Peter Dreier

Who Is a Jew? A Baseball Perspective

Wiki Commons
Wiki Commons

For the past year I’ve been giving a talk (in-person and via Zoom) called “The Secret History of Jews and Baseball” to Jewish organizations around the country. I point out that since 1901, 187 Jews have played in the major leagues. They comprise about 1% of the almost 19,000 big league players during that period. Many people are surprised to learn that during the 2023 season, 19 Jews played on major league rosters – the highest number in history.

A few Jewish ballplayers — including  Hank Greenberg,  Sid Gordon, Al Rosen, Sandy Koufax, Shawn Green, Ryan Braun, and current players Max Fried and Alex Bregman  – have been among the best players of their eras. But the most interesting stories are about Jews who weren’t superstars, but who still lived fascinating lives.

At every talk, someone inevitably asks: How do you know which players are (or were) Jewish?

In typical Jewish fashion, I answer that question with another question.

What do former major leaguers Geoff Blum, John Lowenstein, David Eckstein, Jon Lieber, Gabe Gross, Robbie Grossman,  Kyle Lobstein,  B.J. Rosenberg, Trevor Rosenthal, and Walt Weiss have in common?   The answer is that none of them is Jewish.

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On May 28, 2006, as part of the team’s Jewish Heritage Day, the Florida Marlins honored their first baseman, Mike Jacobs. The team gave young fans tee-shirts featuring Jacobs’ name and jersey number. Jacobs was prominently mentioned in the Marlins’ promotional material for the event. The only problem is that Jacobs wasn’t Jewish.  The Marlins never bothered to ask him.

A website called Jewish Baseball News (JBN) considers a player to be Jewish if he has at least one Jewish parent (mother or father), or converted to Judaism, does not practice another faith, and is willing to be identified as a Jew. Even if a player has a Jewish heritage in his background, and even if (as prescribed by traditional Jewish law) his mother is Jewish, JBN doesn’t consider him Jewish unless he views himself as a Jew.

When outfielder Harrison Bader initially made the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017, JBN didn’t know if he identified as Jewish, so they didn’t add him to the list of Jewish players. Bader grew up in New York with a Jewish father and Catholic mother. Bader and his parents “went to lots of Seders” at friends’ homes, his father Louis told me earlier this year, but the family never attended synagogue and Harrison didn’t have a bar mitzvah. But his father said that recently, “he’s spoken to rabbis in New York about being Jewish.  It is on his mind.” He even hoped to play for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic earlier this year but withdrew due to injuries. That was good enough for JBN.  Bader, who  now plays for the Cincinnati Reds,  is on its list of Jewish ballplayers.

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The JBN definition helps determine whether a player is or isn’t Jewish. But what if a player tries to hide his Jewish identity to avoid anti-Semitism? Prior to the 1930s, for example,  at least six Jewish players named Cohen played in the big leagues, but only one of them (the New York Giants’ Andy Cohen) used his birth name. The others renamed themselves Cooney, Bohne, Corey, Ewing, and Baker.

In my research on Jewish ballplayers, the most interesting cases of mistaken identity are non-Jews who are erroneously labeled as Jews.

The three most prominent examples are Buddy Myer, Lou Boudreau, and Alta Weiss.

Myer played for 17 years (1925-41) for the Washington Senators. He won a batting title and was a two-time All Star. He had an impressive lifetime .303 batting average.

During his playing days, he was subject to much anti-Semitic abuse. Opposing players called him a “kike. ”  Pitchers threw at his head.  In 1933, Yankees outfielder Ben Chapman, a notorious racist, intentionally spiked Myer when he slid into second base. The two players then got into a fist fight that lead to an on-field brawl between the two teams, requiring police intervention. The next day, the Washington Post’s Jewish sportswriter, Shirley Povich, wrote that Chapman “cut a swastika with his spikes on Myer’s thigh.”

After American League President William Harridge fined and temporarily suspended both Myer and Chapman, Myer protested. “Chapman had it coming to him and I gave it to him,” he said. “He spiked me last year and I let him get away with it.   It was late in the season. He started early this season. He tried to cut me Monday. He did yesterday. I had to retaliate to stop him before he ended my baseball career.”

After he led the American League in hitting in 1935 with a .349 average, the Sporting News, baseball’s paper of record, reported that the Yankees were trying to purchase Myer’s contract from the Senators. The headline on its story: “Yanks Hope to Dress in Myer a Tailor-Made Jewish Star.” The story said that the Yankees hoped that New York’s “big army of Jewish fans…would be lured into the park by a Jewish star.”

In 1992, Myer was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He’s included in Peter and Joachim Horvitz’s The Big Book of Jewish Baseball,  Burton and Benita Boxerman’s Jews and Baseball, and Erwin Lynn’s The Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame.

The error is understandable. His birth name was Charles Solomon Myer.  And his family owned a clothing store.

