Jewish Americans’ Ties to Baseball Run Deep

Baseball in Israel. Photo: Israel Association of Baseball website.

Growing up, I knew I was going to be a Major League Baseball star, and play for the New York Yankees. The only complication I feared featured prominently in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm — being “Koufaxed” (i.e., unable to play on Shabbat or other religious occasions).

To avoid this quandary I devised an ingenious solution: I would be a starting pitcher. That way, pitching every five days, I could easily find a slot in the rotation that didn’t fall on Shabbat.

Tension between religious adherence and America’s pastime is, well, an American pastime. The playoff games that Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax sat out due to the High Holidays — in 1934 and 1965, respectively — are famous.

When Hank entered a Detroit synagogue on Rosh Hashanah that year, the cantor paused the service and the worshipers turned their attention from God to Greenberg: a standing ovation greeted the first baseman. And not only Jews faced this problem. Legendary Hall of Famers Cy Young and Christy Mathewson began their careers refusing to play on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath.

These stories, however, are well-known and late in baseball history. Therefore, let’s go farther back to the origin of Jews in baseball — to a time when baseball itself is shrouded in mystery.

In 1835, a Frenchman visited the United States to assess the new nation. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed something that he “had no idea” even existed. The exciting discovery was “voluntary associations.”

He wrote in astonishment that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small…” He noted that this was in marked contrast to the situation in England and France, where overactive governments crowded out private initiative.

Naturally, associations began to develop friendly rivalries and challenge each other to sporting matches. As these games increased in frequency, a set of rules was needed for a popular bat-and-ball game to ensure fair and equal play. These rules set the groundwork for “baseball”: 9 innings, 9 fielders, foul balls, 3-strikes-you’re-out.

This period was so early in the sport’s evolution that there weren’t even baseball mitts. But there were Jews. And they played barehanded.

The author of Base Ball Founders wrote, “for me, the New York Base Ball Club second-anniversary game on November 10th, 1845″ is considered the first or second modern contest. The New York Herald account of the game includes one of the first box scores, listing a “Seaman,” who batted sixth and scored one run.

This player was Seaman Lichtenstein, a Jewish pickle salesman. Lichtenstein’s pickle success allowed him to financially support some of the earliest teams and players’ conventions, ensuring their survival and the survival of baseball.

Other pre-Civil War Jewish players included Nathan Berkenstock and Leonard Cohen. Berkenstock starred in baseball’s pioneer days, though he was once described as “not a pretty player, being heavy and clumsy, but does good service [and] generally manages to hold any ball thrown to him.” Cohen was a catcher and “officer” for the Gothams, the era’s best club.

Then there were the Pike brothers: Boaz, Israel, and Lipman. All three excelled athletically, but Lipman, the “Iron Batter,” became one of baseball’s first superstars, leading the National Association in home runs three consecutive years (1871-1873). His dominance secured him a 1936 Hall of Fame vote in its inaugural elections. Lipman forever changed the trajectory of the sport when he became the first player to receive a salary ($20 weekly in 1866), ushering in the future of professional baseball.

I’ll conclude with the classic joke of a little Jewish boy rushing home with great excitement to his traditionalist grandfather: “Grandpa! Babe Ruth hit three homers today!” “Tell me,” asked the old man, “what this Babe Ruth did —  is it good for the Jews?”

Viewed from a historical perspective, baseball was indeed good for the Jews, creating an outlet to participate in the American mainstream, compete on equal footing, and prove their abilities. Furthermore, the free and open society that allowed baseball to form and thrive epitomizes the very liberty that Jews have so enjoyed in America. Most importantly, with spring training around the corner, remember that — as you root on your favorite team —  a Jewish pickle peddler in the 1840s helped make the great game possible.

Joshua Blustein is a New York-based consultant who has been published in The Washington Times, The Algemeiner, and other outlets  

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Author: Joshua Blustein


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