Jewish Baseball Players: Alex in wonderland

By Bill Simon

The bar/bat mitzvah marks a major milestone, a coming of age in ethical and ritual responsibility. It is also a time of celebration. So it was on Saturday, April 21, 2007, at Congregation Albert, a Reform temple, in Albuquerque, NM. Rabbi Joe Black complimented 13-year-old Alex on the dedication evidenced by flawless chanting of his Torah portion, a challenging section detailing religious response to physical ills. 

There is a joyous and revealing photograph of Alex standing on the bima, with his father, Sam, to his right and mother, Jackie, to his left. Appropriately, the parents are kvelling. Jackie has a hand on Alex’s elbow. Discretely, with a right hand on the bottom of the scroll, Sam helps his son support the Torah, which can grow heavy. Tallit drape parents and son. Despite his modest height, several inches less than that of his 5’4” mother and dwarfed by his 6’4” father, Alex beams with happiness, purpose and a preternatural confidence. 

In his bar mitzvah speech, Alex announces ambitious goals: “We all need to realize that there are people out there who may be suffering, and we all need to try to do our part to relieve that suffering when we can… I want to be able to use my love of the game of baseball to be a good example and a good person… who plays for the love of the game, never quits trying to give my best and is a good role model for all of the kids who look up to baseball players.” Many bar mitzvah boys have made similar declarations. For Alex Bregman, they came true. A wonderland beckoned. 

Augmenting relentless practice, tireless conditioning and natural athletic gifts, Alex had the advantage of family support. Had Alex come of age in the early 20th century, immigrant parents would have probably despaired over his baseball obsession. In 1903, for example, a letter to Abraham Cahan, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, from a distraught parent expressed fears held by many: “[W]hat value does a game like baseball have? Nothing more than becoming crippled comes out of it… They run after the stupid ball made of hide… I want my boy to grow up to be a mensch, not a wild American runner. He’s making me miserable; I can’t take it anymore.”

By the time of Alex’ birth in 1994, however, assimilation, economic mobility and ethnic standard bearers had long since rendered most American Jews sport friendly. The Bregman family has a notable baseball lineage. Alex’s grandfather, Stanley Bregman, a sports enthusiast and general counsel for the Washington Senators, persuaded Bob Short to buy the team, resulting in the franchise moving to Texas. Stanley frequently brought his sons, Sam and Ben, into the team clubhouse where manager Ted Williams befriended the boys. Sam and Ben later played freshman baseball at the University of Arizona. Subsequently, Sam and wife, Jackie, shared partnership of a law firm, management of an NBA developmental team and liberal Democratic activism, while raising their three children with a commitment to social justice. And they encouraged son Alex’s baseball quest. 

A diamond prodigy, Alex’s baseball ascent was meteoric. At Albuquerque Academy, a private preparatory school, he became at age 16 the youngest recipient of the USA Baseball Player of the Year Award. Twice named an All-American at Louisiana State University, Alex was the Houston Astros’ first pick in the 2015 MLB draft. After only a season and a half in the minors, the 22-year-old debuted as the Astros’ starting third baseman in mid-season 2016. Alex emerged as a star on the 2017 World Series champion Astros. 

In 2018, Alex’s 31 home runs, 51 doubles, 103 RBIs and fielding prowess at the hot corner placed him fifth place in American League Valuable Player rankings. For an encore, Alex’s .296 BA, 41 HRs and 112 RBIs propelled the Astros to another AL pennant in 2019 and Alex to a second place finish in MVP voting. 

Aspiring to be the LeBron James of MLB, Alex enjoys attention and seeks to enliven baseball’s staid image. Photos of his friendship with a Los Angeles Clippers cheerleader were shared. With at least two inches aspirational, Alex lists his official height as six feet. Alex added to his extensive social media presence in 2019 by launching a comedic YouTube “reality” channel. In the tradition of Adam Sandler, the series features episodes of Alex with his buddy posse masquerading as goofy umpires at a youth baseball game, crashing the wedding of fans, tipping a waitress $500, tailgating at an LSU football game and visiting a children’s hospital. Irrepressible, Alex hopes that movies and television are in his future. 

Unfortunately, another form of media was misused. In November 2019, investigative journalists discovered that the Houston Astros in their 2017 championship season and in 2018 employed electronic devices to steal pitching signs and banging on trash barrels to convey that information to batters. There was outrage by players on other teams. The Astros fired their general manager and manager. No current players were disciplined. Contrite and deflated, Alex said, “I’m really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization and by me.”

Married to Ryan Howard since December 2020 and a father since the August 2020 birth of son Knox, Alex participates in philanthropic work. His Bregman Cares Charity promotes autism awareness and assists victims of COVID.

Although Alex’s stats declined over the last three seasons (2020-22) due to injuries, he remains central to the continuing dominance of the Astros. Returning to form in mid-season, Alex had a .515 slugging percentage and .894 OPS during the second half of the 2022 campaign. Batting cleanup, he connected for 23 home runs and 93 runs as the Astros won another World Series championship in 2022. With four pennants and two World Series championships over the past six years, the Astros are MLB’s new dynasty. If Alex, still only 28, can regain his 2019 form and notch a few more championships, a Hall of Fame plaque may await. 

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.