Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Great Players, Jewish or Not

Oops: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Ryan Braun's mother is Jewish.

Last night was the first Passover seder, so it seems a fitting time to look at Jewish major leaguers. Despite the joke in "Airplane" alluding to a pamphlet listing great Jewish athletes, there have been many fine players in the category.

There's an interesting twist to the list of great Jewish players. Some on the list don't identify themselves as Jewish. Lou Boudreau had a Jewish mother which under Jewish law made him Jewish. But he was raised as a Christian and didn't identify himself as Jewish. On the other hand, Rod Carew married a Jewish woman, raised his kids in the faith but never converted. Ryan Braun has a Jewish father, was not raised as a Jew, but has said he is proud of his Jewish heritage. Still, all three are on most of the lists.

The two best Jewish players -- and the only two in the Hall of Fame -- are Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. It's interesting that Greenberg, a fearsome hitter for the Tigers in his heyday, and Koufax, the Dodgers ace, both faced the dilemma of whether to play on Yom Kippur, Judaism's most sacred day.

Both played. Greenberg missed a regular season game after the Tigers had all but wrapped up the 1934 pennant. Koufax skipped a start in the 1965 World Series. Greenberg met more criticism, but both were hailed as heroes in the Jewish community and by thoughtful commentators.

Much has been written about Koufax and his career, which started late and flamed out like a shooting star. There's a fine documentary about Greenberg and the anti-Semitism he faced throughout his career.

There have been many other great Jewish players. Steve Stone and Ken Holtzman are among my favorites. Both were stalwarts on the mound (both pitched for the Cubs when they were at their best). Al Rosen, Shawn Green, Sid Gordon are others who deserve mention. Ian Kinsler is carving out a fine All-Star career for the Rangers.

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