Jewish Baseball Players: Joctober baseball: Pederson in pearls

By Bill Simons

Joc Pederson is one of the most colorful and best liked players in the major leagues. A National League All-Star team selection, Pederson paced the weak hitting 2022 San Francisco Giants in batting average (.274), home runs (23), RBIs (70) and slugging percentage (.521). Pederson spurned free agency to accept a $19.65 million qualifying offer to return to the Giants in 2023. After nine MLB seasons (Los Angeles Dodgers/2014-20, Chicago Cubs/2021, Atlanta/2021, San Francisco Giants/2022), it is evident that the 6’1”, 220-pound, lefty outfielder is not on a Hall of Fame trajectory. 

His career batting average is a lackluster .237, even though he typically doesn’t hit against left-handed pitchers, against whom he is generally ineffectual. Originally a center fielder, the 30-year-old Pederson, who with age lost a step, is now a solid left fielder. Pederson, however, does hit home runs – career total of 171, season high of 36 and five seasons with 23 or more. He is at his explosive best in the post-season when it matters most, hence the nickname Joctober. Pederson lifts the performance of teammates and attracts fan attention through his distinctive personality and sartorial style. Moreover, his commitment to Team Israel creates a bond with Jewish fans.  

Joining the Giants in 2022 represented a coming home for Pederson. He grew up in Palo Alto, part of the San Francisco Bay Area, as a Giants fan, rooting for Barry Bonds. A two-sport star, baseball and football, in high school, Pederson comes from an athletic family. His father and Little League coach, Stu, appeared in a few Los Angeles Dodgers games in 1985 and spent over a decade in the minor leagues. Mother Shelly (Cahn) Pederson was an athletic trainer. Middle brother Tyger was a minor league second baseman (2011-16) in the Dodgers organization. Younger sister Jacey, a soccer forward, played for UCLA and the Under-19 U.S. National Women’s Team. 

Affability, accessibility and iconoclasm contribute to Pederson’s popularity with media and fans. Not surprisingly, he was one of several major leaguers to volunteer for the featured role in an episode of YouTube’s “A Day in the Life” baseball series. With his casual dress and grooming topped by bleached blond hair, Pederson, his face open and youthful, looks more like a 20-year-old undergrad than the 30-year-old professional athlete and devoted family man that he is. The 2022 film captures the essential Pederson demeanor – relaxed, laid back and cheerful. 
“A Day in the Life” opens with Pederson gently tossing a fleece ball to his preschoolers, toddler son, Wilder, and older sister, Poppy. Wilder, wielding a plastic bat, hits the ball squarely, sending him on a happy romp through imaginary bases in the kitchen and living room. Poppy complains that Dad is throwing the ball too high, but with Mom (Kelsey) sharing the swing a hit ensues. Then Pederson follows the children to the playroom for puzzles and construction, progress impeded when Wilder knocks down Poppy’s tower. Next stop, the kitchen, where Poppy and Wilder partake of healthy snacks. After kissing the children and Kelsey good-bye, Pederson gets behind the wheel of his Tesla to start game-day routines.

Champ Pederson, Joc’s older brother and sidekick, appears in “A Day in the Life,” sharing the front seat of the Tesla and accompanying Joc to the Dodger clubhouse where Champ has free run of the facility. Joc and Champ are very close. Champ was born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition often accompanied by distinct facial features, small stature and cognitive limitations. Champ is on the high functioning end of the Down syndrome spectrum. In certain circles, Champ is better known than Joc. An inspirational motivational speaker and role model for others with disabilities, Champ formerly worked in the front office of the NBA Golden State Warriors. After the Dodgers won the 2020 World Series, both Joc and Champ received rings. When Joc joined San Francisco, he was moved when the Giants gave Champ his own locker during spring training.

Pederson was involved in one of the most controversial episodes of the 2022 season. On May 27 in Cincinnati, Reds’ outfielder Tommy Pham approached Pederson in the outfield during pre-game warmups and slapped him on the cheek. Remaining calm and with other players around, Pederson left the area, subsequently explaining that he disavows violence. The volatile and unrepentant Pham claimed Pederson had it coming for misdeeds – stacking players on the injured reserve list, misappropriating gambling money and trash talk belittlement of Pham and former teammates – in a fantasy football league. Public opinion praised Pederson for retaining his dignity and termed Pham’s actions bizarre. MLB suspended Pham for three games. 

Like his Giants manager Gabe Kapler, a fellow Jew and Team Israel veteran, Pederson possesses a charismatic idiosyncrasy. Before games, Pederson walks around the ballpark barefoot. And Pederson created a national buzz when first donning his now iconic white pearls during a September 29, 2022, game. Attracted by the pearls. Pederson points out that they are real, not costume jewelry knockoffs. Cultural commentator Evelyn Frick finds larger meaning in Pederson’s pearls: “[a] piece of jewelry which is often associated with 1950s-era housewives and thus femininity… ultimately pushes gender boundaries in an extraordinary way.”   

Although Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson remains Mr. October, Pederson is now Joctober, an appellation saluting his post-season clutch hitting. Pederson has launched 12 playoff home runs, stepping up in decisive situations. He is one of the few players in baseball history to win World Series championships in consecutive years with different teams (Dodgers, 2020; Braves, 2021). Pederson is at his best on the big stage. 

The son of a Jewish mother and Gentile father, Pederson is a strong proponent of Jewish baseball. He played for Team Israel in 2013 in the World Baseball classic and is doing so again this year despite the intrusion on Dodger spring training. With the abstentions of Max Fried and Alex Bregman, Pederson will be the best and best-known player on Team Israel. Committed to the team, Pederson recruited other Jewish major leaguers to play for Team Israel. 
To be continued. 

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.