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AL CLARK book coverBy Scott Barancik, Editor

From 1976 until MLB officials told him “You’re out!” in 2001, Al Clark was one of baseball’s most respected umpires, and among very few who were Jewish.

In a new memoir written with Dan Schlossberg, the 66-year-old Clark recalls the highlights and lowlights of his life in and out of baseball, from seeing Bucky Dent’s playoff home run and Nolan Ryan’s 300th win at field level to going to jail after a memorabilia scandal.

The son of a sportswriter, Clark also reflects on things Jewish: how blowing the shofar on the High Holidays prepared him for life on the diamond; his admiration for Shawn Green (and contempt for Bud Selig); and anti-Semitism he faced while umpiring in the minors.

The following excerpt is reprinted from Called Out But Safe: a Baseball Umpire’s Journey, published by University of Nebraska Press on May 1, 2014. Please note that while Jewish Baseball News received no compensation for this coverage, the website will receive a small commission for any books purchased via our Amazon link.

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Chapter 8 – The Yiddishe Umpire

When I was growing up in New Jersey, Jewish boys became doctors, lawyers, or accountants – certainly not professional umpires. I’m proud that I was able to change that.

Because of my career choice, my name is actually the answer to two Trivial Pursuit questions, in the sports edition. One is, “Who was the only person in professional sports who wore his name on his hat?” And the other is “Who was the first and only Jewish umpire in American League history? “

There have been National League umpires who were Jewish — Dolly Stark, Stan Landes, Al Forman, to name three. Later, Paul Schreiber served in both leagues after the staffs were combined. But I was the first and only Jewish American League umpire.

People were surprised when they found out I was a Yid. They said to me, “Geez, that’s not a profession for a Jewish boy, an umpire?” And they’d say umpiring is difficult and getting to the big leagues even more so, adding that if it were easy, more Jews would’ve tried.

I’m very proud I’m Jewish. I was bar mitzvahed in Ahavath Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Trenton, New Jersey, in a January that had a lot of snow. I even learned to blow the shofar for the high holidays.

My rabbi, Solomon Poll, took religion very seriously and was a very good teacher. Before the High Holy Days, he would bring out the shofar and show all the kids how to blow it. For some reason, maybe I was full of hot air even then, I could put the shofar on the side of my mouth and could hold the ram’s horn. I could blow the shofar and make it have a true sound.

It’s not easy but I didn’t think it was that tough either. The rabbi took a liking to the way I could blow the shofar and assigned me to do it in synagogue during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays. I was a rookie who came in cold. It’s a good thing the rabbi let me take the shofar home; I did a lot of practicing.

When the holidays finally arrived, I was more skittish than a cat in a room full of rockers. I was more nervous than I ever was on a baseball diamond – probably because I was so young and inexperienced.

But my grandparents couldn’t have been more proud. Their grandson, little Alan, was blowing the shofar on the High Holy Days. It was kind of cool.

Blowing the shofar was not only a good experience but helped make me comfortable years later. I was never nervous in front of people or nervous about public speaking. And isn’t public speaking supposed to be one of the most nerve-wracking things people do?

By the time I walked onto a big-league baseball diamond, I had years of training and experience in dealing with crowds.

I probably could have used shofar spring training but went to Yankee spring training instead. I grew up listening to Mel Allen broadcast Yankees games. We knew Mel was Jewish and came from Alabama; his real name was Mel Israel.

Religion wasn’t a big deal for me in the big leagues. I never forgot that I was Jewish. All I did was work hard.

With the exception of a handful of players, a few owners, and lots of writers – who wanted to be part of the game but probably weren’t good enough to play – baseball is primarily a world of non-Jewish people. The fact that I am Jewish never came into play, although some people did know about it.

Some of the players today don’t have a feeling of the history of the game and feel like major league baseball wasn’t important until they arrived. They don’t know the history. There are some African-American players today who don’t have a grasp on who Jackie Robinson was and what he did, nor Henry Aaron or Willie Mays. That’s a shame. They are cheating themselves of the great multi-ethnic foundation of our game.

There weren’t too many Jewish players in baseball history, but the ones who were there knew who Hank Greenberg was, what he did, and how he did it. And Moe Berg.

What a great story Berg was, whether you’re Jewish or not. He was a covert operative for the United States during World War II. Can a baseball story get any better than a player being a spy?

One story concerning Berg and Babe Ruth is priceless. Berg was a very intelligent man. He spoke multiple languages. After the 1934 season, players took a barnstorming trip to Japan for an exhibition tour. They didn’t fly in those years but took a cruise ship. They left from Los Angeles. The Babe asked Moe if he knew Japanese. Moe indicated he did not. After arriving, Ruth saw Berg speaking to their Japanese greeters in fluent Japanese.

