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Elli Wohlgelernter

Jews playing in Major League Baseball? We just set the record

Will they help Team Israel at the World Baseball Classic?

Good teams also get better if they sense some special purpose to their work.

—Roger Angell

We are living in the Golden Age of Jewish baseball, and the evidence – as with almost every proof in sports – is in the numbers: 17 Jews appeared in a Major League game last year. And that is the record for one season.

Here are the highest years since 1901, the beginning of modern baseball:

17 – 2022

16 – 2018

15 – 2017, 2014, 2010

14 – 2021, 2020, 2013, 2012, 2009

13 –2016, 2015, 2011, 2008, 2006

All those years occurred this century: the 10 Major League seasons with the highest number of Jewish players have occurred since 2009, and the top 15 since 2006. Irrefutable evidence that the last two decades – 15 of the past 17 seasons – have been the most fertile years for Jewish ballplayers.

I discovered those stats after a deep dive into the definitive database at Jewish Baseball News, which numbers 187 Jews who have played in the majors (and counts as Jews only those who identify as exclusively Jewish – so Bo Belinsky and Lou Boudreau are out).

Jewish fascination with America’s Pastime goes back to the beginning, including keeping tabs on which players were one of ours. But why do we care? The answer is elementary: because Jews count Jews. Whether heroes or villains, the famous or infamous, we Jews always want to know: are they? Is that Nobel Prize winner a Member of the Tribe? (22% of Nobelists have been Jews.) Did Arnold Rothstein prod the Black Sox to throw the World Series? (Yes, to our shame.) Is the best pitcher on the Atlanta Braves? (Yes, Max Fried.)

Jewish affection for tallying Jews goes back to the Bible, where God counted his flock no fewer than 10 times. It remains a defining characteristic of Jews everywhere who look to find their brethren in every field of accomplishment. It is no less so in sports and probably even more so because emotional rooting interest combines with tribal awareness. We identify who is and is not because we feel a specific connection. And then we go root for them.

Jewish attraction to the sport continued throughout the 20th century, especially when two Hall of Famers burst on the scene: Hank Greenberg in the years leading up to the Shoah; and Sandy Koufax, who blossomed in the 1960s. Their stories of sitting out Yom Kippur – Greenberg in 1934, Koufax in 1965 – is the stuff of legend, quoted over and over and over by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Baseball has also been of service to American Jews. At the turn of the 20th century, new immigrants used the sport to help assimilate into their new homeland. Ironically, the game’s utilitarian purpose then flipped a century later: whereas the immigrant Jew – who mainly came from a religiously knowledgeable home – was using baseball to become American, today’s Americans who play for Team Israel – who come mainly from assimilated homes – are using the game to become more Jewish.

Not all. A few grew up Conservative, going to synagogue regularly. However, most come from homes with close to zero Jewish identity or knowledge. One player on Israel’s Olympic team put on tefillin every day. Safe to say that half the team did not know what tefillin were until they joined the group.

The stats and the stories of Jews in baseball will converge next week with the start of the World Baseball Classic, baseball’s version of the World Cup. Twenty nations, including Team Israel, will compete for the right to be called “Baseball World Champions” – from this event, not the World Series.

Thirty-two players on Team Israel’s 30-man roster and five-man taxi squad are Jews born in America, two are Israeli-born, and one American-born is the son of Israelis and thus has dual citizenship from birth.

How far can the Blue and White go at the WBC? Their chances appear thin.

Various bookies have listed the odds for Team Israel to win the gold between 10th and 18th place of the 20 countries. “Israel ranks 12th overall, 13th in contact, 10th in power, 12th in pitching, 14th in defense, 23rd in speed,” wrote one scouting site. Another flat-out dissed the team: “Nicaragua and Israel are mainly American players with threads of connections to these countries who could not make the USA team and simply have no chance to be competitive.”

Harrumph.

Betting sites consistently rank the US, the Dominican Republic, and Japan as the odds-on top three countries to win. In the first round, Israel plays with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Nicaragua in Pool D, known as the Pool of Death. Only two teams can advance, so Israel would have to beat at least one powerhouse from that cluster, if not two.

