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Jewish Inside Baseball

The following is a transcript of Episode 134 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Friday, March 31st, 2023. 

Opening day of the baseball season was just yesterday, which must mean that Passover is coming, or maybe it’s the other way around. The two holidays may not be biblically linked, but I have to tell you, somewhere in my subconscious, they feel connected. And it’s not hard to use the prompt of the overlap to draw some parallels. 

You see, right at the dawn of spring, two things are supposed to happen. Each household is supposed to take hold of a lamb and finish raising it in advance of the Passover sacrifice. And in the meantime, pitchers and catchers head down to Florida or Arizona to begin the first processes of spring training. The two holidays are both rooted in optimism and possibility. Winter is lifting, Egypt is behind us. Let’s play too. 

My dad was a career diplomat in the US Foreign Service, and he culminated his career in the foreign service with two terms as the United States Ambassador. First in Egypt, and then in Israel.

One of the roles of our diplomats is to help build cultural bridges between our country and other peoples. And my dad had a regular speech, which I loved, in which he would say to people in Egypt and in Israel that in order to understand America, you had to study two things. The Civil War and baseball. I think I would actually add to that the Wild West, cause I think a big part of the American story is the journey towards wealth and discovery and freedom into the unknown and all of the violence actually that came with that.

But I like the speech because I like thinking in terms of symbols and stories and of all of those symbols I connect to baseball the most. After all, my family only came to America at the turn of the 20th century. We don’t have Civil War or Wyatt Earp in our memories or in our DNA. I think for many Jews, baseball was the ticket into Americanness, and for many of us, those two things remain inseparable.

I’m not sure I could tell you my earliest baseball memories, in part because I grew up mostly overseas until age 10. I do know that by the time we moved back to the States, I had to learn about football and then eventually about basketball as well. But I was already a Yankee fan. It wasn’t because I had lived in New York. It was because, like my Jewish identity, it was handed down to me by my ancestors. 

My father grew up with Mickey Mantle back in the mid-20th century, Yankees’ golden age. By the mid-1980s, my grandmother, my father’s mother, had a maybe slightly unhealthy crush on then-Yankee star, Dave Winfield. My first baseball idol was Don Mattingly, which was perfect for a Jewish kid cause he was a hard worker who never won a championship and then had to retire because he had a bad back.

I’ve now handed over a love of the Yankees to my children, and they’re living out that dream actually by growing up in the Bronx, just a few stops on the train from the stadium, the place that I go to that makes me most feel like I’m making pilgrimage to the ancient temple in Jerusalem. And my children’s emotions rise and fall throughout the summer and into the fall on the back of the boys in pinstripes.

Is the question of Jews, baseball in America, or maybe even more generally, Jews and American sports, as ripe and poignant as it clearly once was for American Jews? According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in an article that came out this week, last season, there were 17 Major League baseball players who identified as Jewish, which doesn’t encompass the full number of players who might actually have a Jewish parent, but don’t refer to themselves as Jews.

Jews play professional baseball in numbers totally proportional to our size of the population, about 2% and were not bench players either. Once upon a time it was Koufax and Greenberg. We’ll talk about that today. Today it’s Bregman and Fried. Yankees’ starting Center Fielder is a Jewish kid from the Bronx, Harrison Bader, and the World Baseball Classic, which just wrapped up a few weeks ago, made things even more interesting, because the threshold to play for Team Israel was based on eligibility for immigration to Israel via the law of return, which is a more expansive definition of Jewishness than virtually any Jewish denomination has. In theory, the Jewish team could compete with anyone. 

But even as we’re in what feels like a golden age for Jews and baseball, I wonder whether the special relationship between Jews and baseball will continue to hold.

If Jews attached to sell ourselves to baseball as part of our attachment to America, then our sense of arrival now, several generations into the major American Jewish immigrations here, might better encode itself into the other more popular global and American sports football and basketball. 