After greetings and salutations, Babe went approached Berg and said, “Moe, you lied to me. Two weeks ago, I asked you if you knew Japanese and you said no.” Berg just looked at him and said, “Babe, that was ten days ago.” On the voyage, Berg learned Japanese.

Stories like that are inherent in our history—and when I say “our history,” the baseball lineage history. Players today should know more about that. The history of our game is what makes our game the greatest game in the world.

Later in life, I realized how important Moe Berg was; I read the book The Catcher Was a Spy. I was proud to know that people in our game were such tremendous patriots – not only Berg but many other players who served during WW II: Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, and others who selflessly gave of themselves to our country. They are to be admired and honored forever.

I never met Greenberg. I know he was Jewish and that bit of ethno-centrism, that we were both Jewish, made me proud Jews can excel in our national game.

Like Greenberg, Sandy Koufax retired long before I began my own baseball career. But I did meet Sandy a number of times. He is a gentleman above all, a quiet man. He gave of himself very sparingly but when he did, he was all in. He talked to pitchers whenever the situation warranted. He held nothing back once he was committed.

When I was a kid, I met Berg, a friend of my next-door neighbor John “Sparrow” Moran [Flip’s dad]. I even remember playing catch with him in my backyard. I do remember that Berg took the train with Sparrow Moran from Princeton to New York most days and I remember he was a catcher. Moran was a conductor on the now-defunct Pennsylvania Railroad.

My Jewish pride stems from the fact that these players were as good as they were AND we shared a heritage. Greenberg, Koufax, Al Rosen, and Ryan Braun won Most Valuable Player awards while Koufax and Steve Stone, along with half-Jew Jim Palmer, won Cy Young Awards.

Among today’s players, Shawn Green carved his own niche in baseball history, hitting four home runs, a double, and a single in one game. That gave him 19 total bases, one more than Joe Adcock, who hit four home runs and a double for the Milwaukee Braves against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the ‘50s.

I was always a Shawn Green fan. He came to the big leagues as a Toronto Blue Jay. I knew he was Jewish and did go out of my way to be a little nice to him, to make him feel welcome to the big leagues. It was because of the kindred spirit that we all kind of have.

I’m glad he did well but I never would do anything to help. There was one American League pitcher who shall remain nameless. He had a very Jewish name. We were in the dugout one day, before a game when he came to me and said, “Hi, Al.” I said, “How you doing?” He said, “You know, it’s good to see you. I hear that you’re Jewish.” I said, “Yeah, I am.” He said, “You know, I am too.” I said, “Yeah, it’s pretty obvious.” He said, “I’d like to stay up in the big leagues, and any time you’re back there, calling balls and strikes, would you give me a little help? I’d really appreciate it.”

I curtly and strongly told him that was not the way it was going to be. I told him to rest assured that this conversation will never be repeated, not to any other umpires or to anyone else. Thank goodness, baseball’s umpires do not think of anything except the merits of play.

I don’t think that guys knew I was Jewish. Or cared. Green knew because I told him. Rod Carew knew. Jesse Levis knew. And a few others.

1-Al Clark cartoon

There was one September game in Milwaukee when Green was batting, Levis was catching for the Brewers, and I was the home-plate umpire. It was almost Rosh Hashanah. We wished each other a Happy New Year when we were together at home plate.

Shawn was a good guy. After he had established himself as a star, he came to me once between innings of a game and said, “Listen, anytime you need anything, you know, autographs or bats or balls or anything like that for any charity events, you make sure you call me first.” I thought that was very nice of him.

There are so few Jews in baseball that there’s a fraternity or a family that supersedes baseball. Maybe it’s the heritage we’ve all shared. It’s certainly not anything overt; it’s just a feeling.

I’ve never been to Israel but my dad was there. He went over on a Jewish Times trip.

He used to write for that publication so they took him over there and he had a great time. There was a Jewish magazine convention in Jerusalem he attended.

Long after my career ended, a six-team professional league was founded in Israel. Dan Duquette, now general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, was the American contact and a number of Jewish players – Ron Blomberg, Ken Holtzman, and Art Shamsky – were involved as managers. Blomberg’s team won the championship. Unfortunately, the Israel Baseball League (IBL) lasted just one season, 2007.

I tried to become a consultant to that league, helping their umpires, but it never materialized. I would’ve loved going over and doing some clinics and working with the umpires in Israel.

I never experienced any overt anti-Semitism in the major leagues but had three shaky incidents back in the minors.

