Jewish Baseball Players: The Jewish baseball circle

By Bill Simons

A manila envelope, containing DVDs, arrived at our hilltop farmhouse, postmarked July 12, just five days before the death of its sender, Bob Ruxin. It was a documentary record of a remarkable August 29-30, 2004, event, “A Celebration of 143 American Jews in America’s Game 1871-2004.” Bob played a key role in organizing the conference, and I served on the Hank Greenberg panel. Retired Jewish ballplayers, sport scholars and media luminaries delivered presentations. Organized under the auspices of the American Jewish Historical Society, the conference took place at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Networking, insights and my first encounters with Bob Ruxin and Bob Tufts made my participation memorable. Without the Jewish baseball circle, I would not have had the privilege of knowing either of these landsmen. 

For Bob Ruxin, there was prelude to our meeting at the conference. As a speaker for the New York Council for the Humanities, I found myself at SUNY Cobleskill on March 10, 2004, discussing baseball’s ethnic standard bearers. The audience was mainly comprised of undergraduates, leavened by some faculty. There was, however, an older woman in the audience. After the program, Shirley Ruxin introduced herself. She informed me that her son wrote a book on sports agents and was involved in Jewish – and other – baseball enterprises. Mrs. Ruxin told me that she would tell her son, Bob, about me. And she did. 

Both Bobs, Ruxin and Tufts, were at “A Celebration of 143 American Jews.” For Bob Ruxin and me, his mother had given us immediate common ground. Initially, however, the rationale for Bob Tufts’ conference presence was not evident. A handsome, 6’5”, Ivy Leaguer, he was the descendant of early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, including the first Essex County woman convicted of witchcraft and the philanthropist who donated the land on which Tufts University was built. Raised a Congregationalist, Bob was always intrigued by Christianity’s Hebraic background. Intelligent and ecumenical in his friendships, he enjoyed theological discourse with peers and increasingly found his views cognate with Judaism. His Jewish fiancé, and later his wife, Suzanne Israel, a fellow Princetonian, played a significant role in his religious odyssey. “Having a personal relationship with God and the imperative to take responsibility for your life and do simple good deeds spoke to me,” recalled Bob. At University of Virginia, where Suzanne received her law degree, Bob began the formal conversion process. 

Questioned about the Jewish name selected upon conversion, he riffed about his request: “I’ll take Sandy Koufax, please.” Bob’s Hebrew name was actually Reuven in honor of the pitcher protagonist of the Chaim Potok novel “The Chosen.” Introducing myself to Bob, I sought rapport by noting that he played high school ball in Lynnfield and for an American Legion team in adjacent Lynn, MA, my birthplace. Charming and affable, Bob and I developed a relationship pivoted around Jewish baseball. One summer, we hooked up for several days at John Jay College for training concerning adjunct faculty issues. 

As conference co-director, over the years I invited Bob to moderate several sessions of the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. When I needed editorial help for an anthology article on Dan Quisenberry, the talented poet and All-Star relief pitcher, Bob critiqued the piece on his former teammate. Modest about his attainments, Bob, like another scholar athlete, Moe Berg, earned degrees from Princeton (B.A.) and Columbia (M.B.A.), majoring in finance and business. 

Ace of the Princeton pitching staff, Bob was drafted 12th in the 1977 MLB draft. A lefty armed with deceptive sliders and sinkers, he advanced through the minors, posting a 9-2 won-loss record and a spectacular 1.70 ERA in AAA ball. An arm injury limited Bob’s 1981-83 MLB career as a reliever with the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals to 27 games, 42 innings, 2 wins, 2 saves, 0 losses, and a 4.71 ERA. 

Post-pitching, Bob spent a generation navigating Wall Street equities. Seeking an impact not measured by financial profits, he migrated to teaching. As mentor to the baseball team and adjunct instructor in management, he became a Yeshiva University icon. Bob developed a course on Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, that yielded data important to the Jewish labor leader’s eventual election to the Hall of Fame. In 2018, Bob received the Lillian and William Silber Professor of the Year Award. Sadly, in 2009, Bob received a diagnosis of multiple myeloma. In the decade that followed, his lived fully as husband, parent, teacher, scholar, baseball activist and patient advocate.

Likewise, Bob Ruxin died of cancer in his 60s despite a hard fight that yielded extra years. His legacy also included support for other patients, providing impetus for financial and blood platelet donations. So that she would be closer to her children and grandchildren, Bob relocated his widowed mother to Brooksby Village, a retirement community in Peabody, MA, where my parents resided. Mrs. Ruxin and my mother became friends. When I gave baseball lectures at Brooksby, Mrs. Ruxin attended, often accompanied by Bob. 

A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, Bob Ruxin was brilliant, passionate and generous. His influential book, “An Athlete’s Guide to Agents,” went through multiple printings. Attorney, sports industry executive and Jewish communal activist, Bob, as an organizer and/or promoter, was a key contributor to every major Jewish baseball enterprise in the United States and Israel over the past generation. His imprint was on the 2007 Israel Baseball League; Team Israel international competition, including the World Baseball Cup and Olympics; the comprehensive Jewish Major Leaguers Baseball Card Series; and innumerable conferences. 
Bob Ruxin was an organizer, and Bob Tufts and I presenters, at the wonderful 2013 gathering on Jewish baseball held at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in bucolic Falls Village, CT. Bob Tufts delivered the Sabbath sermon. 

The two Bobs first met at Princeton. Bob Ruxin, editor/reporter for the student newspaper, interviewed pitcher Bob Tufts. I am going to visit them again on those DVDs Bob Ruxin bequeathed me. 

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.