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Though the IBL disbanded after a single season, it helped to establish a strong baseball program in Israel. Ruttman was in Jupiter, Fla., last fall when the Israeli national team, a favorite entering this year’s World Baseball Classic, was eliminated in the qualifying round. Since the games were played in September, eligible Jewish big leaguers, including Youkilis, Kinsler, Ryan Braun and others, were unable to play.
The idea for the book, Ruttman said, was to go beyond the baseball statistics and get to know a little more about the players’ lives and how their Judaism fit in. Waving a hand toward the window, he notes proudly that Youkilis, while a member of the Red Sox, attended the same nearby synagogue where Ruttman had his bar mitzvah.
“I knew I wanted to write about how these people came to be the people they were,” Ruttman said.
So he spoke with childhood Dodgers fan Alan Dershowitz, who claims he became more religious after tricking his Orthodox, baseball-averse rabbi into blessing Jackie Robinson: Robinson got a hit the next day. And the author tracked down the adult children of Greenberg, who was raised Orthodox but did not observe with his own family. The ballplayer, who was sometimes called the “Hebrew Hammer,” once kept his sons home from school on Yom Kippur, as the sons themselves say, telling them they were going someplace special. It turned out to be the planetarium.
To another one of Ruttman’s subjects, Howard Goldstein, a Philadelphia lawyer who collects Jewish baseball memorabilia, Greenberg’s individualized relationship with his religion makes perfect sense. “Yes, you should want to assimilate,” Goldstein told Ruttman, “but there are great things in everybody’s heritage, no matter who you are, and you should try to maintain that balance.”
There are plenty of reasons that Jews have been drawn to the game, the author writes. It’s analytical; it requires strategy and perseverance.
Perhaps most of all, he agrees with Goldstein, who points out that rooting for the home team is a tribal instinct.
“We spent 40 years marching through the desert,” Ruttman said. “We want to be part of a team.”
James Sullivan is the author of several books, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.