My partner Ted Hendry and I were walking out of the ballpark in Indianapolis after the Indians played a game against the Iowa Oaks. When Ted and I were walking to our car an hour after the ballgame, there weren’t a lot of people around. Denny McLain, once a 30-game winner for the Tigers who was back in the minors and on his way out of the game, and Ray Busse, a shortstop who had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, were both on the Iowa roster. Iowa had lost that night and I had worked home plate. Unprovoked by anything, they both started verbally attacking me, “You kike son of a bitch. What the fuck is a Jew doing in our game? You don’t deserve to be here. Go the fuck home, you kike motherfucker.” The players both thought their rant was quite funny but neither Ted or I did.

It shook us up tremendously. Ted and I went back to our hotel and called Joe Ryan, then president of the American Association. He was appalled. Ryan called the Iowa general manager and the two guys were suspended that night. When Joe Sparks, the Iowa manager, came out to home plate the next day, he couldn’t have apologized more. He couldn’t have been more professional. And it was certainly appreciated. I’m sure the news of that evening’s after-game activity made its way around the country quite quickly.

Another anti-Semitic incident occurred in 1974, two seasons before I reached the majors. Once again, Hendry and I were together. That time, we were sitting in a restaurant in Des Moines with former National League (and future Hall of Fame) umpire Al Barlick. He was working as an NL umpire supervisor and scout.

We were just talking when the conversation turned to minorities in baseball when Barlick proclaimed, “I’ll tell you one thing. As long as I’m alive, there will never be another fuckin’ Jew umpire in my league.”

I looked him straight in the eye and just as boldly proclaimed, “I’m Jewish.” I then excused myself, got up from the table, and left. Fortunately, I never saw him again.

I felt the same way about John (Red) Davis, a career minor-league manager who was running the Oklahoma City ballclub during the 1975 season. We had run-ins previously but certainly nothing out of the ordinary. He would voice his displeasure with my umpiring ability. I would allow him his argument, then usually eject him from that day’s contest. Just no big deal.

During one particular evening, a call went against the Oklahoma City club. Davis stormed out of the dugout and headed right towards me. Instead of talking or yelling about the play, his first words were, “You’re nothing but a fucking Hitler.” I ejected him immediately, then walked away, leaving him to argue with no one. He finally left the field and we finished the game.

The next day, Davis said to my partner, Jerry Young, “Why did Clark run me so fast last night?”

All I did was call him ‘a fucking Hitler.’” Young started to laugh uncontrollably while on the field, much to Davis’ dismay. After regaining his composure, Young told Davis I was in fact Jewish.

It took Davis another two months but eventually he did apologize and said, “That kind of shit is out of bounds.”

There aren’t many Jews in baseball, now or when I was active, but there certainly was a kindred spirit, a sharing of relationship, among us. I’m not even talking about anti-Semitism, which often lies right under the surface but doesn’t become overt.

I worked with a lot of umpires. One thing we did in clubhouses and locker rooms was tease each other unmercifully. Whether it was race, religion, politics, cleanliness, wives, nothing was off limits. With my short, squat physique, my religion, and my multiple marriages, I was an obvious target. But it was good, clean fun.

However, if anyone attacked any of us outside of our clubhouse, we would circle the wagons and defend each other always. We were and are family.

I certainly wasn’t the only Jewish major-leaguer: in addition to media members and players, Bud Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf, Fred Wilpon, Bob Lurie, Ted Lerner, Jeffrey Loria, Theo Epstein, and Stan Kasten are Jews on the ownership side.

Probably the most prominent Jew in baseball today is Selig, who became Commissioner in 1998. Except for Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, he served longer in that position than anyone. But I’m not one of his fans. He did something very phony early in my career and I never trusted him after that.

Long before there was any talk of him becoming Commissioner, Selig was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. Before a game in Milwaukee, it rained. As a result, the dugout steps were wet and slippery.

I was working with Lou DiMuro. He slipped going up the steps, hit his back, and hurt himself so badly that he had to be hospitalized. An ambulance came onto the field and transported him to a local hospital.

I personally went to Selig’s office after the game for an update on Lou’s condition and to thank him for caring. Little did I know that all he really cared about was getting Lou off the field and and getting on with the game. He may have said the right words, but his actions portrayed something totally different. And ever that happened, I was skeptical of him.

The next day, nobody from the Brewers organization asked about Lou’s injury or well-being. Now this wasn’t necessarily Selig but the Brewers brass did say, “How come you guys only have three umpires today? Why didn’t you bring another umpire to work?”

Once again, the only time they cared about the umpires was five minutes before the game, then they said, “Geez, where the hell are the umpires?” I never forgot that about Selig, about him not caring about Lou DiMuro.

