A new generation of high-caliber Jewish major league players—including four All-Stars—takes the field.
Plus exclusive profiles of Ryan Braun, Craig Breslow, Ike Davis, Danny Valencia and Kevin Youkilis
When Hank Greenberg was born, his parents, Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Romania, dreamed that their boy would grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. So they disapproved when, as he grew, his passion lay with baseball, not his studies. “Jewish women on my block…would point me out as a good-for-nothing, a loafer, and a bum who always wanted to play baseball rather than go to school,” Greenberg told the Detroit Jewish Chronicle in 1935. “Friends and relatives sympathized with my mother because she was the parent of a big gawk who cared more for baseball…than school books. I was Mrs. Greenberg’s disgrace.” We all know what happened next. Greenberg “disgraced” his parents by signing with the Detroit Tigers in 1933, going on to become one of the greatest players of all time and the first Jew inducted into the Hall of Fame.
While the 21st century has yet to produce a Jewish baseball icon such as Greenberg or 1960s strikeout king Sandy Koufax, it’s already being heralded as “the Golden Age” of Jews in the major leagues. This wildly ambitious claim stems—in part—from a surge in the number of Jewish players. Last year there were 14, an all-time high, and the 2011 season began with 10 and is up to 12. These are startling numbers considering that there have only been about 150 Jewish players during 143 seasons of baseball.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. “There was a higher percentage of Jewish players in the 1930s but there has never been more quality than we have today,” says Martin Abramowitz, president of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., a company that produces baseball cards of Jews who have made the majors, beginning with Lip Pike in 1871. Since 1933, only 20 Jews have been picked for the All-Star Game, the mid-season American and National League face-off between top players who are chosen by fans. That four current Jewish major leaguers have been All-Stars is remarkable, says Abramowitz.
The current Jewish roster stretches across regions, teams and backgrounds. At the top of the heap is Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder who was the 2007 National League Rookie of the Year and is an All-Star perennial. Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler, Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jason Marquis have also been All-Stars. Others include Oakland Athletics reliever Craig Breslow; Texas Rangers pitcher Scott Feldman; Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Sam Fuld; Minnesota Twins third baseman Danny Valencia; New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis; and Chicago Cubs relief pitcher John Grabow.
The rise in the number of Jewish players in baseball has not been replicated in the National Football League, the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League. This may be because baseball is open to gifted athletes of all sizes and builds (no need to be extraordinarily tall, strong or fast), or because of the historical, cultural and emotional ties that American Jews have long had with the sport. In a 1990 essay entitled My Baseball Years, novelist Philip Roth wrote that he loved the game for “the mythic and aesthetic dimension that it gave to an American boy’s life—particularly to one whose grandparents could hardly speak English. For someone whose roots in America were strong but only inches deep, baseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region.”
While children like Roth were enthralled, parents—like Greenberg’s—were horrified: They wanted their sons to become professionals with advanced degrees, not potential sluggers riding buses from Amarillo to Waco in the minor leagues hoping to someday make the majors. Catcher Moe Berg’s father never reconciled himself to his son’s chosen path and refused to attend a single game over the course of his son’s 15-year career during the 1920s and 1930s. Bernard Berg was furious that his son, who graduated from Princeton and finished second in his class from Columbia Law School, didn’t have a white-collar job.
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.”
In just his fifth season, Ryan Braun is already one of baseball’s best. It’s no stretch to envision him finishing his career as the greatest Jewish player after Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. The driven 27-year-old Mission Hills, California, native has always been a star. “If you don’t believe in yourself, I don’t know why anybody else would,” says Ryan Braun, who after getting all As but one in high school, went to the University of Miami on an academic scholarship. “That applies to everything I do in life. My goal was to be a professional baseball player, but you never know if that’s going to work out so I always took my education seriously.”
Braun left college ahead of schedule after his junior year, but his coursework in business management has helped him launch two restaurants, a clothing line and an energy drink company. Less than two years after leaving school, he was in Milwaukee. He debuted by hitting .324 with 34 homers and 97 runs batted in just 113 games, setting an all-time rookie mark with a .634 slugging percentage. Braun’s homer in the final game of the 2008 season put Milwaukee in the postseason for the first time in 26 years. He has earned four consecutive All-Star selections, although he missed this year’s game with a leg injury. The Brewers rewarded Braun for his excellence with a five-year, $105 million contract extension in April that will keep him in Milwaukee through 2020.
Braun, whose Jewish father was born in Israel, and whose Christian mother happened to spend part of her childhood living in a house once owned by Hank Greenberg, doesn’t go out of his way to broadcast his religious views. Yet, as a rookie, he told The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, “Being Jewish is something I take great pride in.”
At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Craig Breslow appears to be a typical major league baseball player. However, the left-handed relief pitcher is also a Yale graduate with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, earning him the distinction of being called the “Smartest Professional Athlete” by The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets. “There’s the requisite ribbing that comes with that degree and that school, but I’ve found that baseball players are a pretty eclectic group,” says Breslow, who has “SMIB” for Smartest Man in Baseball stitched into his glove. “Everyone has his own niche. There are certainly guys who know a lot more than I do about certain things. When I walk into the clubhouse, I’m a normal baseball player like everybody else. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how dumb you are, how big you are, how small you are, what color you are. We’re all trying to win.”
The 31-year-old, who grew up in upper-middle-class Trumbull, Connecticut, has pitched for five teams over six seasons. Chosen by Milwaukee in the 26th round of the 2002 draft following his graduation, Breslow deferred acceptance to New York University’s School of Medicine for his “love of the game.” After being released by the Brewers in July 2004, Breslow signed with the independent New Jersey Jackals of the Northeast League. He contemplated retiring and heading to medical school, but his impressive pitching earned him a minor league contract with the San Diego Padres for 2005. Breslow spent most of 2006 and all of 2007 in the minors, but by May 2008, he was a big-leaguer to stay. “We thought Craig had done his thing and would settle down and go to med school, but when the opportunity came, baseball was still in his blood and he wanted to give it another try,” says his father, Abe Breslow, who, like his wife Ann, is a teacher.
