By Bill Simons
Kibbutz Gezer, located in central Israel, was originally founded by Holocaust survivors following World War II. Despite heroic resistance, Gezer suffered massive casualties during the 1948 War of Independence, creating a trajectory of painful social dislocation that led to the disbandment of the kibbutz in the early 1960s. Kibbutz Gezer arose anew in the mid-1970s with the arrival of American Jews making aliyah. The American-born residents of Gezer served in the Israel Defense Forces. They learned to drive bulldozers, build homes and grow crops. Reflective of their American cultural inheritance, these Israeli immigrants built a baseball field. The ballpark is close to the site of an ancient Maccabean encampment. In 2007, Kibbutz Gezer, a demographic backwater of less than 300 residents, improbably, hosted two professional baseball teams on its ballfield.
The Israel Baseball League, thus far the Middle East’s only professional baseball circuit, was born – and died – in 2007. Armed with press credentials, I was lucky enough to witness the miracle of a professional variant of America’s national pastime transplanted to the Jewish homeland. The creation of American baseball by Abner Doubleday is myth. The creation of the IBL by Larry Baras is reality. A Jewish-American businessman, Baras’ invention of the UnHoley Bagel, pre-stuffed with cream cheese, had led to prosperity for his Boston-based business, SJR Food Inc. An epiphany at an independent minor league baseball game in Brockton, MA, led Baras to believe that pro baseball, despite evident obstacles, could be viable in Israel.
Prominent and respected Jewish-American leaders bought into Baras’ dream. Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, agreed to serve as the commissioner of the IBL. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, New York Yankees President Randy Levine and Smith College Professor of Economics Andrew Zimbalist joined the IBL Advisory Board. Opening day for the IBL was on Sunday night, June 24, 2007, at Yarkon Field at the Baptist Village in Petach Tikva, near Tel Aviv, with an impressive official fan attendance of 3,112.
In addition to the ballfields at Yarkon and Gezer, IBL games were also played at Sportek in Tel Aviv, the latter facility inadequate and unsafe. Infield tiles with cement backing, corroded metal and glass counted amongst Sportek major problems. Each park hosted two home teams. Handicapped by a player draft conducted without relevant evaluative information, team rosters varied greatly in talent, impeding competitive balance among the six IBL teams – the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, Modi’in Miracle, Netanya Tigers, Petach Tikva Pioneers and Ra’anana Express.
With no spring training practice, the IBL regular season commenced on June 24 and ended on August 15. Some teams played 40 regular season games, others 41. Bet Shemesh finished first during the regular season and went on to win the August 16-19 post-season playoffs.
The biggest names in the IBL were the managers. With 174 MLB victories, Ken Holtzman, manager of the Petach Tikva Pioneers, remains the winningest Jewish pitcher in major league history. A hitting hero of the iconic 1969 New York Mets, Art Shamsky piloted the Modi’in Miracle. Another potent batter, former New York Yankee Ron Blomberg, became, in 1973, MLB’s first designated hitter. Holtzman, Shamsky and Blomberg all lacked previous managerial experience and did not have name recognition amongst most native Israelis. Only one Israeli, Ami Baran, managed an IBL team.
As for the IBL players, there was a significant range in their skills and baseball backgrounds, encompassing those with minor league, international and college experience, as well as those whose last uniformed team represented a high school. The multinational, 120-player IBL drew athletes from diverse places, including Australia, the Dominican Republic and Japan. Most of the players were Americans. Jews, 18 from Israel and about twice that number from other nations, primarily the U.S., fell just short of a majority within the IBL. The Jewish ballplayers varied in their orientation to Judaism, but, for many, that identification was core, resulting in visits to places central to Israeli history and culture.
As the Israeli flag flew, games began with the playing of “Hatikva,” the national anthem. Observing proper protocol, spectators and players left their hats on their heads as they stood respectfully for “Hatikva.” Kosher food at the concession stands and the conversational style of fans, a few of whom wore yarmulkes, added to the Jewish ambience. In the middle of the fifth inning, IBL games were punctuated by a call for a minyan, a quorum of 10 adult Jews, so davening, public prayer, could take place.
The IBL did not play on the Jewish Sabbath. Moreover, as the surrounding physical history and ubiquitous security concerns attested, the IBL operated in a Jewish homeland. American and Jewish identities, pecuniary interests, status confirmation and love of baseball all contributed to the IBL ambience.
There was no second IBL season. Native-born Israelis – often abrupt and ready for military engagement – are drawn to basketball and soccer, but found baseball too slow and overly nuanced. Overall IBL attendance was disappointing, largely limited to American-born Israelis, tourists and the parents of players. By the standards of entry-level professional baseball, fan numbers and enthusiasm suggested potential at Yarkon and Gezer, but game attendance at Sportek was generally poor, sometimes topping out no more than 50 paying fans. Player room and board at the Kfar Hayarok youth village proved problematic. Unappetizing chicken schnitzel as the dinner entrée night after night led to weight loss. Equipment was insufficient. Shortstop Brendan Rubenstein, for example, could not obtain bats to meet his specifications (33”/ 30 ounces). At mid-season, the IBL was failing to pay its bills on time. The lack of advertising signs along the outfield fences at Sportek, a staple of American minor league baseball, reflected the failure of the IBL to make successful outreach to sponsors. At season’s end, the American players found that their checks bounced. Financial, marketing and organizational problems led to the demise of the IBL.
Despite its travails, the IBL provided a good on-field product, perhaps comparable to a Single-A league, not a negligible achievement in a debut season. The players cared and they played like they cared. Many continued to play baseball in other venues and carried with them memories of their IBL. Matt Comiter pitched a gritty complete game before three generations of his family, who had made the trek from Florida to cheer him on. Pitcher Jason Bonder put the Hebrew names of young autograph seekers on balls that he signed, making his grandparents, Marvin and Sonny Thal, visiting from Commack, Long Island, NY, very proud. At age 46, pitcher Ari Alexenberg finally fulfilled his dream of playing pro ball. Pitcher Aaron Pribble led the IBL in ERA, found romance with a Yemenite Jewess and felt a heightened Jewish consciousness at Masada. An 18-year-old IBL utility infielder and spot pitcher, Alon Leichman, a native of Kibbutz Gezer, went on to pitch for the University of California, San Diego, and Team Israel before signing on as the pitching coach for a Seattle Mariners’ minor league affiliate.
Baseball amongst native-born Israelis is still a work in progress, but the IBL legacy lives. In 2017, Team Israel defeated the vaunted Cuban national team in the World Baseball Classic competition. Former Jewish-American MLB players Ian Kinsler, Danny Valencia and Jeremy Bleich have acquired dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship in order to take the field for Team Israel. Rescheduled for 2021, the Tokyo Olympics will host baseball medal competition between six qualifying teams. One of those teams represents Israel. A veteran of the Israel Baseball League, Eric Holtz will coach Team Israel in the Tokyo Olympics.
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.