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.”