I’m sure that as Commissioner, for the game, and for the owners, he’s done a good job. Some of his innovations have proven to be popular, and the newest one (the second wild-card) will prove to be tremendously profitable for the owners.

I’m not sure Selig did a great job for the umpires. I think he let his director of labor relations handle us. I don’t know that for a fact. I don’t know how much involvement he had. I do know that if he ever came into our umpires’ room, it was only for a photo opportunity. He never came in and asked how our families were, never cared about us on a personal basis. And we represented him. I always thought that was kind of squirrely.

There are only a handful of Jews active anywhere in our game and only one Jewish commissioner in baseball history. I’d like to be proud of my lantzmen but that’s not always possible. For me, that’s a great disappointment.

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By Scott Barancik, editor

According to research by our friend Ron Kaplan at his excellent Kaplan’s Korner blog, Boston reliever Craig Breslow will be just the 24th Jewish player to appear in a World Series when he appears in the upcoming Red Sox-Cardinals finale.

The New Haven, Conn., native is expected to be a key piece of Boston’s pitching puzzle. Breslow finished the 2013 regular season with a 5-2 record and a 1.81 ERA across 61 games.

The other active Major Leaguers with World Series experience are Scott Feldman (Texas Rangers, 2011), Ian Kinsler (Texas Rangers, 2010-11), Kevin Youkilis (Boston Red Sox, 2007), and Jason Marquis (St. Louis Cardinals, 2004).

Two Jewish players have been named MVP of a World Series. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Larry Sherry had a hand in all four Dodger victories over the Chicago White Sox in 1959, earning two wins and two saves on the strength of a 0.71 ERA. Just 23 at the time, he also went a nifty 2-for-4 at the plate. Sherry’s teammate, a kid named Koufax, pitched excellently in the series but lost his only decision, a 1-0 squeaker to the Sox. Still, Sandy went on to be named World Series MVP twice, in 1963 and 1965.

Another Dodger, Steve Yeager, was named co-MVP of the 1981 World Series. He converted to Judaism after his playing career ended.

See Kaplan’s article for a complete list of World Series veterans and how each one performed.

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(Editor’s note: Coverage of the 2013 MLB amateur draft is a collaboration between Jewish Baseball News and our friends at Jewish Sports Review, a bi-monthly newsletter that tracks Jewish athletes in multiple sports around the globe. Click here for subscription information.)

By Scott Barancik, editor

For the second year in a row, a left-handed Jewish high-school pitcher who idolizes Sandy Koufax has been selected in the first round of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft.

The St. Louis Cardinals chose Rob Kaminsky with the 28th pick of the 2013 draft on Wednesday (6/7/2013). An 18-year-old senior at Saint Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, N.J., Kaminsky has committed to play at the University of North Carolina but is considered likely to sign with the Cardinals. If he does, he’s due for a bonus in the $1.8-million range.

“CARDS NATION!!! Thank you so much!!!,” Kaminsky wrote on his Twitter feed.

St. Louis wasn’t alone in coveting the 5-foot-11-inch, 190-pound southpaw. Gatorade named Kaminsky the New Jersey Baseball Player of the Year in 2012 and again in 2013. (Prior winners include Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout.) Baseball America, which had ranked him the No. 21 prospect in this year’s draft, says Kaminsky “throws a nasty, downer curveball, a present plus pitch and arguably [is] the best among high school pitchers in the [2013] class.”

[Click here to watch a 2012 news video about Kaminsky.]

Rob Kaminsky with a Sandy Koufax baseball card (N.Y. Daily News)

Why are baseball honchos so bullish on Kaminsky? Consider his senior season at Saint Joseph, when he served as co-captain. Kaminsky didn’t give up a single earned run during the first five weeks, and he ended the season with an ERA below 0.20. In 58 innings, Kaminsky struck out 118 — or two per inning — while walking a total of four batters. His fastball has been recorded as high as 96 miles per hour.

It’s not just his pitching they love. Kaminsky impressed everyone when he began collecting donations for every strikeout he recorded and then gave the funds to the pediatric care unit at a nearby hospital. Total raised by the Strikeout Challenge? $30,000. “I’ve been doing this 26 years and he’s not just the best player I’ve ever coached; he’s one of the best people I’ve ever coached,” coach Frank Salvano told the N.Y. Daily News.

The Daily News also reported that Kaminsky’s “prized possession” is a Sandy Koufax baseball card. That gives him something in common with Max Fried, a high-school pitcher in California who was chosen 7th overall in last year’s amateur draft by the San Diego Padres.

Around age 12, Fried began perfecting his curveball by studying rare footage of Koufax at work.

