Why We're Living in the Golden Age of Jewish Baseball

Philly Museum Highlights a Century of Diamond Dreams

Victorious Victorian: Rudolph Kalish, seen here in 1870, played third base for Live Oak, an amateur team in Cincinnati.
Courtesy of Peter S. Horvitz
Victorious Victorian: Rudolph Kalish, seen here in 1870, played third base for Live Oak, an amateur team in Cincinnati.

By Peter Ephross

Published April 14, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Jewish museums in the United States often walk a tightrope when planning special exhibitions: Should they focus exclusively on the Jewish experience or study other ethnic communities as well? The former approach risks parochialism, while the latter would make the museum’s focus overly broad.

In its new exhibit on Jews and baseball, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American,” the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia embraces the broader approach. Among the 130 objects on display through October 26 are some grand-slam Jewish artifacts: Hank Greenberg’s 1935 Most Valuable Player award and two of Sandy Koufax’s jerseys. At the same time, a photo of Greenberg standing alongside his contemporary, Italian-American star Joe DiMaggio, graces one wall, and the uniforms of other baseball pioneers such as Puerto Rican icon Roberto Clemente, African-American slugger Hank Aaron, Dominican pitcher Juan Marichal, and Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki hang near some Koufax memorabilia.

To ignore other groups “would neither do justice to the Jewish experience nor do justice to the overall experience of our nation,” said Josh Perelman, chief curator and director of collections and exhibitions at the museum. After all, Greenberg and DiMaggio are two sons of immigrants who, according to Perelman, “carried with them the pride and aspirations of their communities.”

A 1948 Hebrew children’s book on display makes clear that the ties between the two Hall of Famers have historical roots. Titled “Hayim Pumpernickel,” the book tells the story of a young, orphaned Holocaust refugee looking for a lost verse of the Torah. As part of the boy’s search, he enlists the help of both Greenberg and DiMaggio. Clemente and Koufax didn’t share such literary connections, but, said Perelman, they were both 1960s-era stars who “leveraged their stardom to build a bridge between their communities and America.”

We’re currently living in a golden age for Jews and baseball. Players such as Shawn Green, Kevin Youkilis, Ian Kinsler and Ryan Braun have all graced All-Star teams in the past decade. It’s also a golden age for books and other memorabilia about Jews and baseball — the Jewish baseball card set released in conjunction with the exhibit is the eighth such set to appear in the past dozen years; another set featured the Israel Baseball League.

Last year’s 65-game suspension of Braun, a slugging outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, for using performance-enhancing steroids has tarnished his sheen for many Jewish fans. To its credit, the museum mentions Braun’s suspension in its Jewish baseball timeline. “To avoid Braun would have been a glaring omission and a lost opportunity for discussion and education,” Perelman said. “Still, it’s worth noting that while many in the Jewish community wrung their hands in anticipation of an anti-Semitic backlash, Braun’s infractions, not his Jewishness, are what made headlines, perhaps suggesting the level to which Jews have become normalized in baseball and society.”

This exhibit, which will tour nationally after it finishes its run in Philadelphia, is by far the largest one ever assembled on the subject. Beyond the usual suspects like Greenberg and Koufax, many other players are represented, such as journeyman catcher Moe Berg, whose claim to fame is as a World War II-era spy who gathered intelligence for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. A plaque informs visitors about Thelma “Tiby” Eisen, a star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the league was the model for the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own”) — and a uniform worn by Justine Siegal, who in 2011 became the first woman to pitch batting practice to Major League batters when she threw to her hometown Cleveland Indians.

With the help of official Major League Baseball historian (and DP camp survivor) John Thorn, who served as a consultant for the exhibit, “Chasing Dreams” employs some intriguing methods to help fans learn more about the national pastime. There’s a college-basketball-like bracket pitting players against each other (Koufax comes out the winner, topping Greenberg because, according to the exhibit, he couldn’t hit Koufax’s curve) and an electronic database of Jewish baseball cards where visitors can create their own all-time Jewish baseball team. For kids, there’s an interactive computer game in which they can catch “balls” and a mound where visitors can imitate Koufax’s motion and try on a replica Koufax jersey.

Like most discussions of Jews and baseball, the exhibit makes the irrefutable case that baseball served to Americanize both American Jewish players and players from other immigrant groups. The Jewish experience with baseball did more than act as a field of assimilation: It helped make Americans more comfortable with Jews: Koufax, of course, entered the pantheon of Jewish history when he refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

Displayed prominently on the wall at the entrance to the exhibit are the reported words of pitcher Don Drysdale, Koufax’s replacement for the Dodgers that day. As Dodgers manager Walter Alston took the ball from Drysdale in the third inning after he was shelled by the Minnesota Twins, Drysdale allegedly said to Alston, “Skip, I bet you wish I was Jewish, too.”

Peter Ephross, whose work has been published by The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun, is the co-editor of “Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players” (McFarland, 2012).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.