Top 5 Jewish Baseball Players of All Time
Its opening day today!
(This is dedicated to my dad whose birthday just so happens to be today.)
It is opening day in America. Major League Baseball returns today. Last year they held a truncated season with only 60 games because of the Coronavirus. Halfway through Spring Training, last March, MLB was forced to shut down and did not come back until August. And then the stadiums stood empty as fans were not allowed to attend the games.
And this year opening day comes in the middle of Pesach. This can be seen as a special bracha, blessing.
Everyone is talking now about how important baseball is for America. With the Covid vaccines more readily available, all of the teams can have at least some fans in attendance. And what could be more Jewish than Baseball?
Baseball is kind of a religion, of sorts. Just listen to how Susan Sarandon spoke about the Temple of Baseball in the movie “Bull Durham.” It’s passed down from father to son, just like a religion. People remember that first catch they had with their dads. See the last ten minutes of “Field of Dreams.”
Spending the afternoon at the ball park can be compared to a spiritual experience. And ever since the first Jews settled in Brooklyn, and started going to games at Ebbets Field, baseball has been a part of the American Jewish tradition.
So even if you can’t make it to the park because of Covid, even if you still have to engage in social separation wherever you may be in the world, you can still find a way to see at least part of a game today. If you keep kosher then you can’t have a cold one or even some crackerjacks since its Passover. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying the day.
Opening Day of Major League Baseball is a holiday, so treat it like one.
Now here is our list of the five greatest Jewish baseball players of all time.
5 – Art Shamsky
Art Shamsky only played for 8 seasons. He set no records, never led the league in anything, and will never make it into the Hall of Fame. But he did one very important thing in his career: he was on the 1969 Miracle Mets who won the World Series.
4 – Ken Holtzman
Ken Holtzman may not have made it to the Hall of Fame, but he was still one of the greats. Holtzman had two no hitters and won three World Series championships in a row with the Oakland A’s from 1972 – 1974.
3 – Al Rosen
Al Rosen played for 10 seasons, all with the Cleveland Indians. He won one World Series in 1948 and was the American League MVP in 1953. That year he had a .336 batting average, .422 on-base percentage, .613 slugging percentage, 43 home runs and 145 RBIs. He was a four-time All-Star had more than 100-RBIs five times. Rosen was forced into early retirement at the age of 32 because of back and leg injuries.
2 – Sandy Koufax
Sandy Koufax only played for 12 seasons, but he dominated baseball throughout his career. He won four world championships, the first and most important one came in 1955. That was the year the Brooklyn Dodgers won their one and only World Series championship, and they did so against the hated cross town rival New York Yankees. Koufax also won three Cy Young Awards as the best pitcher in the National League and two World Series MVP awards.
He led all of baseball in strike outs four times. He had more than 300 strikeouts three times including 382 in 1964. That is second most in a season during the modern baseball era which began in 1900. The record for most is just one more at 383, held by Nolan Ryan.
Koufax led the league in strike outs with more than 300 in his last two seasons and led it in earned run average in his last five seasons, ending up below a 2.0 ERA three times. And yet he retired just after that. Koufax said that he could still pitch well, but was worried that he would damage his arm and be left injured permanently if he did.
Koufax is most famous, among Jews, for not playing a game on Yom Kipur during the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins. As a pitcher, he did not need to play every day. But it was the first game of the Series and he was expected to pitch. The Dodgers lost that game, but won the Series in seven. Generations of Jews from the Minneapolis, Minnesota area have claimed ever since that Sandy Koufax stayed in their community for the Yom Kipur holiday that year.
He was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1972 in his first year of eligibility.
1 – Hark Greenberg
Of course Hank Greenberg is number one! Who else? You were probably expecting Sandy Koufax, but he just couldn’t be first. Sorry old time Brooklyn Dodgers fans.
First of all, the two men played the game twenty years apart from one another. So Greenberg had to deal with a lot more anti-Semitism in his career than did Koufax. In fact, since he was the first Jewish sports star in history, Greenberg could even be compared to Jackie Robinson.
The son of Jewish Romanian immigrants, Hank Greenberg was born in Greenwich Village and grew up in the Bronx. His name made Greenberg more obviously Jewish to fans and he was forced to endure hate speech all of the time, but he took it in stride.
“Every ballpark I went to, there’d be somebody in the stands who spent the whole afternoon just calling me names,” Greenberg said in a 1980 oral history. “If you’re having a good day you don’t give a damn. But if you’re having a bad day, why, pretty soon it gets you hot under the collar.”
Sandy Koufax played his first few seasons in Brooklyn, which was then the heart and soul of Jewish America. He later moved with the Dodgers out to Los Angeles which, as the home of Hollywood, was also a more Jewish friendly area. But most importantly, Koufax played in an era of peace and wealth in America. By the 1960s Jews may still have been barred from joining private clubs and so forth, but the barriers which once prevented them from working in corporate America had begun to crumble.
Greenberg played in Detroit, not New York, and during the Depression and the rise of Hitler in Germany. This was a precarious time for Jews in America. Father Charles Coughlin, who broadcast ant-Semitic and pro-Hitler rhetoric on the radio almost daily, was based in Detroit. Up until Pearl Harbor people worried that America would never go to war against Germany and Nazism. Hank Greenberg played through the era always aware of the situation that the world, and Jews everywhere, were in.
“Every home run I hit was a home run against Hitler,” Hank Greenberg once remarked about that era. He also once said that he wanted, “to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.”
And Hank Greenberg also missed three full baseball seasons, and parts of two others, in his prime to military service during World War II. Greenberg was at first exempted from service due to flat feet. But he insisted on serving and had his physical status upgraded to do so. And his service actually began before America entered the war.
He was drafted in 1941 after playing just 19 games for the Tigers that spring. Greenberg was released from service on December 5th, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So Hank Greenberg re-enlisted the following February; even though, he was already 30 years old and did not have to do so. He served in the Army Air Corps, rising to the rank of Captain. Greenberg served for 47 months in total.
His return to baseball came after the end of the war in Europe, but before the Japanese surrender, on July 1st 1945. He would only play half a season that year.
After missing more than 4 and a half seasons of play to military service, Hank Greenberg finished his career with 331 home runs. He led the American league in home runs four times, hitting as many as 58 in 1938. He had 1,628 career base hits, hitting more than 200 a season (a really big deal in baseball) three times. He had 184 runs batted in 1937 (third most ever in a single season) and drove in more than 100 runs five times in his career. (This is also a really big deal.)
Hank Greenberg also hit over 300 nine times, including 1945 after missing four years of play. He finished with a .312 career batting average, two American MVP awards and two world championships. Hank Greenberg was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1956. He died in 1986 at the age of 75.