It is a daunting task, but sometimes a good team does play better if they sense a particular purpose to their work. And the truth is, the Jews have a history of doing well in international competition: in nine WBC and Olympic tournaments since 2012, Team Israel boasts a 27-11 record, a .710 percentage, which would translate to 115 wins for a Major League season. That is championship-caliber baseball.

But how?

Perhaps it comes from pride in the name on the front of the uniform. In identifying so publicly as a Jew, each understands that he is not just competing for a baseball team – Team Jew, if you will – but is playing multiple roles: ambassadors for the country of Israel and the Jewish community worldwide while also serving as a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora community.

I have spoken with many Team Israel players over the years, often at great length, about their athletic and Jewish identities. Regardless of religious knowledge or commitment, every player I spoke to feels the glue that binds and bonds each to the other. It comes from having bought in as Jews – full-Jews, half-Jews, quarter-Jews – and embracing the particularity of their Jewish and Israeli identities. That identity – what baseball means in the framework of Jews and Israel – gets passed down from one team to the next by the handful of holdovers who keep playing. All this has led to an ongoing exceptional team chemistry that has developed and strengthened over the last decade.

Bottom line: these are elite baseball players, and winning the WBC is not impossible. Jon Paul Morosi, the top writer covering the Classic for MLB and Fox Sports, calls it “one of the world’s most unpredictable sporting events.” Team Israel has the talent; it just needs a little luck (OK, maybe a lot), a little pluck, and a hot pitcher.

Jonathan Mayo, MLB’s primary reporter focusing on Minor League prospects – and producer of the delightful Jeremy Newberger film on Israel’s 2017 WBC team, Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel – told me the likelihood of the team progressing out of the first round is slim.

“They have to beat Nicaragua out of the gate to have any chance of advancing,” said Mayo. “If they can squeeze out one more win, then maybe they have a chance to advance if the other powerhouses beat up on each other some.

“I think they’ve put together a much stronger lineup than the last time, so I think they’ll hit. And, like last time, it will come down to pitching. Will they have enough? Will (manager) Ian Kinsler and company be able to mix and match enough to battle the Dominicans, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela? That’s the key.”

Even if Israel fails to advance in Miami, there is optimism looking forward based on the historical trajectory of Jews playing in the Major Leagues. Though not running in a straight line, the upward curve has persisted since 1901.

In the first decade of the 20th century, there were, on average, 1.6 Jews playing every season. The number grew from there:

1900s – 1.6

1910s – 2.6

1920s – 3.6

1930s – 8.0

1940s – 6.6

1950s – 6.1

1960s – 6.6

1970s – 9.2

1980s – 2.0. That was an odd anomaly, the lowest decade since the 1900s. (Indeed, the only seasons in the past 122 years with zero Jews playing were 1986 and 1987.) Even weirder is that the ’80s followed the highest decade ever. Who knows why. A 21-year-old rookie in 1986 was born in 1965, the beginning of Generation X. Maybe Jewish kids born in the 1960s to counter-culture hippies were not gravitating or being pushed to sports.

1990s – 8.4

2000s – 12.4

2010s – 14.9

The growing minyan of Jews continues. Perhaps it is because there is big money in it now – a Jewish kid does not have to become only a doctor, lawyer, or stockbroker to be financially successful. But who cares why. By the next WBC in 2026, there will likely be a record-setting pool of Major League players from which Team Israel can fill out its roster. The future looks bright.

Despite the low odds, not everyone is pessimistic about Israel’s chances this month, or even doubtful. Buck Showalter, the New York Mets manager who won four Manager of the Year awards across his two-decade career, is all-in on the Jews, according to Stephanie Apstein, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated:

Stephanie Apstein
⁦‪@stephapstein⁩
Buck Showalter is obsessed with the WBC. He is polling the media about who we think will win. He says Israel is a sleeper. “That’s my pick to click.”
10/9/22, 11:08 PM

From your mouth to God’s ears, Buck. We Jews will be rooting hard for Team Israel, whatever the odds.

About the Author
Elli Wohlgelernter has been a journalist for 50+ years in America and Israel. Originally from New York, he has lived in Israel for over 30 years and is the excited zeidy to three boys.
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