Monday, February 25, 2008

JEWISH AND OTHER ETHNIC MAJOR LEAGUERS

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.

KENNETH SUSKIN

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The jews don't represent much of the military or police either. As much as they exploit american media, and traditions.... It's kind-of sad.

June 12, 2012 at 3:23 PM  

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