Rob Kaminsky (right) with St. Joseph Regional baseball coach Frank Salvano and 2013 co-captain Matt Kozuch

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Max Fried in a post-game interview (WANE-TV, Fort Wayne)

Max Fried in a post-game interview (WANE-TV, Fort Wayne)

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By Scott Barancik, editor

Talk about pressure.

Max Fried was a mere 18 years old when the San Diego Padres offered him a cool $3-million signing bonus in 2012. Hype followed the No. 7 draft pick everywhere. Even now, with only one full year of Minor League ball under his belt, he’s ranked the Padres’ No. 2 prospect by Baseball America and MLB.com.

On Thursday (5/9/2013), the lanky southpaw delivered on that investment, pitching the first 5-and-2/3 innings of what would become just the second no-hitter in the 20-year history of the Fort Wayne TinCaps, the Padres’ Single-A club. “I couldn’t be happier,” he said in a television interview (see below), and then heaped praise on the three relievers who shared the victory.

Fried struck out eight batters and walked four in the 1-0 victory over the Great Lakes Loons. He didn’t even rely on the curveball he famously picked up from years of watching rare Sandy Koufax footage. “I was really confident and able to throw my changeup in any count, I really relied on that,” he told MLB.com. “There were times that I didn’t have body command with my fastball and curveball.”

Caps Tally First Nine Inning No-Hitter

Five starts into the 2013 season, Fried — who did not get the win Thursday — is 1-0 with a 2.92 ERA, 30 strikeouts, and 14 walks in 24-and-2/3 innings. Opposing batters are hitting .200 against the 6 foot 4 inch hurler and have yet to hit a home run off him this year.

There to share in Thursday’s celebration was roommate and teammate Maxx Tissenbaum, who watched Fried’s dominating performance from one of the best seats in the house: second base.

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Max Fried is No. 7 pick in MLB draft

Max Fried (ESPN.com)

By Scott Barancik/Jewish Baseball News

Max Fried, an 18-year-old southpaw from southern California, was the No. 7 pick in the first round of the 2012 amateur draft Monday night (6/4/2012), selected by the San Diego Padres. (See video.)

A 6’4″ curveball specialist who modeled his pitch on hero Sandy Koufax‘s, Fried has committed to UCLA but is expected to sign with the Padres.

“Honestly, it’s all a blur,” he told the Los Angeles Times after the draft. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

The last player picked so early in an MLB draft was fellow southern California native Ryan Braun, who was the 5th overall selection in 2005. Braun was named N.L. Rookie of the Year just two years later.

Analysts say Fried has the whole package: smarts, athleticism, and a strong worth ethic. One scout called him “perhaps the best left-handed pitching prospect to come out of Southern California in the last 10 years.”

“Fried is cerebral and determined,” Baseball America observed. “His late-season dip notwithstanding, he projects as a potential No. 2 starter in the big leagues with a chance to be a No. 1.” Baseball America says Fried has three good pitches, including a fastball that tops out at 95 mph. But having studied tape of Koufax’s delivery since age 12, “his best pitch is a tight downer curveball in the 74-78 range that rates conservatively as a plus pitch and flashes plus-plus.”

Fried transferred to Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City this year after his prior school eliminated its athletic program. Teamed with fellow first-round draftee Lucas Giolito, Fried went 8-2 with a 2.02 ERA and struck out 105 batters in 66 innings while walking 29. He also hit cleanup, which could come in handy given that National League pitchers bat.

In 2011, the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame named Fried its male high-school athlete of the year.

Fried’s younger brother, Jake, just finished his freshman year at a nearby high school, where he too plays baseball.

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Danny Rosenbaum (MiLB.com)

By Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

More than 50 Jews currently play Major- or minor-league ball, but few are generating more raves this season than award-winning Washington Nationals prospect Danny Rosenbaum.

The 24-year-old hurler is putting up ridiculous numbers for the Harrisburg Senators (AA), compiling a 5-0 record, league-leading 0.71 ERA, 33 strikeouts, and just 4 walks. There’s talk the Nats may call him up during their September roster expansion, pending a solid performance with the Syracuse Chiefs (AAA).

Not bad for a guy from Loveland, OH, who was the 652nd pick in the 2009 draft — a mere 651 places behind fellow Nationals draftee Stephen Strasburg — and began the 2012 season ranked #23 on Baseball America’s list of Nationals prospects.

Rosenbaum is poised off-field as well as on. During a visit earlier this month to Binghamton, N.Y., home of the New York Mets’ AA franchise, the 6’1″ left-hander juggled attention from out-of-town family members, questions from an 8-year-old Jewish fan — including the first three you’ll see below — and still more queries from Jewish Baseball News contributor Zev Ben Avigdor. An edited transcript follows.

