By Dan Schlossberg
Without Hank Greenberg’s help, Jackie Robinson might have failed in his mission.
Though sadly omitted from the otherwise-fine movie 42, it was Greenberg — finishing up his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947 — who took Robinson into his confidence the first time Jackie reached first base during a Dodgers-Pirates game.
“I went through the same thing,” said Greenberg, a target of vicious anti-Semitic hecklers when he broke into the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers during the ‘30s. “I’m going to help you handle it.”
And he did, quietly but completely. One target of bigots helping another.
And just as Robinson paved the way for a raft of talented black players, so did Greenberg open the gates for fellow Jews.
Though only 0.2 per cent of the total American population, Jewish players have made an impact throughout baseball history.
Al Rosen won a Most Valuable Player award, Alex Bregman was MVP of the All-Star Game, and Sandy Koufax won three Cy Youngs and an MVP. Greenberg himself was the first man to be Most Valuable Player at two different positions and came within a whisker of besting Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season.
Greenberg led his league in home runs and runs batted in four times — numbers that allowed him to become the first Jewish member of the Baseball Hall of Fame (Koufax and Commissioner Bud Selig joined him later).
And let’s not forget Ryan Braun, a Jewish MVP, or Steve Stone, a Jewish Cy Young Award winner. Barry Latman, Larry Sherry, Jason Marquis, and Ken Holtzman were also capable Jewish pitchers.
Shawn Greene, who holds the record for total bases in a game (19), was one of several Jews who won Gold Gloves, a group that also includes Brad Ausmus.
Then there’s Ron Blomberg, the first designated hitter, and Art Shamsky, whose .538 batting average against Atlanta in the very first National League Championship Series allowed the New York Mets to complete their “miracle.”
Ausmus, Norm Sherry, and the active Gabe Kapler and Bob Melvin managed or are managing major-league clubs, while Theo Epstein and Chaim Bloom are two of the more talented working executives in baseball. And the list of Jewish owners runs the gamut from Selig to Jerry Reinsdorf and Steve Cohen.
Nor have we forgotten Al Clark, the American League’s first Jewish umpire and one of its longest-lasting (26 years).
Koufax might have been the king of the castle — even though he retired at age 30 in need of Tommy John surgery that didn’t exist in 1966.
More than a dozen Jewish players, led by Atlanta lefty Max Fried, are playing now. They include Richard Bleier, Bregman, Scott Effross, Dean Kremer, Jake Kalish, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Eli Morgan, Joc Pederson, Kevin Pillar, Ryan Sherriff, Garrett Stubbs, Rowdy Tellez, Zack Weiss, and Andy Yerzy.
Marty Appel, the master publicist, and promoter, actually produced a weekend program promoting Jewish contributions to baseball; it was the first time catered Kosher food was ever served to a group in Cooperstown.
Among the former players who participated were Richie Scheinblum, Bob Tufts, Elliott Maddox, Blomberg, Holtzman, and Norm Sherry. All of them appear in Marty Abramowitz’ Jewish Major Leaguers card set.
Jewish fans can also be proud of Team Israel, a squad of cast-offs, has-beens, and never-will-bes who enjoyed such surprising success in the World Baseball Classic that a fine movie was made about their achievements. The best part? Team Israel’s mascot is named Mensch on the Bench !!
Fate wasn’t so kind to the six-team Israel Baseball League, which lasted only one summer before finances failed. But Blomberg’s team, the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, beat Shamsky’s — providing a few years of bragging rights.
There could be more bragging rights for Jews in baseball this year if Fried follows up on his sensational second half (best-in-baseball 1.74 ERA) and wins his first Cy Young Award. He already owns two Gold Gloves and — get this — a Silver Slugger.
Now that the DH has expanded to both leagues, his name will also be the answer to a trivia question.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is weekend editor of Here’s The Pitch and baseball writer for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, and others. He’s written 40 books too. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.