And meanwhile, some of the poetry of baseball that makes sentimentalists like me look for thematic connections between our Jewishness and the special weird game of baseball, that stuff is going away too, for instance. I always loved that baseball was the only sport, not defined by time or space. In theory, the outfield could go on forever. In theory, every umpire strike zone was his own arbitrary sphere of judgment. In theory, a baseball game could never end. 

It all sounds very much like it could have been written by Abraham Joshua Heschel, but now there’s a pitch clock. And soon we’re gonna have robot umps. It’s like Matza made by machines and Passover Haggadahs written and illustrated by AI. What have we gained and what have we lost? 

I’m honored to be joined today by Ira Berkow, one of America’s legendary sports writers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, an author of dozens of books, mostly about sports, but there’s also a Jackie Mason book in there, I have to say, that sent me down a hilarious rabbit hole as I was doing research for today of YouTube videos. Most importantly, maybe most permanently for today, the author of the script for the documentary movie, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. Thanks for coming on our show today, and thanks for indulging this passion and curiosity of mine.

Tell us a little bit about this story about Jews in baseball. Why people like me grew up under the auspices of a narrative that there was a special relationship between the Jewish people in America and baseball. What makes baseball special to American Jews? And whether you think that’s changing. 

Ira: I think Jews like the general public, either like baseball or don’t like baseball, but I grew up, in the late forties and, or went to high school in the mid-fifties. And baseball was more important than football or basketball. I’m not sure if that has changed or not. I know basketball has become very popular and of course football draws the biggest ratings. But baseball holds a special place, I think, in all of our hearts because of the history of it.

And the place of Jews in baseball is significant, maybe more for Jews than it is for anybody else. But probably started, I mean, the deep interest may go back to the early 1920s when the New York Giants were looking for a prominent Jew. And they found a second baseman named Cohen. And he played for a couple of years, but he wasn’t the star.

And the first really Jewish star of the 20th century was Hank Greenberg. And that elicited a tremendous amount of interest among Jews, especially when Greenberg was a star player in the thirties, at a time that was horrific especially for Jews in Europe. And Jews were aware of, for the most part, what was going on with antisemitism in Europe. And then we had a, in America, a six-four star, baseball home run hitter, who, as time went on, I got to know through the years.

In fact, as we were speaking, I had dinner last night with Hank Greenberg’s son, Steve, who was a AAA, played for Yale, and played AAA baseball and just narrowly missed making the major leagues. And Hank was interested in doing a, actually his son, Steve wanted his father to write an autobiography and somehow they picked me to do it. And at first I said, no. 

I, they picked me because I just had done a biography of Red Smith, the great sports writer. And part of that book, a section was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. And I was writing for the New York Times at the time, and Steve and Hank both saw that piece and thought I’d be a good candidate to fill out and Hank’s autobiography. 

So they called me and I had just finished four years of writing work on the Red Smith book. And I said, no, I’m just worn out from it. And I remember about almost a week later, I was on a train going to Philadelphia for a story. And I was thinking about Hank Greenberg and I knew the history of Greenberg and the Jews in sports, and particularly of baseball.

And I thought to myself, well, who better to write to write the book than me? Because number one, I played baseball. I was a high school baseball player. A pitcher and first baseman on a good Chicago Public League team. And then I’m a sports writer and I followed it, and baseball was a great interest to me. And I knew pretty much the Hank Greenberg story. 

So I called Steve back. And I said, do you have a writer for the Hank Greenberg autobiography? And he said, no, not yet. And so I said, well, if the position’s still open, I’ll do it.

But before this, I had been friendly with Hank, actually. And I looked forward to seeing it. And just talking about what it was like being a Jew in Major League Baseball, being a star Jew in Major League baseball. And so we connected And I have a fondness for the family and I’d like to think that the family has a fondness for me.

