By Bill Simons
On September 14, Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ All-Star leftfielder, formally announced his retirement as a Major League Baseball player. Since he sat out the entire 2021 season and Milwaukee declined to pick up its option on him during the off-season, the announcement was not a surprise even though the 37-year-old Braun had teased the possibility of a late season comeback. It was, however, a benchmark. With 352 career home runs, Braun is the Brewers’ all-time career home run leader. Braun is also the Jewish all-time career home run leader, having passed Hank Greenberg’s mark of 331 round trippers.
A pre-game 24-minute ceremony before the Brewers’ home finale on September 26 at American Family Field saluted Braun’s achievements on the diamond and contributions to the community. The festivities featured warm tributes and video highlights. Braun also offered his own words of appreciation. Despite the emotional farewell, Braun generated considerable controversy. The end of his MLB playing career merits assessment.
Make no mistake, Braun is a major figure in the history of the Brewers. He spent his entire 14-season MLB career (2007-20) with Milwaukee. During his first six seasons, Braun was one of the pre-eminent players in the game. As National League Rookie of the Year in 2007, he recorded a stellar .324 batting average, 34 home runs and 97 runs batted in in only 113 games. Due to defensive problems at third base, Braun was moved to left field in 2008 and that remained his primary position. Braun then bloomed as five-tool player who could catch, throw, run, hit frequently and hit with power.
From 2008-12, he was a perennial All-Star and Silver Slugger recipient, winning the Most Valuable Player Award in 2011, finishing second in MVP voting in 2012 and third in 2008. With a league-leading 41 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 2012, Braun became only the ninth player in MLB history to achieve a 40-30 season. With Braun in the lineup, the Brewers resurged after many losing seasons.
A Braun home run against the Chicago Cubs in the season finale on September 28, 2008, ensured Milwaukee its first post-season niche in 26 years. Through his first six Brewer campaigns, the right-handed batter had an impressive cumulative .311 BA while averaging 34 home runs and 107 RBIs per season. Popular and respected by teammates, fans, and management, it appeared that the 6’2”, 205 pound, black-haired, 28-year-old Braun was on the cusp of baseball greatness.
Instead, precipitous declension followed. During Braun’s remaining eight seasons (2013-20), he reached the 30-home run and .300 batting average standard only once more and never again had a 100 RBI season. Still, atop his Brewers and Jewish record 352 home runs, he finished with a noteworthy .296 career BA. Although chronic back pain eroded durability, neither injury nor age decisively bifurcated Braun’s playing career: it was PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs).
In December 2011, MLB issued a stunning announcement. In a mandatory, standard urine test, Braun, the reigning NL MVP, had tested positive for highly elevated levels of testosterone, evidence of banned PED use, and was sentenced to a 50-game suspension. Given Braun’s wholesome boy-next-door image and status as one of the game’s top stars, this sent tremors throughout the sports world. With indignation and apparent sincerity, Braun proclaimed his innocence.
Braun charged that the urine sample was contaminated by collector Laurenzi Dino Jr. storing it in his home refrigerator over the weekend rather than immediately submitting it. Based on the technicality of delayed submission, an arbitration panel revoked Braun’s suspension, its first reversal in a PED case. Braun went on to have a landmark 2012 season and continued to defend his reputation by impugning Dino’s competence and character.
Ultimately Braun’s name surfaced in the investigation of Biogenesis of America, and it was determined that Dino’s handling of the urine sample did not alter the test result. Apologizing for his mistakes, acknowledging use of testosterone cream and lozenges to facilitate recovery from injuries, and apologizing to Dino, Braun agreed to accept a 65-game suspension for the 2013 season. Although he was an above average player for most of the remainder of his career, Braun never again regained his former level of sustained excellence. Critics questioned whether he benefitted by PED use during prior seasons.
Many Jewish fans felt betrayed by Braun, whom they had previously designated as the Hebrew Hammer and a standard bearer. Critics asserted that Braun surpassed Hank Greenberg as the Jewish home run leader only because Greenberg lost nearly five prime seasons – and possibly 200 home runs – to World War II military service. Some suggested that there was always an ambiguity about Braun’s Jewishness. The son of an Israel-born Jewish father who lost relatives during the Holocaust and a Catholic mother, Braun, early on, provided two different self-descriptors, “half-Jewish” and “Jewish.” There was cringing when his mother Diane asserted, “He’s totally not Jewish… My mother would be rolling over in her grave if she heard that.”
Although Braun acknowledged that he did not receive a religious upbringing, have a bar mitzvah, or attend synagogue services, he purported to embrace an ethnic connection and felt honored that Jewish youth regarded him as a role model and for his election to the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. When first accused of doping, Braun attributed the charge to antisemitism on the part of the urine collector. While Dino was not an antisemite, many who attacked Braun with vicious on-line canards concerning his Jewish lineage were. On an All-Star Game bus trip, Braun reached out to second baseman Ian Kisler, also the son of a Jewish father and Gentile mother, by asking, “You’re Jewish, right?”
A longshot Hall of Fame candidate, Braun is still a young man. A good husband and caring father, Braun is active in philanthropic and benevolent activities. Time might ultimately grant him a generous judgment. And, like Kinsler, Braun may find a new baseball connection with Team Israel.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.