial Hall of Fame candidate who won 287 games in his 21 year career. The only French-born player was San Diego catcher and later manager Bruce Bochy. Bobby Thomson, who hit the famous "Homer Heard 'round the World" to win the 1951 pennant for the NY Giants was the only big leaguer from Glasgow, Scotland.

The sole Czech-born big leaguer was Elmer Valo who played 21 years for mostly awful teams. He holds the record as the only major leaguer to suffer through two 20 game losing streaks in his career--with the Philadelphia A's in 1943 and with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1961 (actually, 23 games). Despite his inept teammates, Valo was actually a pretty good hitter who batted over .300 in 4 seasons, with a top average of .364 in the 1955 season. (Valo's on-base percentage that season was .460).

Some areas of the U.S. are lightly represented in professional sports. Very few big leaguers (only 15 in history) hail from North Dakota, for example, where hockey is king. The most notable was Yankees' slugger Roger Maris was actually born in Hibbing, Minnesota (also hometown of Bob Dylan), but lived in Fargo, N.D. Maris hit an incredible 61 homers in the pre-steroid era of 1961, breaking Babe Ruth's 34 year record. One can visit (as we did) the Roger Maris Museum in the West Acres Shopping Mall in Fargo N.D. Admission is free.

Many of the biggest stars in baseball today are of Hispanic origin. The greatest Hispanic hitter of all time? Drum roll, please. Hint: There's an expressway tunnel named after him. No there's no Sammy Sosa expressway in Chicago, although there is a Roberto Clemente High School. Seriously, it was Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams (raised in San Diego, his mother was Mexican). Built during Williams' lifetime, Boston spent $1.9 billion constructing the Ted Williams Tunnel which goes to the airport. That tunnel took 27 years from planning to completion, which was longer than Ted Williams' baseball career.



Thursday, February 7, 2008


As you may know, Dianne and I travel quite a lot, and we stay in many hotels.  One thing common to hotels, at least in the U.S. is that all hotel rooms have a Holy Bible in the drawer.  Occasionally, I even get an opportunity to read passages from it.

One story that always intrigues me is that of Adam, Eve and the kids.  Shortly after Adam and Eve were created, they "knew" each other and conceived Cain, and later Abel.  After Cain killed Abel, they knew each other again and conceived Seth as a replacement for Abel.  Adam was 130 years old at the time.  People lived longer in those days, before hospitals.  The pertinent passages are in Genesis 4:1 through 5:5.

One must consider, of course, whether all this stuff is the gospel truth--well I guess it's that.  But is it true from a historical standpoint?  Archaeologists have some interesting answers to many Biblical stories that were once thought to be legends but are now considered historical fact. 

Back to our story:  shortly after Abel's death, Cain went away to live in the Land of Nod where he "knew" his wife and they had a son, Enoch.  So the question is, who is Cain's wife and where did she come from?   And who, if anyone, lived in the Land of Nod, and if they did, where did they come from?  The Bible doesn't give us enough information, at least in the King James Version.

But it does say that Cain built a city there and named it after his son.  Did he build the city by himself or did someone help him? Did he hire contractors?  Who made the bricks?  Who issued the permits, if any?  And, by definition, if there's a city, there must be people to populate that city.  Were they all related?

Another problem here is that unless God created other people besides Adam and Eve, it appears that Cain married his sister, which, of course is prohibited in Leviticus 18-20.

Over the millenia, there has been much discussion of these questions which were often used by skeptics to discredit Judeo-Christsian teachings by showing that the Bible as a historical record cannot be defended.  For example in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, as shown in the movie, Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy, the attorney Clarence Darrow asked the fundamentalist prosecutor William Jennings Bryan--who was defending the faith against evolution--the question of Cain's wife.  Bryan, supposedly a Biblical scholar, had no answer.  The same question was raised in Carl Sagan's book Contact, later made into a movie with Jodie Foster, to illustrate that the Bible should not be read literally. 

Actually, the answers are compatible, if one thinks about it, and as a practical matter, the Theory of Evolution and that of Intelligent Design are not mutually exclusive.  While I don't presume to know any more about God's intent than do the scholars, certainly evolution is a way to describe God's organization of the development of the various species.  First God starts with invertebrates, moves on to vertebrates, and builds from there, eventually moving on to more complex animals like humans. 

In Genesis 2:2, just before the creation of Eve, we learn that Adam, after looking over the animal kingdom and maybe the Neanderthals also, could not find a mate of his kind.  This indicates to scholars that no other people existed.  Therefore, our modern faiths are based on the fact that Adam and Eve were the first, and everyone in the world is descended from them.  Actually the study of mitrachondral DNA  has shown that we're all descended from one woman--in Africa.

Fortunately, the scholars have given us food for thought about those questions.  In Genesis 5:4, it is written that Adam and Eve did have other sons and daughters, over the next 800 years after Seth, but their names are not recorded, at least not in the Bible.  The Bible is ambiguous, and some of them (Cain's wife?) could have been born in the 130 years before Seth was born.  It does say, "And he fathered sons and daughters."  But it doesn't say when.   One scholar, the famed historian Josephus determined that they had 33 sons and 23 daughters.  Obviously A & E "knew" each other very well.  But then they lived to be over 900 years old.  The descendants of those 56 kids can add up to a lot of people over several generations. 

If no other people were created, then Mrs. Cain would have to have been Cain's sister, or perhaps his niece.  That was OK at the time because the prohibition against marrying close relatives was not instituted until Moses' time, perhaps a couple thousand years later.  Because there were so few people in the world at the time, there would not have been mutated genes which could cause birth defects.  (According to the Bible, God's creation was perfect, but degenerated later.) A millenium or two later, after the human race had time to develop and proliferate, that prohibition made good sense.  Incidentally, Abraham married Sarah, who was his half-sister, the daughter of his father, but not his mother.  (Genesis 20:12)

In any event, after Cain killed Abel, he realized that he was a marked man who feared that others would try to kill him.  God marked him to protect him from the others.  Who were those others?  If there were no other people, whom would Cain be afraid of?  Well, it would have been his other brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, etc. because presumably they would exact revenge for the killing of Abel, their close relative.

The first book of the Bible has some other interesting stuff, such as "Giants" or "Nephilim"  described in Genesis 6:4, who drop in from heaven and mate with humans, thus producing children who became "men of renown".   Hmmmm.  Maybe the Weekly World News isn't so far out after all.