Jews in Baseball: Baseball Hall of Fame President Josh Rawitch

By Bill Simons

On September 8, 2021, the National Baseball Hall of Fame performed its most important rite, the induction of new honorees. September 8 was also the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 2 Tishrei 5782. On the very next day, September 9, Josh Rawitch assumed the HOF presidency. 

Josh addressed the Rosh Hashanah episode during our April 25 telephone interview. He takes seriously his obligations as president of the Hall of Fame – management, fund-raising, public face – and as a practicing Jew. Although the Rosh Hashanah induction and its scheduling preceded Josh’s presidency, he responded candidly. The schedule conflict was regrettable, but difficult to avoid. Due to the COVID cancellation, the 2020 inductions were added to the 2021 ceremony, which the pandemic moved from its usual mid-summer slot. And the Cooperstown hotel situation left little flexibility. Josh asserted that the induction-High Holiday conflict was “certainly not something we would want to repeat in the future.”

Carrying a name, Joshua, prominent in Hebrew tradition, he found family and Judaism intertwined. The saga of East European Jewish immigrants, settlement in the Lower East Side and Chicago, and post-World War II migration to Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley is told in his mother’s book, “100 Years of An American Jewish Family.” Parents Bob and Cynthia, prominent educators and journalists, raised Josh, twin brother, Jeremy, and older sister, Dana, in the Conservative tradition. Family observance, temple, bar mitzvah, confirmation, United Synagogue Youth, Camp Ramah and a family trip to Israel shaped Josh’s Jewish identity. Supporting Soviet Jewry in the late 1980s, Josh and Jeremy were paired with Russian twins. For a time, Josh and future MLB player and manager Gable Kapler were in the same Hebrew School class. Josh expresses pride that Dana is the first woman CEO of Jewish LearningWorks, a leader in outreach education.

His wife Erin, a photographer/website creator, is Christian, but she supports Josh’s strong commitment to Judaism. Bat mitzvahed at their former synagogue in Arizona, daughter Emily attends a summer Jewish sleep-away, Camp Stein. Son Braden, studying under his aunt, will observe his bar mitzvah at the Hall of Fame.

Counting Josh, the Hall of Fame has had only eight presidents since opening its doors in 1939. Jeff Idelson, Josh’s predecessor, is also Jewish. COVID, technology, an aging fan base, declining attendance, cultural shifts and competition confront the sport that once stood unrivaled as America’s national pastime. Although only 44 years old, Josh – imbued with remarkable social skills, discerning judgment and transformative vision – is well prepared for the challenges and responsibilities of preserving baseball’s history, connecting the generations and honoring excellence.

Immersion in the game came early for Josh. As a young boy, he listened, with his parents and grandparents, to the legendary Vin Scully broadcast games of his favorite team, the hometown Los Angeles Dodgers. Years later, Scully would congratulate Josh on the air upon Braden’s birth. 

A utility infielder for Chatsworth High School, Josh had the thrill of going to bat in the Los Angeles city championship game at Dodger Stadium. In that same eventful year, Josh became a Dodger intern, beginning a career of more than two decades in MLB, punctuated by degree work at Indiana University and a two-year stint as a baseball reporter. Switching from marketing to media with the Dodgers, he ascended to the title of vice president of communications. Moving on to Arizona, he earned accolades as the Diamondbacks’ senior vice president of content and communications. Then, Jane Forbes Clark, chairwoman of the board of directors, called, offering Josh the presidency of the Hall of Fame.

Josh has experienced the intersectionality of Judaism and baseball. Playing school ball as the only Jew on the team, he asked the coach for – and received permission – to leave early for Hebrew school. As an MLB executive, he participated in discussions about Jewish and Israel appreciation days, as well as kosher refreshments. Handling logistics at the 2017 World Baseball Classic games in South Korea, Josh felt pride when Team Israel players – several the children of interfaith marriages with only a tangential connection to religion – felt a quickening of ethnicity, taking off their ballcap and putting on a kippah during the playing of “Hatikvah.” He feels a special relationship with Jewish fans, media and players, the latter evident when he bonded with Max Fried, a fellow native of the Los Angeles Jewish community, in the Atlanta clubhouse after the star pitcher had just pitched the Braves to victory in game seven of the 2021 World Series. 

Judaism and baseball share a spirituality, and the Hall of Fame is the game’s sanctuary. For some fans, reflected Josh, a once-in-a-lifetime-trip to Cooperstown is akin to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I shared with Josh that when my father stood before Hank Greenberg’s plaque, he felt emotion akin to what he experienced at the Wailing Wall. Josh agreed that Jewish fans continue to express an identification with players with whom they share a common ancestry that is now less common amongst those from other ethnic groups. 

Josh acknowledged that the story of future Civil War General Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in 1839 Cooperstown is apocryphal. National myths, at their best, however, express who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. The Hall of Fame arose on the Doubleday myth, and the baseball shrine brought the Rawitch family, now living in the myth, to Cooperstown. 

A progressive, cognizant of his obligation to all members of the diverse family of baseball, Josh named Ryan Selzner the HOF’s first woman vice president (people and culture). As for history, the way to change the past is to render it more inclusive, perhaps by exhibits and events highlighting specific groups, including Jews. The HOF might sponsor a conference examining recent Jewish baseball phenomena, including the 2006 Israel Baseball League, the great run of Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and 2021 Olympics, the Bregman/Braun/Pederson/Fried MLB generation, and women of the game. 

Josh’s baseball ascension would have elicited amazement and nachas from his grandparents. 

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.