The great slugging first baseman Hank Greenberg famously said, in the 1984 documentary film “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” ”There was always some leather lung yelling at me. I found it was a spur to make me do better because I could never fall asleep on the field. As soon as you struck out, you weren’t only a bum, you were a Jewish bum.”
Greenberg won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in both 1935 and 1940, and partly due to his success and fortitude, three other Jewish players have been able to accomplish the same feat. Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, the owner of arguably the best curveball of all time, won three Cy Young awards as well as the 1963 MVP award (he also finished second in the MVP voting twice). The great Cleveland shortstop and player manager Lou Boudreau was named MVP in 1948 (his Cleveland Indians also won the World Series that year), and his teammate, outfielder Al Rosen, won the award in 1953.
That period of baseball is seen as a bright spot in the annals of American Jewish sports history. Now, with the voting to be announced November 21 and 22 for the 2011 MVP award, second baseman Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers in the American League (AL) and left fielder Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League (NL) are both serious contenders. For the first time in history, then, there is a very real possibility of the MVP award from both leagues going to a player of Jewish descent.
To determine a player’s worthiness of the MVP award, it is very useful to understand a statistic called Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Basically, WAR collects all of the information we know about a player — how powerful a batter he is, how slick he is on defense, what he contributes through his baserunning and the difficulty of the position he plays — and converts it into one number. A 5 WAR player is usually an all-star, and anyone who edges above that is an MVP candidate.
This year, according to the numbers available on the baseball statistics website FanGraphs.com, 27-year-old Braun was worth 7.8 WAR, good for third in the NL. Kinsler, 29, comes in only marginally behind Braun with 7.7 WAR, which places him fourth in the AL. (The fact that Kinsler played in the World Series will not affect the outcome, as voting is only based on regular season performance.)
Of the five players ranked ahead of these two — Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista and Dustin Pedroia in the AL; Matt Kemp and Roy Halladay in the NL — only Roy Halladay, a pitcher, was able to lead the Philadelphia Phillies to the playoffs. (Pitchers rarely win MVPs; Koufax was a rare exception.)
But how does this current crop of young superstars — and it’s not just Braun and Kinsler, as Redsox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, 32, would probably have figured into MVP discussions had he not lost time and production to injury — stack up against the Jewish heroes of yesteryear?
The comparison is complex, says Scott Barancik, editor of jewishbaseballnews.com, since the landscape today is drastically different from baseball’s last golden era.
For starters, the statistics needed to calculate the version of WAR used by FanGraphs were not even recorded before 2002. The next closest measurement — a less nuanced version of WAR that can be used to compare both current and historical players — comes from baseball stats site Baseball-Reference.com. That kind of comparison, though, is telling: In 2011, players of Jewish descent combined for a 19.7 WAR, the third-most in all of baseball history. Their influence on the game has been stronger only twice: recently, in 2009, when Youkilis was healthy, and way back in 1938, when Greenberg hit 58 home runs.
Also, “because [sluggers like Greenberg and Rosen] were Jewish, they became symbols of Jewish strength” for American Jews who were wrestling with increasing anti-Semitism, says Peter Levine, sports management professor at Columbia University and author of “Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience.” Judiasm isn’t a central issue today for Braun and Kinsler.
Still, American Jews are always looking for modern-day heroes, says Barancik. And the players seem willing to oblige. Youkilis, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish household, is quick to note the importance of his Jewish identity, particularly in how it relates to past prejudices. “I represent a lot of Jewish people and a lot of the Jewish heritage, and the struggles that a lot of our people have had,” Youkilis said in the documentary film “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.” And Kinsler, the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, has publicly stated his willingness to play for Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Even if heritage is less of an issue in baseball now than it once was, each of today’s generation of players is still forced to navigate a double existence as both baseball superstars and Jewish icons — especially when it comes to the question of whether or not to play on Yom Kippur. In an attempt at compromise in past years, Kevin Youkilis has managed to anger religious Jews and Red Sox fans alike by suiting up and sitting in the dugout — and then refusing to play. Ian Kinsler has lucked out thus far: He has yet to have a game scheduled for the Day of Atonement.
On the other hand, Ryan Braun — who is often compared to Greenberg and whose exploits on the field have earned him the nickname the Hebrew Hammer — is accustomed to playing on Yom Kippur and did so in 2011. He explained his position to MLB.com in a 2007 interview: “I am not Orthodox, so I never grew up celebrating the holidays. I’m going to play.” But Braun, the son of an Israeli-born Jewish father and a Catholic mother, isn’t completely divorced from his Jewish heritage. He’s been vocal in that he considers himself not only Jewish but also a Jewish role model. According to Barancik, the odds this year are in his favor.
If he wins the MVP, we’ll take him.
Ian Malinowski is a writer and analyst for the Tampa Bay Rays’ blog DRaysBay.com.