Parental attitudes toward baseball began to change as American Jews prospered. By the time Sandy Koufax was a teenager in 1950s Brooklyn, his stepfather, a lawyer, was supportive of his participation in baseball and basketball teams both in school and at the local Jewish center. Since then, an increasing number of Jewish parents have come to see sports as vital for a well-rounded childhood. “Unlike the way I was raised, where my parents thought sports were frivolous, I raised my children on the importance of sports for healthy development, physically and cognitively,” says Dan Lebowitz, Executive Director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
Today’s parents also “see the potential of being a pro athlete,” he adds, which has made a career in professional baseball more “culturally acceptable for Jews.” There are more teams today—30 compared to 16 in 1960—and it can’t be ignored that these teams offer players much more lucrative salaries than in the past. The average major league salary tops $3 million a year and some, like Ryan Braun, make far more. “Why wouldn’t parents want their sons to play baseball?” says 65-year-old Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, whose stepfather was Jewish. “You can make a lot of money today, probably more than if you’re a doctor or a lawyer.”
Not that the current crop of Jewish major league players are an uneducated bunch. Spending time on campus has long been a way to hone skills and gain strength and experience: Eight of the 10 Jewish players who started the 2011 season went to college for at least a year, including Breslow, who graduated from Yale, and Fuld, who graduated from Stanford. This is a staggering proportion when compared to the roughly 30 percent of all major league players who have attended college. Since the average professional baseball career spans 5.6 years, Jewish players are more likely to be better prepared for the inevitable second career.
Fortunately, today’s Jewish players, unlike Hall of Famers Greenberg and Koufax, whose every moves were scrutinized by hundreds of thousands of American Jews, have more room to be themselves, which can mean anything from playing while fasting on Yom Kippur to declining to discuss their Jewish heritage. “When Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball, we were just 20 years removed from the Holocaust, and Jews were very proud that he was Jewish,” says John Thorn, an author of several sports books and the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2008. “Today, Jews are so assimilated and blended in the culture that we don’t need Jewish baseball players.”
Whether or not this is true, baseball runs deep in the American Jewish soul, and Jews remain passionate about fellow members of the tribe. “I don’t think Jews rooting for Jews has changed from the days of Greenberg and Koufax,” says Lebowitz. “Youkilis is still the first name I look for in the box scores every day, and so do my sons. I root for Braun and Kinsler and the rest of the Jews in baseball.” The opposite can occur as well: When Jason Kipnis was called up to the Cleveland Indians, Jewish sports fans cheered only to be severely disappointed a few weeks later when his spokesman confirmed that the 24-year-old, whose father is Jewish, is a practicing Roman Catholic.
Does all this add up to a new golden age? The numbers may say yes: This season two late summer arrivals were the Philadelphia Phillies’ relief pitcher Michael Schwimer, a University of Virginia graduate, and new Red Sox catcher Ryan Cole Lavarnway, a Yale graduate. Others such as Matt Kramer, a Harvard grad, are not far behind in the minor league. Despite the high caliber of players, the jury is still out as to whether these are really Jewish baseball’s halcyon days. “To me,” sighs Thorn, “the golden age of baseball is whenever you were 12 years old.”