Yehuda: You know, I saw an interview with you online which indicates that you’re the answer to a trivia question, which is the only living person who spent real time with Hank Greenberg, got to interview Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, and Moe Berg, who are in some ways the three most famous Jewish baseball players in the middle of 20th Century. For our listeners, Koufax, Hall of Fame pitcher, Hank Greenberg, a Hall of Fame slugger, and Moe Berg, not a hall of famer, but is known as a mysterious catcher who spied for the OSS during World War II. 

Ira: But he played major in baseball for about 15 years.

Yehuda: Yeah. How did you find yourself in this position? I mean, I know you were a sports writer. I’m sure that the fact of your Jewishness made it more compelling for Greenberg and Koufax to want to talk to you, but how did you find yourself, you know, capable of building these relationships with these three figures?

Ira: Well, I built relationships with a few others. I was a sports columnist and sports writer for almost 60 years. And I went where the story was often. But I knew the Jewish connection, of course, between Koufax, we all knew that, and Moe Berg, and I got to meet Moe Berg and he was just, you know, he was brilliant and fascinating and he was just a great character. I spent some time with him, and with Koufax. And I actually had a correspondence with Koufax and the same with Greenberg. 

But I would say that I did seek out being Jewish and I did seek out Moe Berg and Sandy Koufax for columns. But they were pertinent columns because they were tied to news events that both of them were involved in. Although I stretched a little with Moe Berg and I wrote a column in the New York Times that it was, something like the 50th anniversary of the day he retired from baseball.

So I guess that was, you’d say that was kind of a stretch, but Moe was wonderful and he lived in New Jersey with his sister, but he would come to New York, to Shea Stadium and to Yankee Stadium. And he’d always get in free because he was an old ball, one of the old ball players.

And I made it a point, he was pointed out to me and I knew some of the history. And sitting in the press box it was pointed out to me that, there’s Moe Berg. And so I decided, pretty much from that point on, I would sit next to Moe. And listen to his stories. He was a great storyteller, but also watching the ballgame and, I mean, how astute he was.

A hitter came up who would normally hit to right. But he was saying that the pitcher didn’t sleep well last night. How he knew, I don’t know. 

Yehuda: He was a spy. 

Ira: He was astute about stuff and he said, this guy who usually hits the ball to right field is gonna hit a line drive to left. And that’s what happened, you know? And so, his, I think some 15 years in the major leagues, one or two years he was a starting catcher for most of the season, with the Chicago White Sox particularly. And so he was a treat to be around. 

And he would tell me stories about how Eleanor Roosevelt would call him and ask him to get her tickets to a baseball game. So he had all these connections with all these people. And then sometimes I’d be sitting in the press box, he’d come in, he’d sit down next to me. You know, and Koufax, I was a pitcher in high school and so I reminisced about my turn on the mound, you know.

And, you know, he started as a first baseman in high school. Fred Wilpon, who owned the Mets, Wilpon was a star pitcher. I think it was Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. And Koufax was the first baseman, and Wilpon was the pitcher, the star pitcher. 

Yehuda: You know, Koufax is such a great story from a baseball perspective. He, you know, started off not great and then had basically the six or seven best seasons ever as a pitcher, and then walked away at age 30 famously, and kind of walked away in some ways from public life, not entirely. 

But he’s also associated with, I think one of the most significant public Jewish moments in America in the 20th century, which is of course the refusal to play on Yom Kippur. Could you give some texture to that, what you know from Koufax about that decision? And also something for our listeners about what the consequences were of that decision for American Jews. What ways it put Jewishness on the map in a different way in America?

Ira: Yeah. Well, what you’re describing is the Dodgers were playing the Minnesota Twins in the World Series in 1965. And, Koufax was slated, he was a star pitcher, along with Don Drysdale, but they were a one-two combination, but it was Koufax first and Drysdale second. And Koufax was slated to open the World Series in Minneapolis with him starting pitcher. 

And it turned out that Yom Kippur fell on the opening day of the World Series. And so Koufax decided that he wouldn’t be comfortable pitching on Yom Kippur. And so he didn’t, and he spent the first game of the World Series in a hotel room, in Minneapolis, I guess with the television and watching the game.

