The old ball game: A look at baseball’s connection to Jewish values and identity

    Jews in America have always had a special love for baseball. Newly arrived Jewish immigrants embraced the all-American pastime as part of their integration into a new society. Everyone knew the basics of the game; its close relative, stickball, was one of the few organized games Jewish kids could play in the narrow streets of tenement neighborhoods.

    Who’s on First

    By the middle of the 20th century, Jews had a few superstars of their own to cheer — first-baseman Hank Greenberg (“the Hebrew Hammer”), who played for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and ’40s, and pitcher Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers’ legendary lefty from the 1950s and ’60s, whose heroics earned him the nickname “the Left Arm of God.” Both men made national headlines when they decided not to play in important games on Yom Kippur (Koufax even sat out a World Series game). Their bravery in risking bigotry and anti-Semitism helped an entire generation of Jews feel comfortable staying home from school or work, and showed all of America the beauty of Jewish tradition.

    Busting through barriers has been a part of the story of Jews in baseball from the beginning. The careers of Koufax and Greenberg feature heavily in an often-overlooked 2010 documentary, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Storywhich includes a rare interview with the famously camera-shy Koufax, as well as baseball fans like Ron Howard and narrator Dustin Hoffman.

    Celebrating the Boys of Summer

    Over the years many, many Jews have distinguished themselves in baseball. Wikipedia’s Jewish Athletes in sports list includes more than 75 notable Jewish baseball players. And though Jews no longer need to share a love of baseball to help them feel American, and there isn’t a Jewish giant like Koufax dominating the game, baseball still looms large in Jewish life. There’s a Jewish Baseball Museum, and Israel is even trying to field a team for the 2020 Olympics.

    The 2018 World Series saw Jewish players on both teams facing off against each other, as the Boston Red Sox defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Joc Pederson, an outfielder known for hitting three home runs during the first six games of the 2017 World Series, is a California native whose great-great-great-grandfather was a charter member of San Francisco’s Temple Emanuel. Pederson didn’t have a banner year in this World Series, with only one hit in 12 at-bats, although it was a home run.

    Ian Kinsler of the Boston Redsox

    His counterpart, second baseman Ian Kinsler of the Boston Red Sox, had a dismal series as well, also with just one hit over the course of 10 games. He also made a critical error during the third game of the series, costing the Red Sox the game, although it ultimately didn’t matter, as the Sox won the series in just five games anyway. Kinsler says he began exploring his Jewish heritage in 2014, when he started playing for the Detroit Tigers, the home of the legendary “Hebrew Hammer.”

    Just as Jews at Passover toast to next year in Jerusalem, Jewish baseball players make their own wishes: next year in the World Series!

    Ben Fisher
    Ben Fisher is a singer-songwriter based in Seattle. He lived in Israel between the predominantly Arab East and predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem for three years and used his experience there to write his folk/Americana album, Does the Land Remember Me?