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What do you like about being Jewish?

I get asked that a lot. I like the traditions that everyone holds and that we get to celebrate with our families. It’s a very family-oriented religion, and it’s always great to see family like that come in, come watch me play, and just get to be together. I’d say that’s the biggest thing. And also it’s a small group of guys that are playing, and getting to be a role model for little leaguers and young kids. It’s a blessing to feel like that.

What is your favorite holiday?

It used to be Chanukah, when I appreciated presents a lot. But now? I always liked Passover. All the food you get to eat. We always had our family over for Passover every year, and my parents make pretty good food — pretty good matzoh ball soup — and my grandma cooks real well, too. So probably Passover. [During Pesach] I try to watch the yeast stuff and just try not to eat a lot of bread. And I call my family and wish I could be there. It’s tough not being back with them, celebrating it with them.

And who is your favorite baseball player?

I’d have to say, I guess, Sandy Koufax is my favorite Jewish baseball player. He’s always been a role model for me and for a lot of Jewish kids out of Cincinnati. [Note: Rosenbaum grew up in a Cincinnati suburb and played two seasons at Cincinnati’s Xavier University. Koufax went to the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship.] He’s just that huge public figure…Everyone wants to [emulate] what he did and what he did for the game of baseball. My favorite player growing up—like everyone else—was Ken Griffey, Jr.

What would you like the readers of Jewish Baseball News to know about you?

I guess to say I’m getting married this fall, back in Cincinnati. I actually knew her in middle school, but we didn’t start dating until my senior year in high school. My freshman year I went to Indiana, and she went to Morehead State, which is in Kentucky, and I transferred after my freshman year [to Xavier University]. We did the whole long distance thing for five years, six years, and now we’re [still] doing long distance. She’s working back home. It’s tough. It’s a tough lifestyle, but we made a commitment, and we’re ready to be together forever.

You mentioned Jewish kids. Do you get much chance to work with them directly?

Not during the season. During the off-season I did. I went to help out the JCC. I gave lessons out of there. While I was there we volunteered to help out the Orthodox Jewish kids there and made them a little bit better. There’s not a whole lot of them, but it was fun to be a part of it and to learn what their lifestyle is like, because I’ve never really been associated with Orthodox Jews before. So it was pretty cool. It was fun.

Has anywhere you’ve ever played done a Jewish Heritage Night?

I don’t think so. Just that one time we had the Jewish camp that came to our game in Hagerstown. That’s probably the closest we came to that. It’s pretty exciting knowing that you have a whole group of kids that are behind you the whole way. Even though I’m not playing, they’re still cheering for me, so it’s just a good feeling to have.

And finally a baseball question: How do you do it? You don’t have an overpowering 98 mph fastball, but you just seem to get people out.

I just try to stay even-keeled the whole way. It’s like my parents said, ‘Don’t make the highs too high and the lows too low.’ Just go out and battle. Be a competitor. That’s what our manager wants to see and our pitching coach and our organization. That’s all I try to do, is just give my team a chance to win.

(Editor’s note: “Zev Ben Avigdor” is the pen name of a university scholar who writes for Jewish Baseball News. Click here to see more of his interviews.)

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Koufax was strikeout king at the plate, too

JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS — Sandy Koufax was among the most masterful pitchers in baseball history, and statistics proving it are plentiful.

In 1965 the “Left Arm of God” struck out 382 batters and walked just 71, second only to Nolan Ryan’s 383/162 in 1973. The Brooklyn native’s career shutouts-to-innings ratio is the 6th highest on record. In his final season, with doctors warning that he risked losing use of his ravaged left arm, Koufax went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 317 Ks.

But here’s something you may not know: Sandy Koufax was a strikeout king at the plate, too. And arguably one of the worst batters in baseball history.

The evidence, again, is in the numbers. Using Baseball-Reference.com‘s fantastic “Play Index” utility, Jewish Baseball News compiled a list of all pro baseball players with at least 750 career at-bats from 1871 to 2011, including pitchers. Here is what we found:

