The Jewish Infatuation with Jewish Baseball Players

About a month ago, just before Opening Day of the 2013 Major League Baseball season, I received an email from a newspaper reporter who asked if I had time available to discuss Jewish baseball players. I had recently read a fascinating review of John Rosengren’s new Hank Greenberg book in the Wall Street Journal and the relationship between baseball and Judaism was very much on my mind. So naturally I agreed to talk with the reporter. In his email, Charley Honey (love that name!) of the Grand Rapids Press wrote:

I’m working on a column about Hank Greenberg, a boyhood hero of my late father, who grew up in Detroit. A new bio of Hank, by John Rosengren, deals a lot with the challenges he faced as the first Jewish baseball star in the Bigs. I would like to talk with you about your perspective on Greenberg’s impact on sports and culture, and how baseball has served as an entree into American life for racial and religious minorities.

Always being on the lookout for tie-ins between the greatest game and the world of faith, I thought Opening Day and this new bio seemed like a good opportunity. I realize rabbis like you are very busy this Passover week, but if you could carve out half an hour or so to talk to me within the next few days I’d love the chance. My column is due Tuesday morning. Of course, I will not be available after 4 p.m. Monday. 🙂

Charley and I had a great conversation that lasted well over an hour. I explained that there is a certain fetish we Jews have with Jewish baseball players. As Joseph Epstein wrote in his WSJ review of Rosengren’s book, it’s difficult for most baseball fans to come up with a list of Methodist, Baptist or Catholic Major League ballplayers, but for some reason we can all create our lineup of the best Jewish ballplayers who ever played the game. There’s a certain pride that we Jews feel for our heroes like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

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Adam Greenberg Gets Another Chance in Majors

Hank Greenberg certainly remains the most famous and accomplished professional Jewish baseball player with that last name. However, this week Adam Greenberg was the “Greenberg” everyone was talking about.

I first learned about Adam Greenberg in an article that Ralph Woronoff sent me. An usher at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Ralph knows I’m a baseball fan and thought I’d be interested in learning about the small club of former major leaguers who only appeared in one at-bat in the big leagues.

The article featured the story of Adam Greenberg, a Jewish ballplayer who not only appeared in just one at-bat in a professional game, but only lasted for one pitch. Greenberg was hit in the head by Marlins pitcher Valerio De Los Santos. He’s the only player to have his career end on one pitch. Called in as a pinch hitter for the Chicago Cubs on July 9, 2005, the rookie was hit in the head by a 92 MPH fastball. The hit to the head resulted in Greenberg dealing with post-concussion syndrome, dizziness, severe headaches, double vision and nausea.

After reading the article I thought about blogging about Adam Greenberg’s ordeal, but I just never got around to it. Now, Greenberg is making news because he’s getting another chance in the big leagues. Now 31, Greenberg has had some plate appearances with several minor league teams and played for the Israeli team in qualifying competition for the World Baseball Classic where he drew a walk in his only appearance, but also scored a run.

Adam Greenberg slides safely into home for Israel in the World Baseball Classic.

What makes this story so great is that Greenberg recently signed a one-day contract with the Miami Marlins and is guaranteed one at-bat in this coming Tuesday’s game against the New York Mets. An online petition drive called “One At-Bat” encouraged the Marlins to agree to give Greenberg another chance. Greenberg explained, “Life is going to throw you curve balls or [a] fastball in the back of your head. I got hit by one of them. It knocked me down. I could have stayed there. I had a choice. I could have said, ‘Poor me, and this is horrible.’ But I chose to get up and get back in the box.”

Technically speaking, Greenberg’s hit by pitch seven years ago is not considered an official “at-bat”, but rather a “plate appearance.” Greenberg hopes to change that on Tuesday with a genuine at-bat. He’ll donate his one-day salary to the Marlins Foundation, which will make a donation to the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization that advances the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups.

Here’s the official video that started the movement to give Adam Greenberg one more chance at the plate in Major League Baseball. Of course, Hank Greenberg will always be the Greenberg we talk about when the topic is Jewish baseball legends, but Adam Greenberg’s story is legendary too.


Update: Adam Greenberg struck out swinging tonight after pinch hitting for Bryan Petersen in the bottom of the sixth inning.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ryan Braun Wins Appeal of Suspension for Failed Drug Test

Trivia question: How many Major League Baseball player have successfully won an appeal of a suspension resulting from a positive drug test? The answer is only one. And that is Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Jewish superstar.

