On this Erev Shabbat closest to Memorial Day, it is my custom to speak about a topic related to American Jewish history. I will continue this practice tonight as I concentrate on the intersection of American Jews and baseball. Why is this appropriate topic for tonight? There is nothing more uniquely American than baseball. Jews, since our exposure to the sport, have been keenly attracted to baseball. We have been players, coaches, sportscasters, sportswriters, statisticians, sports physicians, general managers and team owners. During World War II, any outfit with a high proportion of urban soldiers used the names of the great ball players of the time as passwords. Questions such as “Who won the 1939 World Series?” or “Who is the catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers?” were sure to trip up Germans trying to sneak through American lines. Baseball captured the imagination of young Jews in a time when football and basketball were in their infancy. While the NBA has had a plethora of Jewish involvement, baseball is still more closely aligned with Jews.
I was drawn to this subject by an email a congregant sent to me about the “Jewish Baseball Player Project.” Conceived by Greg Harris while on a visit to Cooperstown and inspired by a drawing of great African-American ball players, this is a series of large, group drawings of more than thirty of the best Jewish baseball players and owners in modern history, starting with Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, Sandy Koufax, and continuing with the likes of Norm Sherry, Ron Blomberg, Rich Sheinbrun, Art Shansky, Steve Stone, Norm Miller, Scott Feldman, Shawn Green, Ian Kinsler, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Marquis, Steve Yeager, Ryan Braun, Craig Breslow, Gabe Kaplan, Mike Epstein, Bud Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf, Marvin Miller, and several others. I was truly tempted to buy the largest of the limited edition group drawings, but when I saw the price of $6,000, I decided I would just admire it from afar.
Why does baseball so appeal to Jews? Baseball resonates with so many aspects of Jewish civilization. It is perhaps the most Jewish of sports. I have several theories which I will share with you presently.
Baseball is not just about skill, although skill is crucial in playing and winning ballgames. At the highest level, it is like chess, a game of strategy, of thinking, which appeals to the Jewish mind. The general manager and manager must think three and four steps ahead of their opponents. Who should pitch next Thursday against Toronto and who will be best against the Yankees? Who should we bring up from Norfolk to fill the fifth starter’s position? How many relief pitchers should we carry and how often can they pitch? I can go on and on with the questions a manager must address every day but managers must think on multiple levels at the same time. For those of us used to study, we can appreciate the art of baseball.
Baseball is about memory. Every day players and teams compile statistics which are measured against that of themselves, other players, and teams for the last hundred years. Baseball aficionados can quote statistics with the ease of breathing. Recalling the players and teams of old is a great baseball pastime. Is this not what we do every day? We recall the glories of God and the blessings of ancient times. Zachor, remember, is one of the most prevalent words in the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. Remembering is a mainstay of our Tradition just as it is in baseball.
Finally, baseball is about community, about working together as a team for the common good. As a noted sage once said, “There is no I in team.” While every player and manager wants to individually succeed, what is most important is how well they contribute to the well being of the team. Being a team player is the most important characteristic of a successful player. Being part of a team, another word for community, is what we Jews have in common. We intrinsically understand that it is our responsibility to work on behalf of the Jewish community, that what is truly important is the sustenance and strength of the community. While individually we are important, what matters most is what we contribute to the greater good. Every ball player wants to have a good year, but what is most important is that their team makes it to the play offs and the World Series. While it is crucial that individual Jews do well, it is even more important that we, as a Jewish community, thrive.
So you see, dear friends, baseball and Jewish life are bound together with commonalities. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that so many of us are drawn to the National Pastime. Let us just pray that the Orioles solve their pitching problems and make it again this year to the playoffs and beyond.
Amen and Shabbat shalom