But so Drysdale took the position of being the first pitcher in the World Series for the Dodgers. So the story goes that the Twins scored something like three runs in the first inning off Drysdale, and then maybe four or five runs in the second inning off Drysdale. And then the manager of the Dodgers, Walter Alston, comes out to the mound to take Drysdale out and Drysdale hands him the ball and says, “Skip, I know you’re wishing I was a Jew.” Alston never denied that he was wishing that it was, it was Koufax out there.

But then Koufax came back the next day. I was then working for the Minneapolis Tribute, by the way, at that, that was my first job. But then the next day Koufax and as I recall in a close game, lost the game to the Twins.

But then he came back and I think won the fifth game. And then on two days rest, game seven, he pitched a shutout as I recall. I think it was two to nothing. And the Dodgers won the World Series and Koufax, I think was named Most Valuable Player in the World Series in 1965. 

And then he was having arm problems, elbow problems. And he pitched, the next year, 66, I think he was something like, 25 and 5. But he decided at age 30 after 12 years of the major leagues, he started when he was 18 years old. And he pitched the first six years were mediocre, and the next six years were six of the best years that any pitcher has ever had in the major leagues. And he decided that he didn’t want to be crippled. He thought that would happen if he continued pitching, that his arm would be crippled. And so at age 30, he retired, which is a far cry from Nolan Ryan who retired at age, what, 47?

Yehuda: Something like that. Yeah. 

Ira: First one, you know. Koufax retired after having a great, great season. 

He was an awful hitter. And I think he holds the record for having struck out the most consecutive at bats. And I wrote him a note and with a clipping from my days and talking about how I got a triple in a high school game in Chicago. And so I had a correspondence with him, and so I sent it to him and he wrote me back and he said, at least you’ve got a hit. I can still frame that letter.

Yehuda: Yeah, you should frame it. 

Ira: He said, at least you got a hit. 

Yehuda: Did he ever share with you some insight about the Yom Kippur decision, or was it just he didn’t feel comfortable with it and didn’t wanna do it? I think you wrote an article once about Greenberg, in which you said that Greenberg also set out a game in 1934, which was Yom Kippur.

Ira: Yes, on Rosh Hashana. 

Yehuda: On Rosh Hashana. 

Ira: Yes, but Koufax, a coach on the Dodgers was a Jew named Jake Pitler and Koufax confided in Pitler and asked him what he thought he should do about Yom Kippur.

And Pitler said, I think you should sit it out and. And Koufax, I don’t know if he talked to anybody else. Maybe some rabbis, I don’t know. Greenberg did talk to some rabbis. And so the conclusion for both was to sit out a significant Jewish holiday. 

Yehuda: It seems like both Greenberg and Koufax knew hat they played a symbolic role for American Jews, that they represented something bigger, that they were kind of Jewish leaders of the type.

And I’m curious whether they talked to you about what informed that decision. Not that they were particularly religious people, but they felt that they were symbols. 

Ira: Yeah. Neither of them was religious. And in fact, it may have been Yom Kippur, when Greenberg was retired and to honor that particular day about what, Jews place in the world, he took both boys, they were like 13 and 11 or something. And he took both boys to the planetarium. He took both boys on, I guess it was Yom Kippur, but it was a number of years after he retired from baseball. But he thought this would be significant to take them to the planetarium.

I mean, both Greenberg and Koufax grew up in Jewish neighborhoods. Koufax in Brooklyn and Greenberg in the Bronx. And so their upbringing was Jewish. Their parents were synagogue goers. So they, they grew up with that kind of background. And both of them were highly knowledgeable about Jewishness. And I would talk to them about it. 

But one funny thing is that Greenberg and, and Moe Berg played in the same years. And Greenberg sometimes we want to talk to Moe Berg and he said, but Moe Berg was so odd. He said, I, I really couldn’t carry on a conversation with him, but, maybe I’m odd, but I, I can’t carry on a conversation with Moe Brg. 

Yehuda: I’m curious if you think that Jewish athletes today would see themselves with the same type of role, symbolic role. I mean, there’s one example, kind of an interesting small example of this basketball player who graduated from Yeshiva University last year and is in the, I believe in the Detroit Pistons Minor League system, the G-League or the D-League, Ryan Turell, who’s the first professional basketball player that we know of who actually wears a kippah in his head while he plays. I’m not convinced he’s gonna make the NBA, but he’s in the system. 

I’m curious if you see whether athletes today, Jewish athletes today see themselves the way Greenberg and Koufax did as like it or not, kind of ambassadors of Jews in the public square in ways that would inform their decisions.

Ira: Yeah. Um, nobody cares if they’re Jewish or not if you’re in the minor leagues, generally. It’s when they make the big time, when they make the NBA, Or hockey. I think that there are some Jewish players in hockey. And some in baseball. I think Max Fried.

Yehuda: Yep. Max Fried, Alex Bregman. 

Ira: Oh, the center fielder? Peterson.

Yehuda: Jack Peterson. Yeah.

Ira: Peterson. Didn’t he sit out? I think, they’re made aware of the heritage of Koufax and Greenberg. 

Yehuda: Oh, that’s interesting.

Ira: They’re made aware of that. And if I were still around and writing,  surely I would, I would ask some about it because it’s part of it, part of not only baseball history, but American history. And I would approach them if I were still doing it. I went to the Mets locker room. And all the players were no longer, they no longer hang around at their lockers the way they used to, where you could walk over and approach them and talk to them. They’re all the trainer’s room now, so it’s harder and harder for reporters to talk to these guys.

It was like, David Righetti was a pitcher for the Yankees. He was a star minor league pitcher, and then about to come up to the Yankees and he was pitching a Columbus minor league team for the Yankees. And I went down to Columbus to do a story on ’em. And as it happens, if you talk to an athlete when they’re in the minor leagues and you show some interest in them, they have an association with you for when they make the majors. 

So, this one time, Righettii now was a star pitcher for the Yankees. And I went over to him and I asked him a question and he said, you know, he said, Ira, if I answer this question, the guys in the locker room are gonna read this, and they’re all gonna get mad at me. So I can’t say anything. And so at this point, an experienced reporter does only one thing. He just doesn’t say anything, and he looks at the subject. I looked at Righettii. Righettii looked at me. I looked at Righettii. Righettii looked back at me. 

And then he said, you know, these guys in the locker room, don’t read the New York Times. I’ll tell you.

Yehuda: Amazing.

Ira: And so I guess I would continue on and say that the Jewish players would know the history of Jews sitting out and I know that there are some who are, one parent is Jewish or one grandparent is Jewish. And so they have to make their own decisions on how faithful they are to Judaism.

Yehuda: I’ll share with you a great story that happened to me once, which is a great Jews and baseball story. I was in, you know what I do for a living is I teach, I lecture into Jewish communities about Jewish issues and I was in San Francisco, I don’t know, maybe seven, eight years ago, and the Giants had won the World Series a couple of years prior, so now they were back in the World Series again. I guess it was against the Royals. This was their second time around. 

So usually when you go to a community where the team’s in the World Series for the first time in a long time, you can’t get anybody’s attention, but they had just won the World Series so people like, you know, the novelty had worn off.

Anyway, so the lecture was scheduled for the evening of Game seven of Giants-Royals World Series and I said to my hosts, this is crazy. I’m in, literally in Marin County in San Francisco. Nobody’s gonna come. It’s not fair to people. And they said, no, no people want to come. So it’s, you know, about 30 people sitting around a table. We’re studying texts.

And they said, but the one thing is what we wanna do is if the giants are about to win, we’re gonna pause the lecture, turn on the TV, watch the last out, and let people celebrate. And indeed that happens. So they pause the lecture. There’s one guy sitting there with his Giants apparel on, they paused the lecture, turn on the TV. The last Royals batter pops out, everybody goes crazy. And then they just turned off the TV and started the lecture again. 

And I thought that was like the greatest moment in my own experience of Jews and basebal. Care about it, but not enough to stop studying.

Ira: Great. Great story. 

Yehuda: I know you’re a big NBA fan, big basketball fan. You’ve written a bunch of books about the NBA. You know, the big story for Jews and sports this past year in the New York area was the Kyrie Irving story, and it felt like the dark side in some ways of the Jews in sports story, the ways in which a professional athlete can traffic in anti-Semitic tropes and actually the result of that is the web hits for the kinds of ideas that he was advancing went up immensely, and he became a mouthpiece in some ways for a bunch of anti-Semitic ideas. 

I’m curious if you were following that story and your perspective on the way in which, you know, if the same way that Greenberg and Koufax can be really useful to the public image of Jews, sometimes professional athletes can also be really damaging to the public reputation of Jews. 

Ira: Yeah. Kyrie Irving is a great basketball player. He’s an idiot. You know, I mean, his remarks and, uh, including not being vaccinated I think is just, is stupid. But there are people like Irving, I think that his attention about Jews has been raised since he’s made his remarks. But there are a lot of people who were just ignoramuses.

I mean, if you would sit down with them and show them a two-hour movie of the Holocaust, maybe, he might be able to equate that to slave slavery in America in pre-Civil War days. The commissioner of basketball is Jewish and the former commissioner was Jewish. There are Jewish owners. Every once in a while, you get someone who’s, one of the parents is Jewish. Every once in a while in the NBA. 

When I was playing high school basketball in Chicago, we had four Jewish starters, and Denny Garrity was Irish. And we went to play at St. George High School. And some of the guys in the stands thought that we were all Jewish. And Garrity was our best player. And so they were hollering virtually anti-Semitic stuff at Garritty, who was Irish.

Yehuda: Did you ever experience anti-Semitism as a sports writer from athletes or from other, in other contexts? Because of your Jewishness?

Ira: I’d have to think about that for a moment. I’ve negative views from athletes about something I’ve written about the, nothing to do with Jewishness. But no, I would say not. I was just viewed as just another writer, I guess. 

I’ll give you an example of, I was in the Mets locker room and I was interviewing one of their star players. I forgot. Suddenly I forgot who it is. And there was a locker next to the locker of the guy who I’m interviewing, and there was nobody in this other locker. So I just sat down in the chair, to interview the guy, who, the player was also sitting in a chair.

And in a few minutes, I get a tap on the shoulder and it was the pitcher Al Leiter of the Mets. And he taps me on the shoulder and he said that’s my locker and that’s my chair. I said, oh, I’m, I’m sorry. I got up and he said, but, I brought you a chair. 

Yehuda: That’s sweet. He’s a good guy, Al Leiter.

Ira: You know, that endeared me to Al Leiter from that point forward. And a number of years later, I ran into him at a function and I told him the story and he said, well, well, yeah, you need, you needed a place to sit.

Yehuda: Yeah. Well you’ve been very generous with your time with us this morning, and I really appreciate it. Can you give us your, any predictions for the 2023 baseball season as we head into the season now? 

Ira: Yeah. Well, I’m from Chicago, although I’ve lived in New York for 50 years, but I grew up as a Cub fan and so the Cubs have made a few deals. And I see them going to the World Series and winning four straight. 

Yehuda: Well, there you go. If there’s anything more Jewishly optimistic, it’s coming on this podcast for the record and saying you think the Cubs are gonna sweep the World Series. 

Ira, thanks so much for doing this. I really appreciate it. It’s great to hear your stories and great to talk to you. 

Ira: Okay, my pleasure. 

Yehuda: Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled. And Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at 

We’re always looking for ideas of what to cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about, if you have comments on this episode, or if a question you’d like us to answer on air, you can write to us at [email protected]. You can rate and review our show to help more people find it. You can subscribe to Identity Crisis everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, thanks for listening, and go Yankees.

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