Now earning $1.4 million, Breslow pitched in 135 games in 2009 and 2010, striking out 118 batters and walking just 47 in 130 innings, a busy and successful run for a relief pitcher, and he has remained just as steady in 2011. “I like the way Craig attacks the hitters,” Bob Geren said in June, just days before he was fired as Oakland’s manager. “He’s very aggressive. Craig doesn’t wear his intelligence or his degree on his sleeve. It’s like if somebody’s the toughest guy in the world, he doesn’t go around telling everybody he can whip their butts. He’s great to have on the club.”
Breslow is proud to be Jewish. “Being Jewish is more difficult in baseball…but I try to do what I can in terms of paying attention to holidays,” says Breslow, who has pitched on Yom Kippur while fasting. As for his parents, they have no problem that medical school remains on hold. Says his father: “Craig is happy doing what he wanted to do.”
Boston Red Sox
Kevin Youkilis doesn’t have the chiseled physique typical of many pro athletes. With his everyman’s body and bald head, the 32-year-old Cincinnati native looks more like the guy from the neighborhood softball team than an Adonis.
“I’m not going to be the guy who looks great in a uniform, but I get the job done,” says Youkilis.
Youkilis was far from destined for the majors and wasn’t even drafted until after his senior year at the University of Cincinnati. He appeared in only 44 big league games before he turned 27, but his honed batting eye and penchant for walks earned him attention. Not only did he hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, he was named Rookie of the Month less than three weeks after arriving in Boston.
Seven years and a couple of trips to the minors later, Youkilis, whose father is a diamond wholesaler, is an established leader in the Boston clubhouse.
“I love the way Youk plays the game,” says Red Sox Manager Terry Francona. “He will never give an at-bat away. He worked his way through the minor leagues and has become an All-Star caliber player.”
The Greek surname is misleading: A Romanian-Jewish ancestor briefly moved to Greece and changed his name from Weiner to escape persecution. “I’m proud of being Jewish,” says Youkilis. “It’s my roots. It’s my heritage…[Ian] Kinsler and I joked about being Jewish at the 2008 All-Star Game. You laugh about it because you’re such a small minority. If I can make a Jewish kid proud of playing baseball and give him more confidence, I’m very proud of that.”
Danny Valencia’s parents, a Cuban immigrant and a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, met as accountants in Chicago. Although many Cubans are crazy about baseball, it was Valencia’s mom who pushed him to play the game. “My mom has always been a huge baseball fan,” Valencia says. “When I go 0-for-4, the only person I don’t want to hear from is her.”
Not that Valencia went hitless often in 2010. After being called up in June, he hit .311, the highest of any rookie that year and the best by a Twins newcomer in 46 years. Valencia’s .394 average with runners in scoring position led the American League. “We were in dire straits for a third baseman, and Danny was our best choice,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says of the 2006-08 minor league All-Star. “He just had to grow up a little bit in a lot of areas and he’s still working at it.”
Indeed, Valencia’s second season didn’t go nearly as well, but the talkative 26-year-old, who transferred from North Carolina-Greensboro to Miami after his freshman year, has never lacked confidence. “Danny definitely believes in himself and I think it rubs off on the team,” says outfielder Denard Span. “He felt like he belonged as soon as he came up and he has proven that.”
He is also a member of the tribe, although people can be confused by his surname. “People are shocked at first that I’m Jewish,” says Valencia, who disappointed all potential Jewish mothers-in-law hoping to fix him up with their daughters by getting engaged this year. “I get teased in the clubhouse about being Jewish, but we all get teased about something. Going to Hebrew school and being a bar mitzvah…made my mom really happy. I wished I had been out playing baseball, but looking back at it now, I’m happy I did it.”
New York Mets
It wasn’t inevitable that Ike Davis would become a major-leaguer, but it sure didn’t hurt that his father, Ron Davis, was a relief pitcher from 1978-88, most famously for the 1981 American League champion New York Yankees. “Baseball was something that I thought when I was pretty young I could play at a higher level if I worked hard enough because my dad was a big-leaguer and I had some talent,” says Davis, a 24-year-old Scottsdale, Arizona native.
A standout first baseman during his three seasons at Arizona State University, Davis was selected by the Mets in the first round of the 2008 draft and promoted to the majors in 2010. Davis’ rookie year put him among baseball’s top newcomers and among the best in Mets history. He was hitting .302 and was on pace for more than 30 homers and 100 RBI before he suffered a serious ankle injury on May 10, which sidelined him for the season.
“Ike’s got tremendous poise, especially for a guy his age,” says Mets catcher Mike Nickeas. “I’m sure part of it is because he was exposed to a tremendous amount of knowledge about this game at a really young age, but really it’s just his character. He’s funny. He’s quick-witted. He’s got a tremendous future in front of him.”
While putting together family trees as a youngster, Davis learned that many of his Jewish mother’s relatives had perished in the Holocaust. “I’m not really religious, but I appreciate what the Jewish side of my family has gone through,” Davis says. “I love history. If I wasn’t playing baseball, I would probably be a teacher. I can see myself doing that after baseball.”
For now, Davis is enjoying being a standout Jewish athlete in New York, the nation’s most Jewish city. “It’s good for the fans to see some Jewish athletes on the field, but honestly, for kids, school is way more important than sports because the chances of making the big leagues are so small,” Davis says.