  • In 776 career at-bats, Koufax — a lefty hurler who hit right-handed — struck out 386 times, or 49.7% of the time. No other player has matched that strikeout rate. Fellow pitcher Milt Pappas (1957-73) came closest, at 47.5%.
  • Koufax ranked 2nd-worst all-time both in batting average (.097) and on-base percentage (.145). The ‘leader’ in that category of the damned is P Bob Buhl, who hit .089 with a .129 OBP. Like Koufax, Buhl let his pitching do the talking, going 166-132 with a 3.55 ERA over a career that spanned from 1953-67.
The 10 worst career strikeout ratios in baseball history, 1871-2011
Player SO AB SO ratio BA OBP
1 Sandy Koufax             386             776 49.7% .097 .145
2 Milt Pappas             510          1,073 47.5% .123 .157
3 Jerry Koosman             418             915 45.7% .119 .151
4 Bob Buhl             389             857 45.4% .089 .129
5 Mickey Lolich             362             821 44.1% .110 .215
6 Nolan Ryan             371             852 43.5% .110 .148
7 Lefty Grove             593          1,369 43.3% .148 .209
8 Jim Lonborg             330             770 42.9% .136 .191
9 Jerry Reuss             428          1,016 42.1% .167 .221
10 Dave Nicholson             573          1,419 40.4% .212 .318

Why Koufax was so useless with a bat is a question we would love to ask him. (We haven’t.)

But if there’s an encouraging note here, it’s this: you don’t have to be good at everything to be great.

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JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS — ESPN reported today that 2011 N.L. MVP Ryan Braun tested positive for excessive testosterone in October and may face a 50-game suspension.

If ESPN’s unnamed sources are correct, it won’t matter whether the Milwaukee Brewers star knowingly violated baseball’s ban on performance-enhancing drugs. League rules make no distinction between intentional and unintentional violations in such cases.

Braun’s Jewish fans may feel differently, however. Judaism stresses the importance of intent, so if the right-fielder can prove his use of illegal drugs was accidental, it will go a long way toward redemption. In a statement, Braun claimed “complete innocence” and denied any “intentional violation” of the rules.

Statistically speaking, Braun’s 2011 season was not suspiciously better than prior ones. Although his .332 batting average and 33 stolen bases marked personal bests, the 5th-year pro did not match his own career highs in runs, doubles, triples, HRs, RBIs, or slugging percentage.

Braun is the first Jewish player to be named MVP in 48 years. According to ESPN, the Baseball Writers of America will not strip him of the award even if he gets suspended.

Los Angeles Dodgers hurler Sandy Koufax was the last Jew to be named Most Valuable Player. He won the MVP and  Cy Young award in 1963.

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2011 N.L. MVP

JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS — Milwaukee Brewers RF Ryan Braun was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player today, earning 20 of 32 first-place votes from the country’s top baseball writers.

The prestigious award comes just 4 years after the southern California native was named N.L. Rookie of the Year, and 6 years after the Brewers drafted him.

Braun’s victory over 2nd-place Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers also marks the end of a 48-year-old drought. The last Jewish player to earn the honor was Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax, who won the MVP and Cy Young awards in 1963.

By coincidence, Koufax too is a “Braun.” Born Sanford Braun, he was renamed after his stepfather, Irving Koufax.

2011 was a stellar year for Ryan Braun. The 28-year-old hit .332 with 33 HRs and 111 RBIs, leading the league both in slugging percentage and OPS (on-base-percentage plus slugging). He became the 36th player (and third Jew) of all time to record at least 30 HRs and 30 stolen bases in the same season. And although postseason play is not part of the MVP calculus, Braun ranked 3rd among N.L. players in playoff doubles (7), 5th in RBIs (10), and 4th in both average (.405) and on-base percentage (.468).

Asked why baseball writers chose him over Kemp, Braun was humble. He told MLB.com it probably was because the Brewers made it to the N.L. championships, while the Dodgers finished the regular season 11.5 games out of first place in the N.L. West division.

“That’s probably the one thing that separates us,” Braun said. “If you honestly assess our seasons individually, (Kemp’s) numbers are probably slightly better than mine. I just feel fortunate to have been on the better team.”

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JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS — Jason Marquis became the 5th Jewish pitcher to win 100 games on Tuesday (5/10/2011), leading the Washington Nationals to a 7-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves.

Marquis, who spent the first 4 years of his MLB career with Atlanta, held the Braves to one run through the first 7 innings. He left after giving up a single and double with one out in the 8th.

Tuesday’s win put the 32-year-old Manhasset, N.Y., native in good company: Marquis ranks 5th in career wins among Jewish pitchers and needs only 8 more to move into 3rd place. He is the first Jew to reach 100 wins since Steve Stone did so 31 years ago.

The Jewish pitchers with the most wins are:

Pitcher Wins Losses W/L %
Ken Holtzman (1965-79) 174 150 53.7%
Sandy Koufax (1955-66) 165 87 65.5%
Steve Stone (1971-81) 107 93 53.5%
Dave A. Roberts (1969-81) 103 125 45.2%
Jason Marquis (2000- ) 100 93 51.8%
Barney Pelty (1903-12) 92 117 44.0%

Marquis has bounced back nicely from 2010, when he went 2-9 with a 6.60 ERA and spent nearly 4 months on the disabled list after having elbow surgery.

