By Aviva Kempner
When the Major League Baseball season started this week, some of us Jewish baseball fans are still reminiscing how well Team Israel did last month in the World Baseball Classic, actually winning four games.
Team Israel was the closest thing we ever had to having our own dream Jewish American lineup. We American Jews can’t help but be jealous of the holy land for recruiting our professional American Jewish baseball players to compete for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic games. Labeled the Cinderella of the series, the Israeli baseball team gave American Jewry lots to cheer for, since most of the team members were Americans. It’s a hoot that we have been creating fantasy Jewish baseball teams in our heads for decades, and now Israel got to claim the accomplished Jewish dream team.
It’s ironic that Israel organized such a winning Jewish baseball team because Israelis don’t know from baseball unless you are an Anglo Saxon who immigrated from the United States to Israel. We know that Israelis are crazy for basketball. They probably don’t realize that not only is baseball America’s pastime, but that American Jews are huge baseball fans.
While we were green with envy, watching Team Israel evoked a flood of positive childhood memories of my father. I grew up believing baseball was an integral part of my American Jewish upbringing. My father was a typical example of a meshugina baseball fan. I can still picture him watching a game on TV or listening to one on a transistor radio.
Like many immigrants coming to America, Pops had developed a taste for this highly intellectual game and watched it religiously. I am sure developing a love for the sport helped him, like many foreigners, acclimate to American culture.
Growing up in Detroit, Pops would often take my brother and me to baseball games during the summer. He told us stories about Jewish baseball players, of which there were few, so he drew from the past. Top of the list was hearing every Yom Kippur how Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg had not played in 1934 on our holiest day, and gone to shul instead of the stadium.
Greenberg had honored his Orthodox parents even though his team was in a pennant race and he was their top hitter. Our father’s prideful story became an annual recitation; we grew up thinking that Greenberg was part of Kol Nidre services.
Greenberg went on to become a Hall of Famer and evoked everlasting pride in American Jews all over the country. Hammerin’ Hank, as he was nicknamed, became more of a hero because he played at the height of domestic anti-Semitism—especially in Detroit, where Henry Ford printed the Protocols of Zion. Pops would curse in Yiddish explaining how the radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin at the National Shrine of the Little Flower, spouted anti-Semitic speeches while based in the Motor City.
Us kids were in awe learning how Greenberg ignored the negative catcalls from the stands and the opposing teams while at bat. The 6-foot-4-inch pride of our people went on to become a home-run king and was two shy of baseball great Babe Ruth’s record of 60 in 1938. That pride doubled when I heard Greenberg’s son Stephen claim that, every time his father “would hit a homerun, he would feel doubly proud because, as he put it, he would feel he was hitting a homerun against Hitler” in the 1930s. I could only imagine how grateful American Jews were to Greenberg as he went off to serve in World War II at the height of his baseball career, even though he could have gotten out for being too old.
In the 1960s we did our own kvelling when a new Jewish folk hero emerged—ace pitcher Sandy Koufax. He repeated the religious sacrifice, choosing not to pitch on Yom Kippur during the first game of the 1965 World Series. Considered one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball history, we marveled when Koufax, at 36, was the youngest player to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Even those in Israel recognized Koufax’s talents. In 2007, Koufax was the final player selected for the inaugural Israel Baseball League. Being 71, he declined, but the mystique of his pitching remains to this day. Sightings of him adorn Jewish newspapers.
The third Jewish baseball player that continues to capture our imagination is Moe Berg, whose baseball feats were not as outstanding as the other two. But his reputation for spying on Japan in the 1930s and working for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II elevates him to the status of a genuine American Jewish wartime hero. We are intrigued by Berg; brilliant at languages, he was sent on dangerous missions seeking knowledge about the Nazi capability of atomic warfare. His mysterious life includes speculation that he spied for Golda Meir and a rumor that his remains ended up in Israel.
Our love of baseball has also made its mark in American synagogues. When I was growing up, Jewish men would take transistors in their tallis bags to check on the scores—too often, the World Series fell during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I am convinced a Jewish man invented this compact radio for this exact purpose. Now they probably use their iPhones.
Young Jewish men continue to dream of making it in the Major Leagues, like Greenberg and Koufax. Many evoke these two American Jewish heroes as the subject of their bar mitzvah speeches. An often-repeated joke is that, when young Jewish males reach age 13, they realize that they have a better chance of owning a Major League team than actually playing on one.
The troika of Greenberg, Koufax and Berg always make it on our lists for history’s All Star Jewish baseball team. Every spring we are on the lookout for how many Jewish players there are in the majors or minors. We become disappointed when last names like Zimmerman don’t deliver native sons. Jewish baseball cards, websites and blogs are devoted to this very topic. And every fall it’s become an annual ritual for Jewish baseball fans to ponder whether any Jewish Major League players are going to play—or not play—on Day of Atonement.
Thanks to the efforts of Peter Kurz, the president of the Israel Association of Baseball, and the careful coaching of manager Jerry Weinstein, we have a new team to cheer for. Team Israel fulfilled our hopes for a dream Jewish team in the 21st century. We walk taller knowing they succeeded with mostly Jewish Americans playing under the Israeli banner, and the Mensch on the Bench as a good luck charm.
Israeli parents, be inspired by Team Israel’s fame, and motivate your sons to learn and play baseball. We know that, in recent years, attempts to make baseball a national sport in Israel has been an uphill climb. Now that the Israeli baseball team has given the Jewish nation such positive recognition around the world, I am hoping that more Israeli kids will be encouraged to play the game. I implore Israeli parents to hitch onto the baseball bandwagon, and develop an indigenous team of Israelis.
Please realize Israel should not depend just on Jewish players flourishing in the major and minor leagues here in the U.S. four years from now, when the Classics are played again. Never count on America to provide your Jewish lineup, as we never know how many good Jewish players will be playing every year. Hopefully, Team Israel’s 2017 winning streak will motivate the development of more Jewish baseball players in both our countries. Personally, my dream Jewish team would be an equal share from both countries.
I channeled my father when I kvelled over Team Israel’s success, and was saddened he was not alive to watch them play. When Pops made aliyah to Israel in 1973, he always said he would miss only two things about the United States—his children and baseball. My brother and I were never sure about which longing ranked first.
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner made The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg in 2000 and is currently making a documentary on Moe Berg.