By Bill Simons
“Uganda?!” I exclaimed. “That’s where Israeli commandos rescued the Jewish Entebbe hostages.” Nate Fish retorted that he had gone there to develop and recruit Ugandan baseball prospects, but didn’t find any.
In addition to Uganda, baseball has taken the peripatetic Fish to five continents, many countries and a potpourri of American cities. A wandering Jew of the Diaspora, Fish – as player, coach and manager – found baseball adventures in Cincinnati, Savannah, New York City, Cape Cod, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Japan and other postings. Israel has also figured prominently in the Fish itinerary.
Fish, at age 41, was living in Arkville, NY, a hamlet in rural Delaware County, when I interviewed him during the late spring of this year. When I asked Fish what had brought him to rustic Arkville, he quickly answered, “A woman.” Fish and his fiancée Shawna came to manage a new hotel in the Catskills. Even though COVID imploded that venture, the couple loved the region and bought a home.
Fish was then playing vintage baseball for the Mountain Athletic Club, based in Fleischmanns, a nearby hilltop enclave. About three weeks after our interview, I watched Fish – at shortstop and on the mound – play a dominant game, including hitting the longest ball of the day, under 1895 rules in a 31-6 romp over the visiting Delhi Nine. I inquired concerning Fish’s motivation for joining a small-town team playing by antiquated rules. Fish called M.A.C. vintage baseball “really cool.” “Because I’ve been in so many different environments,” he reflected, “maybe I have a little bit more adaptability and flexibility when it comes to the level of play.” The next time I saw him on July 12, he was coaching Team Israel in a pre-Olympic tune-up game. Fish is a collector and connoisseur of experiences.
The son of Jewish parents, with a mother who seriously considered becoming a rabbi, Fish grew up in Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland. At the University of Cincinnati, he captained a baseball team that included his friend, fellow Jew and future Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis. As an undergraduate, Fish lacked the batting proficiency and speed that would have shaped a major league trajectory. Over 54 games as a catcher-third baseman during his senior year at Cincinnati, he had a respectable .287 batting average and connected for seven home runs. In the years to come, Fish’s batting would improve.
Fish left Cincinnati without a degree and, like countless aspirants before him, came to New York with literary ambitions. At the New School, he picked up the elusive degree. To pay the rent, he took a job coaching the children of the rich and influential at The Baseball Center NYC, improbably located in the basement of The Apple Bank on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Although his Baseball Center charges remained more privileged than accomplished, Fish fine-tuned his own batting techniques in long sessions at the Iron Mike during downtime – and he began to learn how to coach.
Gifts of personality and athleticism gave Fish a niche as a New York sports entrepreneur, running youth baseball clinics, teams, camps and academies. And he returned to the diamond, often within a Jewish framework. Improbably, Fish’s play ratcheted up with age. Switching temporarily to softball in 2005, he journeyed to Israel for the Maccabiah Games (Jewish Olympics) as part of the U.S. gold-medal, fastpitch softball team.
In 2007, American businessman Larry Baras created the Mideast’s first professional hardball circuit, the Israel Baseball League. One of the league’s stars, Fish batted an impressive .347 and won a Gold Glove for his fielding at third base. The IBL died after one season, but it nurtured baseball saplings in Israel and strengthened the bond between Fish and the Jewish homeland. Over the next decade, while coaching Israeli teams – and doing double duty as bullpen catcher – in the European Baseball Championship and the World Baseball Classic, Fish formed friendships with several Jewish major leaguers, including Brad Ausmus, Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler.
A baseball conduit between U.S. and Israeli Jews, Fish acquired dual citizenship. Appointed national director of the Israel Association of Baseball, he resided in the Jewish homeland from 2013-16. Fish’s mission was to grow Israel baseball, not an easy task amongst an abrupt, frenetic people with neither the patience nor interest in the game’s calibrated rhythms. Nonetheless, Israel baseball growth was discernable and consequential, albeit modest.
“Fishball” emphasizes attention to detail and smart execution, but it is also motivational and promotional. Indicative of the latter, Fish proclaimed himself – and named his blog – “King of Jewish Baseball.” Photographs feature him in a royal red robe, topped by an over-the-top crown and carrying a baseball bat as a scepter. Muscular, six-foot, with the dark-good looks of a latter-day King David, Fish has brought attention to himself and Jewish baseball by crafting a flamboyant, charismatic personae. In person, the authentic Fish is courteous, reflective and self-aware.
Nonetheless, his visual art and writing are brash, explicit and iconoclastic. His work was featured in two New York City art exhibits, and Fish is the author of several magazine articles and books. He gifted me with three of the latter. A line in Fish’s poem “Flatbush Life” captures a universal yearning: “I am writing this so I am not forgotten.”
Back in American baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers hired Fish as a minor league coach in 2019. Spring 2021 brought Fish into collaboration with an organization touting an image as outlandish as his own.
The Savannah Bananas Premier Team hired Fish as its head coach (manager). The Bananas play specialty games in garish yellow uniforms – and sometimes kilts – with bizarre rules, including counting balls caught by fans as outs. Bananas’ owner Jesse Cole shared his rationale for hiring Fish: “We’re breaking the rules and the mold of baseball… We needed a coach that will embody that… Nate is clearly our man.”
Part II of “King of Jewish Baseball” will follow the drama that enveloped Nat Fish in the summer and fall of 2021.
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.