Ryan Braun should feel vindicated after successfully appealing his 50-game suspension (Getty Images)

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel just reported that Braun won his appeal “not so much on contesting the result of the test but the testing process itself, some kind of technicality.” Apparently, there was some question about the chain of custody that Ryan Bruan’s urine sample went through for his test.

Major League Baseball’s 50 game suspension for Braun would have been devastating to the Brewers and to the reputation of last year’s NL MVP.

Last December, popular sports blogger Ron Kaplan of the NJ Jewish News (and Kaplan’s Korner) asked my opinion on Braun’s alleged positive drug test. I said:

I remain hopeful that the test was faulty and that Braun will get his good name back. It is a sad and unfortunate turn of events for this very talented player. Jewish children are in need of good role models and no matter if Braun doesn’t count in many people’s Halachic definition of a Jewish person, he has served as a good role model during his Major League Baseball career as he has been in the public spotlight. Certainly this will change if the results of the drug test are validated. Cheating is a clear violation of Jewish values and I’m praying that Braun will be vindicated.

I am glad he has been vindicated and will be able to start the 2012 season off on the right foot. The drug test and the subsequent suspension and successful appeal will all be small footnotes in an otherwise impressive Major League career for Ryan Braun.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Evan Kaufmann – Jewish Hockey Player for Germany

Originally published at JTA.org

More than 65 years ago, Evan Kaufmann’s great-grandparents were murdered in the Auschwitz death camp. Now he is taking the ice for the German national hockey team.

Following a successful hockey career at the University of Minnesota, Kaufmann tried out for several professional clubs in the United States before being advised by his agent that his best option was to play for a team in the German Ice Hockey League, or the DEL. His late grandfather’s German roots enabled Kaufmann to receive German citizenship quickly, and he and his wife, Danielle, relocated to Dusseldorf in 2008.

This weekend, the 27-year-old forward will represent the German national team in the Minsk Cup, a four-nation tournament. He also plans to compete with the national team in May’s world championships, and hopes to have a chance to make the German Olympic squad that will compete in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.

During his first years playing for the DEG Metro Stars, Kaufmann kept his Judaism to himself and didn’t tell his teammates that he was the grandson of a survivor or that his great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

“At first I was pretty uncomfortable expressing that I was Jewish and speaking about my family’s background, but that was true even in America,” Kaufmann told JTA. “It’s not something in the hockey world that is really talked about. It’s not something I was comfortable sharing with most people. But I’ve found that the younger generation here in Germany is open to differences, and from my experience they’ve all been interested in knowing more about being Jewish, including the holidays and traditions.”

Kaufmann and his wife are expecting their first child, a son, in June and will be relocating from Dusseldorf to Nuremberg, where Kaufmann recently signed a three-year contract with the local team, one of 14 in the German hockey league. [The Nuremberg team’s arena is located on the same grounds as the Nazi Party’s rally grounds]

How did his parents react when he decided to play professional hockey in Germany?

“They were a little unsure initially just because of everything that happened [in Germany], but they knew it was my lifelong goal to be a professional hockey player and I committed so much time to it,” Kaufman said.

“It’s an issue not just for them but for a lot of American Jews in general. Germany is so different today than it was back then. I wish more people could come over here today so they wouldn’t have to carry that stereotype forever.”

Being chosen to play for the national team carried with it mixed emotions for Kaufmann.

“A lot of the time I was thinking whether my grandpa would be happy about this or sad or mad,” he said. “The more I thought about it, I know he had plans to come back to Germany before he died. He wasn’t able to, but that helped me get over those initial fears. I feel more pride with the association of feeling German than I ever thought I’d have.”

Observing Judaism has been a challenge for the young Kaufmanns as well.

“The first year we were in Dusseldorf, we went to a small Orthodox synagogue. We had a tough experience,” he recalled. “We were taking photos from the outside and we were questioned and had to show our passports because there was an incident there a few years prior. That spoiled it for us.”

The couple makes a point of trying to keep the Jewish traditions alive. They share holiday dinners together and observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the Passover seder. They had met at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minn., the Conservative synagogue where their families are members.

“They took notice of each other in our sanctuary when they were at High Holiday services a few years ago and started to date,” Rabbi Harold Kravitz recalls. “They married in our sanctuary a few years later.”

Since becoming more open about his Judaism and his family’s ties to the Holocaust, Kaufmann’s teammates have become more curious.

