By Bill Simons
When Esquire magazine named all-time baseball all-star teams for various ethnic groups, sarcasm preceded its Jewish selections: “There haven’t been many Jewish ballplayers, let alone Jewish ballplayers of quality, and this creates problems; anyone who is left off the team is likely to feel slighted.” This is a canard, rooted in the false stereotype that Jewish physical deficiencies render us under-represented amongst soldiers, astronauts and athletes. Thus, putting together an all-time Jewish baseball all-star team is not without significance.
Although some individuals are shifted away from their primary defensive position in order to make room for another strong addition, all players are assigned a position at which they have significant game experience. Definite answers to the question of who is a Jew are perhaps best left to rabbis, scholars and the state of Israel. For the purpose of this baseball team, eligibility criteria consist of affirmation of Jewish identity as well as either possessing at least one Jewish parent and/or converting to Judaism.
Shortstop Lou Boudreau and iconic batter Rod Carew, both Hall of Famers, are not included. Nor is hitting tyro Paul Goldschmidt. Raised by his Catholic father after his parents’ divorce, Boudreau did not affiliate with his mother’s Judaism, and Carew, while comfortable with the raising of his daughters in the Jewish faith of his first wife and attending services with his family, neither converted nor asserted Jewishness. Goldschmidt, descended on his paternal side from Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, espouses Christianity.
Anytime two Jews talk politics or sports, multiple opinions surface. With recognition that others have their own informed views, here’s my attempt at an all-time Jewish baseball all-star team.
- Pitcher: Sandy Koufax was arguably, at his peak, baseball’s greatest pitcher. With a blazing fastball, a wicked curve and pinpoint control, the Dodger Hall of Famer notched 97 wins, against only 27 losses, from 1963-1966. Despite an arm injury that required pitching through severe pain and ultimately necessitating retirement from the game at age 30, Koufax threw four no-hitters, including a perfect game; established a then season strikeout record of 382; led Major League Baseball in wins with season totals of 25, 26, and 27; and won a Most Valuable Player and three Cy Young awards. During the 1965 World Series, after refusing to pitch the opening game because it fell on Yom Kippur, Koufax, came back to shutout the Minnesota Twins in games five and seven.
- Catcher: Harry Danning, good with the bat and the mitt, was a New York Giants catcher for 10 seasons in a career abbreviated by World War II service. Nicknamed “Harry the Horse,” after a Damon Runyon character, Danning, 6’1” and ruggedly built, was a gate attraction, bringing fellow Jews to the Polo Grounds to root for one of their own. Defensively, he led National League catchers in putouts four times and twice in assists, double plays and runners caught stealing. With peak season batting averages of .330, .306, .313 and .300, Danning was four times named to the NL All-Star team.
- First base: Kevin Youkilis, affectionately nicknamed “Youk,” played primarily for the Red Sox and is one of the most popular players in Boston history. A defensive standout at both first and third base, Youkilis, a 220-pound American League All-Star, also possessed a potent bat. Finishing third in the 2008 AL MVP vote, he had outstanding stats: .312 batting average, 43 doubles, 29 home runs and 115 RBIs. When his alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, offered to attach his name to its baseball field, Youkilis declined because of the park’s association with Marge Schott, the former Cincinnati Reds owner, a vociferous antisemite.
- Second base: Ian Kinsler, an All-Star second baseman for the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, is one of only 13 players in MLB history to reach 30-plus home runs and 30-plus stolen bases in the same season more than once. Six times, Kinsler scored 100 or more runs, and over a 14-year career recorded 1,243 runs scored. With sure hands and a quick arm, his defensive play earned Gold Glove awards. In March 2020, Kinsler, the son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, was granted joint Israeli-U.S. citizenship and plans to represent Team Israel in the 2021 Olympics.
- Third Base: Al Rosen is a consensus choice as both the pre-eminent third baseman in Jewish and Cleveland Indians history. In 1950, the first of Rosen’s five consecutive 100-plus RBI seasons, he set the then rookie record for home runs with 37. His unanimous AL MVP season in 1953 is generally considered the best ever by a third baseman. A strong fielder, Rosen just missed the Triple Crown in 1953; his 43 home runs and 145 RBIs topped the circuit and his .336 batting average fell just .0011 short of the lead. The muscular Rosen physically confronted antisemites and took pride in publicly being identified as a Jew.
- Shortstop: Alex Bregman made good on his bar mitzvah speech boast to become a major leaguer. After only four seasons, Bregman has established himself as one of the top players in Astros history with pivotal contributions to the team’s 2017 and 2019 pennants. He finished second in the AL MVP vote in 2019 with a .296 batting average, 41 home runs and 112 RBIs. Typically, a fixture at third base, he has a .973 fielding average in 129 games at shortstop. Despite his prominence in relief activities following Hurricane Harvey, Bergman’s reputation has suffered due to the Astros’ sign stealing scandal.
- Left Field: Hank Greenberg won the AL MVP awards at both first base (1935) and left field (1940). His .605 career slugging percentage ranks sixth amongst all batters. Despite missing four seasons to World War II military service, Greenberg won four home run titles and four RBI titles while leading the Detroit Tigers to four pennants. Until the steroid surge of 1998, Greenberg, along with Jimmie Foxx, held the season record for home runs by a right-handed batter with 58, and his 184 RBIs (1937) is one short of the AL season record. The 6’4” Hall of Famer, confronting religious bigotry and choosing synagogue over ballfield on Yom Kippur 1934, was an iconic standard bearer for fellow Jews amidst resurgent antisemitism.
- Center Field: Shawn Green, an All-Star with both the Blue Jays and the Dodgers, could hit, hit with power, run, field and throw. In 1999, for example, Green’s line read: .309 batting average, 42 home runs, 123 RBIs, 20 stolen bases, and a Gold Glove award. While primarily a right fielder, he had a career fielding average of .994 in center. Green’s 49 home runs in 2001 remains the Dodger season record. His four home runs, double and single in six at bats on May 23, 2002, is perhaps the most dominant single-game display of hitting in baseball history. In 2013, Green played and coached for Team Israel.
- Right Field: Ryan Braun, with 344 round trippers and counting, is the Jewish and Milwaukee Brewers career home run leader. Although normally stationed in left field, Braun has a .992 fielding percentage in 262 games in right field. The 2011 NL MVP and six-time all-star, his 2012 stats included: .319 batting average, 41 home runs, 112 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. Since his 2013 suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, Braun has ratcheted up his involvement in youth and community service. The son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish-Israeli father, Braun expresses pride in his Jewish heritage
Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic 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.