But Myer wasn’t Jewish.  He grew up in a small town in Mississippi and was raised Baptist. When he died, the memorial service was held at the First Baptist Church. The family were originally German Jews, but had converted to Christianity at least two generations before Buddy was born.

During and after his playing career, Myer never corrected players or sportswriters who believed he was Jewish.  His son explained:  “He didn’t think it was right when they inducted him into the Jewish Hall of Fame, but he didn’t correct them because he was afraid it would be taken the wrong way.”

During Lou Boudreau’s playing and managing career (1938-1960),  he was never identified as a Jew by sportswriters, teammates, or the local Jewish community when he worked for the Cleveland Indians. But after he died in 2001, he was occasionally included in lists of Jewish players.  Howard Megdal’s book, The Baseball Talmud,  lists Boudreau not only as the greatest Jewish shortstop but perhaps the greatest Jewish player of all time.  Boudreau is also included in the Horvitzes’ Big Book of Jewish Baseball, in the Jewish Virtual Library, in Tablet magazine’s list of the greatest Jewish ballplayers of all time, and in a 2016 article in The Forward.

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In terms of his athletic prowess, there’s good reason for Jews to claim Boudreau as one of their own.  He was captain of both the baseball and basketball teams at the University of Illinois, made the American League All-Star team in eight of his 15 major league seasons, won the 1944 AL batting title,  and in 1948 won the Most Valuable Player Award while managing the Cleveland Indians to the World Series. In 1970, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Alas, Boudreau was not Jewish. His mother Birdie was Jewish and his maternal grandparents were Orthodox Jews. But Boudreau’s parents divorced when he was young and he was raised Catholic by his French-Canadian father, a machinist and semi-pro ballplayer.  He did not identify as a Jew.

Alta Weiss was a baseball trailblazer.  She didn’t have a league of her own but she did have her own team.


Weiss was born in rural Ohio in 1890. Her father, a physician, encouraged her to play baseball and  even built a gymnasium attached to the barn that included body-building equipment so she could practice her pitching and stay in shape during the winter.  By 14 she was pitching for boys’ teams, and at 17 she joined the Vermillion Independents, a men’s semipro team, and was soon its star  pitcher and a media sensation. In her debut outing, attended by a large crowd of 1,200 spectators, she gave up only four hits and one run in five innings. For her next game, a local railroad company scheduled a special train from Cleveland to Vermillion, twenty miles away, to accommodate the fans eager to see the persons newspapers called the “Girl Wonder.” When her team played in Cleveland, more than three thousand people paid to watch her pitch.

Her father bought a part interest in the team and changed the name to the Weiss All-Stars, which traveled around Ohio and Kentucky playing local teams in exhibition games. The money she earned from baseball paid for her medical school tuition.  She was the only female in her 1914 medical school graduating class, and played for several years while starting her medical practice. Her baseball career lasted from 1907 to 1922. Then she quit to devote herself to medicine full time.

Weiss is listed on the Western Reserve Historical Society’s website devoted to “Women Making History.”  It begins: “Alta Weiss was born into a Jewish family,” A website on Cleveland Jewish History includes a biography of Weiss. For what it’s worth, ChatGPT claims, “Yes, Alta Weiss was Jewish.”  But neither Weiss nor anyone in her family was Jewish.

I learned this from Roy Hisrich. He is not only the president of the Ragersville (Ohio) Historical Society (the town where Weiss lived) but also Weiss’ great-nephew. In fact, he grew up in a house across the street from Weiss. He was 14 when Weiss died in 1964. Weiss’ parents were immigrants from Germany, spoke German at home, and  attended the United Church of Christ,  which conducted its services in German. According to Hisrich, no Jews lived in Ragersville (which had a population of about 100 residents) or anywhere in the vicinity.

Weiss laid the foundation for subsequent female ballplayers, including those in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, popularized by the 1992 film “A League of Their Own.” Of the 600 women who played in the league, which lasted from 1943 to 1954, three were Jews – Thelma “Tiby” Eisen, Blanche Schacter, and Anita Foss.

But then there’s Margaret Wigiser, a Brooklyn-born slugging outfielder for three seasons in the AAGPBL.  The  daughter of an Orthodox Jewish father and a Catholic mother, she started playing baseball on her synagogue team, was an outstanding multi-sport athlete in high school and college, and worked for decades as a school teacher in New York City. The public schools annually present the Margaret Wigiser Award to the city’s outstanding female student athlete.  In 2016, a nonprofit group called Jewish Major Leaguers produced a set of baseball cards that included Wigiser, but she informed the group that she’s Catholic. The group quickly  pulled her card from the remaining inventory.

About the Author
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles. His books include "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame," "Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century," "Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America," "We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style," "The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City," and "Jewish Radicalism." He writes for The Nation, American Prospect, The Forward, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
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