Nearly all fans of baseball history have heard of Hank Greenberg. Most have heard of Al Rosen. But fewer have heard of Cal Abrams, and hardly any, it's safe to say, have heard of Lou Limmer. All four are members of a compelling team — the 165 American Jews who played Major League Baseball between the 1870s and the end of the 2010 season.
Why should we care about Jews who played in the Major Leagues? One good reason is that the Phillies home season begins on April 9 and lots of fans are hungry for play to start.
But going back farther in American history, baseball helped American Jews feel at home and helped non-Jewish Americans feel comfortable around them. For example, there's the Hank Greenberg story of sitting out a game on Yom Kippur in 1934. Greenberg's actions and his home runs made him a hero to Jews and non-Jews alike.
The decision of whether to play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, is one that has resurfaced for many players, from Sandy Koufax and his decision not to pitch in the first game of the 1965 World Series to, more recently, catcher Jesse Levis, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and played in the Major Leagues between 1992 and 2001, and outfielder Shawn Green. Every time a player rests on the High Holidays, it generates national headlines and fosters Jewish pride.
The story of Jews in baseball goes beyond the well-trod turf of the "High Holidays dilemma." Fighting hecklers was not uncommon for Jewish players, even when the antagonists sat on the opposing bench. In particular, Al Rosen, a former amateur boxer, wasn't shy about taking on hecklers.
Jewish pride is another recurrent trope. Pride in being Jewish is one thing, but being actively Jewish is another — and most players in the collection, like most American Jews, weren't observant. Many were raised Orthodox — Al Schacht says his mother wanted him to be a cantor — but none seemed to have maintained this level of observance as adults. It makes sense: Eating kosher food and maintaining any sense of Shabbat, which restricts behaviors from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday, would be impossible to do while pursuing a professional baseball career.
Another theme that resonates for Jewish athletes is personal pride: These athletes were simply thrilled at making it to the Major Leagues, even if only for a short while. Mickey Rutner, who hit .250 in 12 games in 1947 for the Philadelphia Athletics, was a New York City native. Almost 60 years after the fact, Rutner still remembered his finest Major League moment, a game-winning hit at Yankee Stadium, as "the biggest thrill of my life."
The collective accomplishments of Jewish Major Leaguers will surprise most people. Jews, who made up about 3 percent of the population of the United Sates during the 20th century, made up just 0.8 percent of baseball players from 1871 to 2002, the latest year for which the non-profit organization, Jewish Major Leaguers, has complete figures.
But Jewish players, on the whole, have fared better than average. They hit 2,032 homers — 0.9 percent of the Major League total, and a bit higher than would be expected by their percentage of all players. Their .265 batting average is 3 percentage points higher than the overall average.
Jewish pitchers are 20 games over .500, with six of baseball's first 230 no-hitters (four by Sandy Koufax, including a perfect game, and two by Ken Holtzman). The group ERA is 3.66, a bit lower than the 3.77 racked up by all Major League hurlers. With the recent influx of top-flight Jewish Major Leaguers — Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler come to mind — these statistics might even have improved since 2002.
The one stat in which Jews have fallen short is stolen bases, with a total of 995 through 2002 — many fewer than Rickey Henderson stole all by himself. Apparently, Jewish players have observed the Eighth Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal."
Of the 141 Jewish Major Leaguers as of 2002, 122 were born into families in which both parents were Jewish and 13 had one Jewish parent (seven with a Jewish father and six with a Jewish mother). Six players — including African-American Elliott Maddox — converted to Judaism. Sixty-eight players hailed from New York or California, and the rest were born in 21 other states, as well as Russia, France, Canada and the Dominican Republic. Ten players changed their last names, all but one of them before Hank Greenberg played.
In addition to their backgrounds, many of these Jewish players simply have fascinating stories to tell. Andy Cohen admits to being something of a ladies' man; Saul Rogovin, who finished his career with the Philadelphia Phillies from 1955-1957, discusses how undiagnosed narcolepsy affected his career; and Goody Rosen describes his winter-time trip to spring training in an open-air car.
Slugger Lou Limmer, by the way, played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951 and 1954.
Peter Ephross is the editor of Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players. It's available on websites, in bookstores and at: www.jewishmajorleaguers.org.