“They want to know what everything means for me compared to them, but ultimately they know who I am as a person,” he said. “Our friendships were established without religion, so it doesn’t change anything. I was always hesitant to talk about it, but now that I’m being more public about it, I’ve become more comfortable with the history. I think it’s a good story to express.”

While his teammates tell him that anti-Semitism still exists in certain regions in Germany, Kaufmann hasn’t experienced any firsthand.

“I don’t think it’s any different than in America or any other country,” he said. “There’s always going to be people who have their own beliefs. Personally, I’ve only had good experiences in Germany.”

Kaufmann knows that he has his detractors in the Jewish community who find it troubling that someone who lost members of his family in the Holocaust could be playing for the German national team.

“Initially there was a part of me that thought that way,” Kaufmann said. But, he added, “I’ve always been taught to give people a second chance.”

He adds, “Everything that happened was so long ago and in a country that was so different. Obviously I never want to forget what happened, and that’s why I tell my story. But to hold that against a whole country of people who had nothing to do with it would not be right.”

Kaufmann has considered that he could be competing against the United States in May at the world championships, but he’s not concerned.

“I’m focused on helping this team and playing my role within the squad to help us win hockey games, and I don’t think it matters who the opponent is,” he said.

In addition to fulfilling his dream of playing on the Olympic team in two years, Kaufmann also expressed his desire to get his son skating when he’s 3 years old, a year earlier than his own first time on the ice.

Update: The German National Team lost both of its games in this weekend’s tournament, but Evan Kaufmann was named player of the game in one of the losses. 

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Auschwitz Survivor’s Jewish Grandson Evan Kaufmann Plays For Germany’s National Hockey Team

One year ago today I waited in line to enter the Reichstag. The moment wasn’t lost on me. Almost seventy years prior, the Nazi government made every effort to wipe my people off the face of this earth. And there I was, with a dozen other American rabbis, about to walk into the historic Berlin building that is the seat of the current German government as Chancellor Angela Merkel was addressing Parliament. I smiled as I handed my passport to the German officer and placed my watch and wallet into the bin before walking through the metal detector. What an interesting world we live in.

Several people asked me how I was able to travel to Berlin and spend money in the same country in which the Holocaust was conceived and planned. I’m sure those same people are asking how American-born hockey player Evan Kaufmann can represent the German national team this weekend. Several of Evan Kaufmann’s relatives perished in the Nazi Holocaust. His grandfather Kurt survived Auschwitz before fleeing to the United States.

Evan Kauffman – DEG Metro Stars (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Kaufmann moved to Germany in 2008, but word is just getting out about this Jewish hockey player whose great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust playing for DEG Metro Stars of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. The 28-year-old forward hopes to bring Germany a victory in the Belarus Cup in Minsk this weekend when he plays for the German national team. Kaufmann, who is married to Danielle (the couple is expecting their first child in June), received German citizenship in order to play for the national team and is among the top scorers in the German ice hockey league. Kaufmann admits that his teammates are very curious about him being Jewish and often ask him questions. Kaufmann told the UK’s Daily Mail, “I didn’t have to think hard about it. It is a great honour but it will also be a very emotional moment for me when I hear the national anthem played.”

Evan Kaufmann’s bio on the DEG Metro Stars website explains:

Evan Kaufmann joined the team in the summer of 2008. He was the great unknown to the team of DEG Metro Stars. A college player with had no experience in professional hockey made​​, received a German passport has in a very short time captured the hearts of the audience. His technical finesse and his speed made ​​him a major player in the third line of attack in Dusseldorf. So it was no surprise that his contract was extended for a few months ahead of schedule for two more years. It should be worth it. In the 2010-11 season Kauffman became the second-leading scorer behind Patrick Reimer. Together with Tyler Beechey and James Connor, he made a splendid swirling storm formation, which has established itself as the second offensive series and was instrumental in moving into the playoff semi-final. Kaufmann, whose grandfather came from Germany, began his career in the American Junior League for the River City Lancers. After a very strong year Kaufmann moved to the University of Minnesota to study and play Hockey. After his four years at the University of Minnesota, he devoted himself entirely to hockey.

