The Best in Baseball

An Obsessive Account of Jewish Players

By Peter Ephross

Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
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The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-by-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players
By Howard Megdal
HarperCollins, 320 pages, $22.99.

For Jewish fans, searching for Jewish players in Major League Baseball is one of the rites of spring and summer. Discoveries bolster ethnic pride — think of the news that Boston Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis, nicknamed “The Greek God of Walks,” is Jewish — but mistakes can lead to embarrassing situations, even for the teams themselves. During the Florida Marlins’ 2006 Jewish Heritage Day, the team mistakenly honored first baseman Mike Jacobs, who falls into the his-name-sounds-Jewish-but-isn’t category, by giving away T-shirts with Jacobs’s name and number.

Play Ball: Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax, pictured here in Los Angeles, was ranked as the No. 2 greatest Jewish baseball player of all time.
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Play Ball: Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax, pictured here in Los Angeles, was ranked as the No. 2 greatest Jewish baseball player of all time.

To navigate this tricky territory in his new book, “The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-by-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players,” Howard Megdal employs equal parts seriousness and schmaltz.

A baseball writer for the weekly New York Observer, Megdal relies on statistics such as the WARP3, which calculates how many wins a player is worth to his team, as the basis for his rankings. Tweaking his statistical method with more subjective factors — how World War II service harmed some players’ careers, for example — Megdal ranks the top 10 Jewish players of all time. He then runs through each position, ranking all Jewish players and giving each a brief bio. After the top five at each position, sometimes after the top three, even dedicated fans of Jewish baseball will find themselves delving into the obscure.

From the late 19th century through midsummer 2008, there have been 160 Jewish players in the Major Leagues. Megdal ranks Hank Greenberg as the top Jewish player of all time, with Sandy Koufax coming in second. Difficult to argue with those two, although Megdal notes that Cleveland Indians star Lou Boudreau gives Koufax a run for the money if you rely solely on the newfangled forms of statistical analysis.

Boudreau’s Jewishness itself will come as a surprise to many. Though born to a Jewish woman, Boudreau was adopted and raised by Christian parents. No matter: Megdal takes the big-tent approach to Jewish players, especially when it comes to certain positions. He even includes current player David Newhan, a born Jew who now identifies himself as a messianic Jew. Megdal accepts Newhan as a Jewish player because, he writes, “we as the Jewish people cannot afford to cast aside middle infielders.”

The tongue-in-cheek comment about Newhan (ranked No. 4 at Second Base) is not out of character for Megdal, who writes a haiku recapping every New York Mets game on the Web site Metsgeek. As he goes around the diamond (and outfield), he stocks his writing lineup with groaners. Commenting on the high proportion of Jewish players skilled at taking walks, he writes, “Is it not possible, then, that the Jews are not the ‘Chosen People,’ as they are commonly referred to, but rather the ‘Choosy People’?” And in referring to the paucity of Jewish third basemen, he jokes, “You’d think the bag was made of pork.” Ouch.

Megdal is generous in evaluating players whose careers were shortened by injury or by playing in eras where there were fewer teams and virtually no player control over team mobility. But is it really true that the “timing was never quite right for Don Taussig,” an outfielder who played parts of three seasons in the Majors in the late 1950s and early ’60s, or was Taussig (No. 5 in Left Field) simply not good enough? Megdal is also generous when he argues that a team made up of the best Jewish players of all time would defeat the teams that hold the best records in history, such as the 1998 New York Yankees, because he uses the Jewish players’ top individual years to rate how many runs the Jewish team would score and give up.

Megdal throws in a few fun facts — the Jewish team has an abundance of right fielders and left-handed relief pitchers — as well as a more thought-provoking reflection: Several top Jewish players declined quickly, beginning at the age of 30, curtailing their career numbers. For Greenberg and Koufax, this didn’t prevent them from making the Hall of Fame, but these shortened careers harmed any chance Al Rosen (No. 1 at Third Base) or Shawn Green (No. 1 in Right Field) had of making it to The Hall of Fame. Why did so many Jewish players suffer this fate?

There are a few glaring omissions. To mention one example, Megdal’s discussion of pitcher Saul Rogovin (No. 6 at Right-Handed Starter) fails to mention that Rogovin suffered from an undiagnosed narcolepsy that caused players, sportswriters and fans to question his competitiveness.

But even for readers looking for more of a meal, “The Baseball Talmud” is one tasty nosh.

Peter Ephross is editing a book of oral histories of Jewish baseball players, in conjunction with the group Jewish Major Leaguers.

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