Jewish American Heritage, part I: Assimilation, tradition and baseball

By Bill Simons

By proclamation, President George W. Bush established Jewish American Heritage Month in 2006 to observe the inclusion and singularity of Jews in the American experience. As part of JAHM this year, the White House sponsored a May 19 webinar, “A Conversation: Jews & Baseball.” Baseball proved a revealing vantage point to explore the competing dynamics of assimilation and Jewish tradition. Chanan Weissman, President Joe Biden’s liaison to the Jewish American community, moderated the panel, comprising Misha Galperin, president and CEO, Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History; former major leaguer Shawn Green; Justine Siegal, baseball pitcher and women’s rights advocate; and John Thorn, official historian of Major League Baseball.

Thorn’s sport scholarship encompasses numerous milestones: chief consultant to Ken Burns’ PBS “Baseball” documentary, creator of alternative statistics adopted by MLB and authorship of “Baseball in the Garden of Eden.” However, Thorn employed his own personal history and the perspective of an outsider to provide the “Jews & Baseball” panel discussion with a conceptual framework. 

Born to Holocaust survivors in a German refugee camp after World War II, he accompanied his parents to New York City. The immigrant boy wanted to fit in with his native-born peers, but he could not play their national pastime with credibility. As Thorn revealed, it was precisely because he stood outside the mainstream that he, like other outliers, turned to baseball: “The more you sense that you are an outsider in American culture, the more you attach and gravitate to baseball as the symbol of what America can be at its best.” Baseball cards provided Thorn, blessed with singular memory and intellect, with an early conduit to the game. 

During the “Jews & Baseball” dialogue, Thorn revealed, “Just as many Americans love... the notion of equality and fairness about America, often in theory more than in practice, the same is true of baseball. It’s… three outs per inning, and it doesn’t matter… how much money is in your bank account. The rules of baseball apply equally to all: this was enormously appealing to me as a child.”

His baseball knowledge and insights ultimately gifted fame and influence. Noting that early Jewish major leaguers hid their ethnicity behind pseudonyms, Thorn provided caveat through question: “[W]hen you come from the outside to the inside, you have a problem… how do you be included as one of the… people you’re joining, yet maintain your difference?”

A veteran of 15 MLB seasons (1993-2007: Blue Jays, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Mets), Shawn, a 6’4”, Gold Glove right fielder, five-tool All-Star, ranks as the preeminent Jewish ballplayer of his generation. Thoughtful, sleekly muscular and darkly handsome, he bears a resemblance to his hero, Sandy Koufax. Several dominant seasons, including 1999 (.309 BA, 42 HR, 123 RBI, .997 Fld percent) and 2001 (.297 BA, 49 HR, 125 RBI), burnish Green’s robust career batting statistics (.283 BA, 328 HR, 445 2B, 1070 RBI, 1129 R). His 49 home runs in 2001 are a single-season Dodger record. Green numbers amongst that elite cadre of ballplayers to exceed both 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in the same season (1998: 35 HR, 35 SB). On May 23, 2001, facing the Brewers in their Milwaukee Miller Park home, Green put on the greatest single-game display of hitting in the history of baseball – four home runs, a double and single for a record 19 total bases along with six runs scores and sven RBI. 

During his time in the baseball limelight, Green’s Jewish consciousness deepened. He took seriously his elevation as a role model to other Jews, particularly youngsters. A Mets fan greeted with a poster that proclaimed, “The messiah has arrived.” By observing Yom Kippur in 2001, Green sacrificed his shot at hitting 50 runs and ended his impressive streak of consecutive games played at 415. In addition to occasional jibes about Jews from opponents and teammates, a “Heil Hitler” salute from the San Francisco stands still rankles him. Conversely, Green fondly remembers coming to bat and exchanging pre-Rosh Hashanah greetings with two fellow Jews, Brewers’ catcher Jesse Levis and umpire Al Clark. Green joined the 2013 Team Israel as player-coach. 

First attending Cleveland games with her father at age 6, Justine Siegal developed an enduring love of watching – and playing – baseball. Despite repeated attempts of male coaches to relegate her to softball, she defied prejudice to break through several glass ceilings. Siegal switched high schools so that she could play baseball, developing into a star pitcher. 

Balancing marriage and motherhood with studies and sports, Siegal earned a Ph.D. in sports and psychology at Springfield College while serving as the school’s assistant baseball coach, the first woman to coach at that level. Subsequently, with the Broxton Rox of the Can-American League, she pierced another barrier by coaching professional baseball. When misogynist Brockton fans hurled vile sexist taunts at her, a group of Orthodox Jews clapped their hands in support of Siegal. Although Siegal has critiqued the patriarchalism of traditional Judaism, she said of the support by Orthodox fans, “In that moment, I knew I was not alone.” She later coached for the Israel National Baseball Team.

Siegal still wanted to fulfill her dream of pitching against major leaguers. Employed by Cleveland during spring training in 2011, she was the pioneer woman batting-practice pitcher. Hired as a pitching instructor for the Oakland Athletics’ team in the Arizona Instructional League, Siegal, in 2015, became the first woman coach in an MLB organization. 

Wanting her dream to ignite the dreams of other females, Siegal founded Baseball for All, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to providing meaningful instruction and opportunities in baseball, especially for girls.” Siegal asks, “If you tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else will she think she can’t do?”

My next column will drill deep into the Jewish American polarities of assimilation and tradition referenced by Thorn, Green and Siegal. We will engage the concluding panelist¸ Dr. Misha Galperin, whose National Museum of American Jewish History mounted a groundbreaking exhibit on baseball. 

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.