While Evan Kaufmann isn’t the first Jewish individual to compete for Germany in the post-Holocaust era (a Jewish man swam for Germany in the 1952 Olympics and a Jewish woman swam for Germany in the 2004 Olympics), he is the most notable. It is certainly an interesting story that seven decades after his great-grandparents and other relatives were murdered by the Nazis, Kaufmann is proud to represent Germany on the ice. This is just one more way in which the Jewish community will come to view Germany differently. Never forgetting the massive tragedy of the Holocaust, we understand that this is a new Germany… A Germany we can cheer for proudly in this weekend’s Belarus Cup. Good luck to Evan Kaufmann and his DEG Metro Stars.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

A Very Jewish Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl Sunday will place two major Jewish philanthropists against each other. The New York Giants are co-owned by the Tisch family and the New England Patriots are owned by the Kraft family.

Joint Media News Service’s Jacob Kamaras provided the “who’s who” for both families and which Jewish organizations they all lead. In the Giants’ owners’ box you have “film and television producer Steve Tisch, son of Bob, as the team’s chairman and executive vice president. Bob’s brother, Larry, was the father of Jim — former president of the UJA Federation of New York and former board chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Jim’s wife, Merryl, chairs the board of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.”

On the other side of the field you have the Tisch family with “owner Robert Kraft’s wife Myra—who passed away last July—served as chair of the Boston-based Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) board of directors and was twice co-chair of CJP’s annual fundraising campaign.”

Both families are responsible for donating mega amounts of charitable gifts to major Jewish organizations, both here and in Israel. So, which Jewish owner’s team will come out victorious on Sunday night? For that we have to go to Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, who each year uses his Torah erudition to select the Super Bowl winner.

This year, the Connecticut-based Rabbi Hammerman decides to not make a Super Bowl prediction because “this year’s matchup hits too close to home – and, more to the point, my prediction before Super Bowl 42 (of a Pats win) did not work out too well. So, because I prefer not to jinx my team, no prediction this year.” He does use the Torah narrative to provide some background on the game:

Just before Super Bowl 42, you recall, the Patriots were busted for spying. In my prediction before that Super Bowl, which I am not repeating here, I noted that in the book of Numbers when the Israelite spies confronted “giants” as the scouted out the land, they reported back that they felt “like grasshoppers.” I noted that anyone who has ever been to Boston knows that high above that home of the original Patriots, Faneuil Hall, there sits a weathervane in the shape of, you guessed it, a grasshopper!

I also noted (in that prediction, which I’m not repeating here) that the Patriots wandered for just over 40 years before winning the first championship in 2002. So they had already served their time for the sin of the spies, which, as you recall from Numbers, was 40 years. For 40 years, the Patriotic spies were never able to stand up to the Giants…or the Raiders or Steelers or Dolphins, for that matter. But no more. First they sacrificed the Rams in Super Bowl 36, then they pillaged the Panthers and flew on wings of Eagles. Now, coached by a former Giant, they have become giants – in their own eyes, and the eyes of the other teams in the league. 

I then noted (but am not repeating here) that Giants are called both Nefilim and Anakim in the Torah. The Nefilim were mythic humanoids that filled the earth before the flood, much like the Titans of Greek mythology (a Giant-Titan Super Bowl would have been a doozy), while the Anakim were the ones who petrified the Israelite spies. There is one other giant of note in the Bible: Goliath. But it isn’t just Goliath who bit the dust, folks. When Rashi tried to explain the term Nifilim, he related it to the Hebrew word “nafal,” “to fall.” As Rashi (he was so good at predicting games that they called him “Rashi the Greek”) understood it, the Giants fell.

Based on Rashi, I concluded then that the Giants would fall. What I didn’t account for was the heroism of an unexpected David, whose last name is Tyree, who also happened to be a Giant. That was then, this is now. I can’t repeat my prior prediction, lest I tempt fate and repeat the result.

Many people enjoy Super Bowl Sunday, but not for the actual football match up. It is after all the second biggest eating day of year after Thanksgiving. So many people look forward to the food. I found this very non-kosher, but very cool looking Super Bowl food creation. It could very easily be adapted to a kosher creation by using only kosher deli meats and getting rid of the cheese and cheese snacks. And while we’re at it, how about substituting some rye bread and onion rolls for that white bread? I know one former NFL player who would enjoy this treif tray. Former New England Patriots punter Josh Miller, who is Jewish, played for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX and was recently quoted as saying that he was craving a ham sandwich with less than a minute to play in that game, which the Patriots won 24-21 over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Finally, I feel inclined to give some credit to Yeshiva University for offering a learning opportunity during halftime of the Super Bowl. The YU Torah Halftime Show incorporates Torah into the Super Bowl experience. It is a series of three 8 minute presentations on “Torah and Sports” topics, featuring leading faculty members Rabbi Ely Allen, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff and Dr. Yitzchak Schechter. The Torah learning show will be available for viewing on YU’s dedicated website on Sunday. Here’s the promo video for the YU Torah Halftime Show:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Tamir Goodman’s Sports Tzitzit