So far this season he is 4-1 with a 3.66 ERA on a Nationals team that is 17-18. He ranks 6th among N.L. pitchers in fewest walks per 9 innings (1.60) and 9th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.714/tie). On April 29, Marquis pitched a complete-game shutout against two-time Cy Young Award winner Tin Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants.

Thanks to Jewish Baseball News reader Jack W. for the tip on Marquis’ milestone.

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JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS — A little bit of history was made Thursday (10/15/2010) when Peoria Javelinas C Ryan Lavarnway squatted opposite RP Eric Berger, a fellow Jew, during the 4th inning of a game against the Peoria Saguaros.

Both players made the best of their opportunities. Lavarnway, a Boston Red Sox prospect, hit a two-out, three-run HR that put the Javelinas ahead 4-1, smacked a double, and drew a walk. The Saguaros caught up, however, and the game ended in an 11-inning, 4-4 tie.

Berger, who plays in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm system, pitched a scoreless (if not effortless) inning for the Javelinas, scattering 2 hits and a walk while striking out 2.

In another Arizona Fall League game, SP Josh Zeid, a Philadelphia Phillies prospect, earned the win for the Mesa Solar Sox in an 11-6 victory over the Surprise Rafters. Zeid gave up one run on 2 hits over 3 innings, striking out 3. Among his strikeout victims was Detroit Tigers prospect and Surprise OF Ben Guez, another of the 5 Jews playing in Jewish player.

Lavarnway, who hit 22 HRs with 102 RBIs in the minors this year, is playing in the AFL primarily to improve his catching skills (see article). Thursday’s game was mostly a good one on that front. Lavarnway threw-out 2 of 4 baserunners trying to steal but also had his first error of the season.

In an e-mail this morning, Martin Abramowitz — the brains behind the Jewish Major Leaguers baseball-card series — cited several examples of Jewish batterymates in Major League Baseball history:

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JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS — A new film wending its way through the film-festival circuit explores our love affair with baseball.

Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story features interviews and footage of players from Sandy Koufax to Kevin Youkilis. New York Times sports writer Ira Berkow penned the script, while actor Dustin Hoffman provides the narration. Here’s a recent Jerusalem Post story on it.

I haven’t seen the film yet; Seventh Art Releasing says it’s holding out on distributing review copies until shortly before the movie’s theatrical release in November. But people in several states as well as Israel can see it at upcoming film festivals. Here’s the running list from Jews and Baseball’s web site (future dates only):

Jerusalem Film Festival – Jul. 15 & 16
Stony Brook Film Festival, Stonybrook, NY – Jul. 25
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, San Francisco, Catro Cinema – Jul. 25
Berkshires Jewish Film Festival – Jul. 26
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Palo Alto, Cinearts – Jul. 31
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Berkeley, Roda Theatre – Aug. 1
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, San Rafael,
Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center – Aug. 8
Iowa Jewish Historical Society, Des Moines, Iowa – Aug. 8
Rhode Island International Film Festival, Providence – Aug. 10-15
Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, Montclair, New Jersey – Aug. 19
Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival
Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York – Sept. 26
The Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center, Commack, New York – Oct. 4
The JCC in Manhattan, New York – Oct. 5
Quad Cinema, Manhattan – Nov. 5
Winnipeg – Nov. 8
Wilshire Temple, Los Angeles – Nov. 13
Tucson Jewish Film Festival – Nov. 21

– Scott Barancik

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JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS — Sunday’s (5/9/2010) perfect game by Oakland A’s pitcher Dallas Braden naturally made me think about Jews and their historical involvement in one of baseball’s most unusual spectacles.

It’s no secret to Jewish baseball fans that Los Angeles Dodger Sandy Koufax tossed one of the 19 perfect games in major-league history, a late-season 1965 gem over the lowly Chicago Cubs that put the Dodgers a mere half-game out of first place en route to an eventual National League pennant and World Series championship. Koufax finished the season 26-and-8 with a 2.04 ERA.

Less well-known — and less celebrated, for good reason — is the role of another Jew, California Angels pitcher Andrew Lorraine, in another perfect game 29 years later. Lorraine was the losing pitcher when Texas Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers tossed a no-baserunner beauty against the Angels in 1994.

The Rangers ultimately didn’t fare quite as well as Koufax’s Dodgers did years earlier. In that thoroughly strange 1994 season, the Rangers finished 1st in the AL West despite an anemic 52-and-62 record. The playoffs and World Series were canceled due to a players’ strike that continued into 1995.

— Scott Barancik

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