JointMedia News Service spoke about religious identity and pride with Jewish baseball players rising through the Minor League ranks, looking to join the current crop of 13 Jewish Major Leaguers.
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It’s simple, really. If you’re Jewish, wield a scalpel, not a baseball bat. Master the nation’s laws rather than the unwritten rules of the national pastime.
“You’re not supposed to be a ballplayer if you’re Jewish,” former White Sox pitcher Marv Rotblatt says in the 2010 documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. “You’re supposed to be an attorney or a doctor.”
However, while Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis and Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler remain the exception—not the rule—among Jewish athletes who have risen to the Major League Baseball ranks, a growing number of young athletes are looking to enhance that number.
“It’s a terrible stereotype,” said Houston Astros pitching prospect Josh Zeid. “A lot of my friends are really athletic and could’ve played college sports. Maybe at an early age, their parents tried to be more realistic.
You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer, though getting an education is important. When you look across the major leagues, you see the Jewish players. I want to be one of those guys.”
Growing up in Connecticut, Zeid found it easier than most to focus on athletics. All students were required to participate in sports at school, and Zeid thrived. A hard-throwing pitcher at Hamden Hall Country Day School, Zeid possessed a blazing fastball that produced a school-record of 400 strikeouts.
As a senior, he led the Hamden Hall Hornets to a second straight New England Championship and was listed by Baseball America as the nation’s 27th-best prospect.
His collegiate travels took him from Vanderbilt to Tulane. After struggling in his third year of college, Zeid considered non-athletic endeavors, like law school or writing spy and murder mystery novels. Things improved once he stopped worrying about on-field performance.
“Baseball became easier,” he said. “I didn’t stress out as much and failing didn’t matter as much. When you’re a high school star, everyone tells you it’s easy, and you listen when you’re 18 years old. It takes being humbled to fight through it.”
The Philadelphia Phillies drafted him in the 10th round in 2009. He advanced as high as Double-A Reading this year before being included in the July 29 trade for outfielder Hunter Pence.
Academics are still a big part of his life. An English major, Zeid blogged about his experiences in the Arizona Fall League and wants to compose stories about growing up as a Jewish baseball player in New England.
“A lot of people don’t know anything about Jewish people and our culture,” said Zeid, who’s read biographies about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. “There are a lot of bad stereotypes. It’s about letting people know we are capable of playing sports, doing well in school and being generous.”
The U.S. Jewish population, despite waves emigrating from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has remained underrepresented in dugouts.
According to Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, only 160 of more than 16,700 MLB Players have been Jewish. Because of such scarcity, aspiring Jewish baseball kids know the stories of Greenberg or Koufax, who each famously sat out games on Yom Kippur. But do they also know about Phil Weintraub or Harry Danning, who were nearly refused road lodging because of their religion in 1934?
Lipman Emanuel Pike, a Jew of Dutch origin, was the first known salaried player, earning $20 in 1866 from the Philadelphia A’s. When the first professional baseball league was formed years later, Pike was one of its first stars.
Thirteen Jewish players populate Major-League baseball rosters today: Braun, Breslow, Ike Davis, Scott Feldman, Sam Fuld, John Grabow, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, Josh Satin, Michael Schwimer, Danny Valencia and Youkilis. Three of them: Satin (Mets), Schwimer (Phillies) and Lavarnway (Red Sox) debuted this season. More could be on the way.
Like Zeid, pitcher Eric Berger is another minor-league farmhand looking to break through. The lefty generated a lot of misses this season, striking out 87 batters in 71 and 1/3 innings at Double-A and Triple-A in the Cleveland Indians organization.
“I love the fact of how few we are and I’m trying to represent for us that we can be athletes,” said Berger, a former star at Woodcreek High School in Roseville, Ca. “The amount of professional [Jewish] athletes is so small. If kids can latch onto somebody, he can help inspire them.”
Berger and San Francisco Giants catching farmhand Aaron Lowenstein grew up in California, finding that inspiration in their home state from former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green. The pair would love to become big-league role models.
“It’s awesome to get recognized for being Jewish,” said Lowenstein, who spent the 2011 season with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. “For some reason, it’s tougher for us. Hopefully, Jewish kids can look up to us and follow in our footsteps.”
The list of Jewish players is increasing. According to jewishbaseballnews.com, which tracks the progress of Jews in baseball, 50 populate rosters from Triple-A to the Rookie Leagues, including former top picks Aaron Poreda (Padres) and Jeremy Bleich (Yankees).
Jesse Levis has noticed. The former catcher, who spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers, is now a professional scout for the Phillies. He doesn’t recall meeting as many Jewish players when he was coming up in the late 80s and 90s.
“I notice the names,” Levis said. “My mother always talked about it. Could he be...? It’s a topic of conversation. When I hear a name, I’m always curious. When I met a Jewish kid, we would start talking and become friends.”
Levis is a Conservative Jew and raising his three children with that identity.
“The older I got, the more proud I felt and the more it meant,” he said. “My sense of religion really increased when I got married and my wife’s family was religious. That’s when it hit me. I was so happy to be a Jew who played Major League Baseball because not many of us did.”
Levis got lucky in 2005 when, while in Spring Training with the Mets, he met Koufax. Though the two didn’t discuss religion, Levis understands the importance of sharing experiences.
“A couple of times during my career, youth groups would come to the park and ask me questions,” Levis said. “That was always an honor. I was never a superstar. I was the backup catcher, but still a big leaguer. You can make an impact and give them someone to identify with.”
For Zeid, the belief of furthering customs and a Jewish identity never stops.
“If you become a successful athlete, you should let people know where you’re from,” said Zeid, who always wears a Star of David and a Chai. “Guys aren’t afraid to say they’re Jewish. The more you can tell people, the more everyone will understand who we are as a community.”