Tamir Goodman, known as “The Jewish Jordan,” made national headlines in the late 1990s when he decided not to play for the University of Maryland because they wouldn’t adjust their schedule to meet his Sabbath observance. Sports Illustrated even reported on Tamir’s decision to play for Towson State in 1999. However, a few years later SI reported:

In retrospect, maybe we went a little too far with the whole ‘Jewish Jordan’ thing. Three years ago (SI, Feb. 1, 1999) this magazine put that label on Tamir Goodman, described his game as ‘enthralling’ and reported breathlessly how he played ‘a foot over the rim when rebounding or dunking.’ The Orthodox Jew who starred for Talmudical Academy in suburban Baltimore was, we wrote, ‘built for basketball.’
Only, as it turned out, Goodman wasn’t built for college basketball. In September 1999 he reneged on an oral commitment to Maryland when he felt the school was lukewarm about his playing ability. He ended up at Towson, where any doubts the Terps might have had about him were borne out As a freshman Goodman scored 6.0 points a game, and last year he played in just seven games, averaging 1.9 points and 2.3 turnovers. His playing days at Towson ended after he accused his coach, Michael Hunt, of brandishing a chair at him in the locker room.

After staging a return to the spotlight in 2007 to capitalize on his high school and college fame, Tamir Goodman has been running basketball camps, putting on clinics, and doing speaking engagements. Now he is turning into a businessman as well.

As any Orthodox Jewish basketball player will tell you, it’s not easy running up and down the court with four woven sets of strings dangling from the four corners of your undergarment. The photos of Tamir hooping it up with a yarmulke on his head and his tzitzit flying through the air as he leaped for a layup became famous and were sources of pride in the observant Jewish community. However, it was not comfortable for ballers like Tamir to wear mesh tzitzit under his jersey.

Now Tamir Goodman is releasing his own brand of sports shirts that come with tzitzit attached. ColLive.com reported on Tamir’s invention which he unveiled at the recent OK Kosher conference:

At OK Kosher Certification’s 13th annual international Mashgiach Conference held Monday, Tamir introduced the “Sport Strings Tzitzit.”
He described it as revolutionary tzitzis garment that features hi-performance properties and a compression fit – offering the wearer ultimate comfort and style for sports and everyday wear.
Tamir was joined at the conference in Chovevei Torah in Crown Heights by a friend who also embodies the notion that being religious does not interfere with his career: boxing champion Dmitriy Salita.
While Salita did not say if he wears the “Sport String Tzitzit” himself, Tamir made it clear that anyone would enjoy wearing them for their UV protection, moisture wicking and anti-odor features.

Goodman’s tzitzit are certified kosher by the OK Kosher certification agency. No word yet on whether NBA star Amare Stoudemire will be wearing the Sport Strings Tzitzit.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ryan Braun and Justin Verlander Win MVP Awards

Here in Detroit we couldn’t be happier. Detroit Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander won both the Cy Young Award and the MVP Award for the American League this year. Justin is the first starting pitcher to win the MVP Award in 25 years and the first Detroit Tigers player to win both awards since Willy Hernandez did so in the memorable 1984 season.

I am also thrilled that Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers won the National League MVP Award yesterday in a landslide. Braun, who is the third Jewish Major League Baseball player to go by the nickname “The Hebrew Hammer,” joins Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen and Sandy Koufax who also won the MVP Award (Lou Bourdreau also won the award but didn’t know he was Jewish at the time). He adds the MVP Award to his NL Rookie of the Year Award from 2007 (according to Ron Kaplan, Braun is the 13th player to win both). Since Braun recently signed a contract extension with Milwaukee which makes him a Brewer until at least the 2020 season, it’s possible that he’ll be remembered as “The HeBrewer Hammer.”

Milwaukee Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio remarked yesterday that “Ryan Braun is going to have a statue outside Miller Park someday.” If that happens there will be two statues of Jewish men outside that stadium since there is currently a statue of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller