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Authors: Peter Ephross, Martin Abramowitz

Published: 2012

Pages: 227

Price: $35 (Amazon.com or McFarland Publishing/800-253-2187)

Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Reviewed by Stuart M. Katz for Jewish Baseball News

Overview

In Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words, authors Peter Ephross and Martin Abramowitz present oral histories of 23 of the Jewish players who were on Major League rosters between 1918 and 2005. Beginning with Bob Berman, who played for the Washington Senators in 1918, and ending with Adam Greenberg, who played one fateful game for the Chicago Cubs in 2005, the book provides an unusual window into America’s pastime.

What’s Jewish about it

Some interesting and common themes emerge in the book. Most of the players from the first half of the 20th century identify themselves as traditional Jews, say they experienced anti-Semitism (although not as virulent as the discrimination they saw African-American players suffer), and typically didn’t play on the High Holidays. Jews who played more recently were more likely to be from mixed marriages and less likely to take the High Holidays off.

Jesse Levis, who played for the Indians and the Brewers, recalls playing on Yom Kippur in 1996. He explains that because he wasn’t a superstar, he didn’t feel he had a choice, although he did fast that day. “I’m not Sandy Koufax…I’m a Major League player trying to make a living,” he says. As it happened, Levis didn’t get a hit that day — or for that matter, he says, the rest of the season. “God punished me anyway.” Former 1st-round draft pick Ron Blomberg recalls playing in a game in 1973 that lasted into the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “The game was tied with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, but we had a man on third base. I had to make the decision: quit the game for Rosh Hashanah, or get a base hit….I got a clutch base hit to win the game – the biggest hit of my career. I cherish that at-bat more than anything else in my life.”

Regardless of the era, Jewish pride resonates throughout many of the interviews. Hank Greenberg, who died in 1986, said that when a Jew hears about a gifted Jewish athlete, statesman or artist, “you take a certain pride in the fact that one of your own people (has) made good.”

My take

Although much has been written about Greenberg and Koufax, far less is known about the careers of others featured in the book, men like Sam Nahem, Cy Block and Mike Epstein. Their stories as non-superstars are no less interesting. Among the most compelling chapters are the ones devoted to Elliott Maddox and Jose J. Bautista, whose Judaism was less obvious because they are African-American and Hispanic, respectively.

The obstacles that Jewish ballplayers faced in the 20th century resembled the assimilation struggles that most American Jews faced during that era. But as these oral histories reveal, maintaining Jewish traditions remained extremely important to the players. I look forward to a future volume featuring interviews with Braun, Youkilis, Breslow, Ian Kinsler, Gabe Kapler and other more recent players. I wonder if they will describe their connection to Judaism as clearly and proudly as those who blazed the trail for them.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Employment & Labor Group and represents employers as well as executives.
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Braun hits the first of 3 HRs (Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

By Scott Barancik/Jewish Baseball News

When Ryan Braun smashed three HRs against the San Diego Padres on Monday night (see video), Jewish baseball fans everywhere celebrated.

Here are a few more reasons to be proud:

  • The Milwaukee Brewers right fielder is just the fifth Jewish player since 1918 to homer 3 or more times in a 9-inning game, and the first to do so in nearly 10 years.

Players with 3+ HRs in a 9-inning game, since 1918

NameTeamDateHRsNotes
Ryan BraunMilwaukee Brewers4/30/20123Went 4-for-5 with a triple, 6 RBIs, and 15 total bases
Mike LieberthalPhiladelphia Phillies8/10/20023Went 4-for-5 with a single and 4 RBIs
Shawn GreenLos Angeles Dodgers5/23/20024Went 6-for-6 with a single, double, 7 RBIs, and 19 total bases
Shawn GreenLos Angeles Dodgers8/15/20013Went 3-for-5 with 7 RBIs
Mike EpsteinWashington Senators5/16/19693Went 3-for-4 with 4 RBIs
Al RosenCleveland Indians4/29/19523Went 4-6 with a single, walk, and 7 RBIs
  • Hank Greenberg, who leads all Jewish players with 331 career HRs, never had a 3-HR game. He did hit two HRs in a game 35 times.
  • Thanks to an added triple Monday night, Braun finished with 15 total bases. The last time a major-leaguer had 15 or more total bases in a 9-inning game? Nearly 8 years ago, when Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals hit 3 HRs, a double, and a single against the very same San Diego Padres (7/20/2004).
  • Monday night’s game took place in a venue — San Diego’s Petco Park — that is unfriendly to HRs, though much more so to lefties than righties. As this article points out, the Padres as a team hit just 6 HRs in their first 14 home games this season. Braun matched half that number in just one game. (Thanks to Jewish Baseball News contributor Jack W. for the tip.)
  • Monday’s performance vaulted Braun into a tie for 2nd-most HRs in the National League this season, behind Matt Kemp’s 12 dingers. The Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder finished 2nd to Braun in last year’s N.L. MVP vote.

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Matzoh Balls and Baseballs

Support Jewish Baseball News by clicking on this image and buying Matzoh Balls and Baseballs at Amazon.com.

JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS — Baseball, as we all know, is a stats-obsessed sport.

Fans tend to be more interested in a player’s career HR total or on-base percentage than in his personal journey to the Majors.

That’s one of the nice things about Matzoh Balls and Baseballs, a book recently published by longtime Georgia State University broadcaster Dave Cohen. Cohen sat down with 17 retired Jewish pros, turned on a tape recorder, and, with a minimum of questions, let them talk.

The result is a Q&A format where athletes like Elliott Maddox and Cy Young Award winner Steve Stone tell us their stories in their own words.

Maddox, for example, discusses his conversion to Judaism, why his mother was so supportive of it, and what it was like to play minor-league ball in Rocky Mount, N.C., where a billboard welcomed visitors to “Klan country.”

Barry Latman talks about striking out 19 batters during a perfect game in high school, his unlikely friendship with Ty Cobb, and how his grandfather temporarily disowned him when he dropped out of the University of Southern California.

Norm Miller tells about “Gibsonitis” (the paralyzing fear of facing pitcher Bob Gibson), being one of four Jews on the Houston Astros’ 1967 roster, and being in the dugout when Hank Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run.

Other players Cohen interviewed include Larry Yellen, Ron Blomberg, Jim Gaudet (who converted to Judaism after his MLB  career), Richie Scheinblum, Joe Ginsberg, Ross Baumgarten, Mike Epstein, Ken Holtzman, Norm Sherry, Steve Hertz, Don Taussig, Norm Miller, Morris Savransky, and Al Rosen.

In short, Dave Cohen has interviewed roughly 10 percent of all the Jews who ever played major-league baseball. And for $10.76, you can read what they have to say.

Note: Support Jewish Baseball News by clicking this Amazon.com link and buying Matzoh Balls and Baseballs there. Amazon will pay JBN a small commission (about 43 cents).

Disclosure: Havenhurst Books provided Jewish Baseball News with a free review copy of Matzoh Balls and Baseballs. No other consideration was provided.

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