Jewish players have long ties with major leagues

July 1, 2013 

Even though I don’t consider myself one today, I grew up a New York Yankees fan. I followed every game played by Mickey, Whitey, Yogi, Moose, Gil, Andy, Hank, Elston and Billy. But as much as I loved the Yankees, I also had favorite players on other teams.

I was a big fan of Detroit Tigers center fielder Al Kaline and Cleveland third baseman Al Rosen. Kaline, a 15-time All-Star and Hall of Famer, was the youngest player to ever win a batting title when he hit .340 at age 20. Rosen, who spent his entire 10-year career with the Indians, was an All-Star four times and was the AL MVP in 1953. It never occurred to me that he is Jewish, and I only learned that fact recently when I discovered the book “Matzoh Balls and Baseballs” written by longtime friend Dave Cohen.

Cohen has been the voice of Georgia State athletics for more than three decades and was also a member of the Furman football radio broadcast team for a dozen years during current Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb’s tenure with the Paladins. Cohen left that post when Georgia State started its football program. He has pipes that broadcasters dream of, and I always thought he had national network ability.

In the preface of “Matzoh Balls and Baseballs,” Rabbi Steven Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta states that approximately 200 Jewish Americans have played Major League Baseball the past 100 years. Cohen chronicles conversations he had with 17 of those individuals. Some of the players you will recognize while others you probably won’t.

The most famous Jewish American baseball players are Hall-of-Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Greenberg was baseball’s first Jewish American superstar while playing for the Tigers. He played 13 seasons in the major leagues, winning two MVP awards and finishing his career with a .313 batting average. Koufax was with the Dodgers, both in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, his entire 12-year career. He had four no-hitters and was a three time Cy Young Award winner. Greenberg’s son, Steve, wrote the foreward for “Matzoh Balls and Baseballs.”

Of the 17 interviews in Cohen’s book, the most prominent players mentioned are Rosen, first baseman Ron Blomberg and pitchers Ken Holtzman and Steve Stone. Blomberg grew up in Atlanta and attended Druid Hills High School where he was a Parade All-American in baseball, football and basketball.

He was the first pick in the 1967 Major League Baseball draft by the Yankees with whom he played eight seasons. He has a place in baseball history as the sport’s first DH in 1973. His autobiography is entitled “The Designated Hebrew, The Ron Blomberg Story.”

Holtzman pitched for the Oakland A’s, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Yankees during a 15-year career, winning 174 games and throwing two no-hitters. He has the most wins all time by a Jewish pitcher in the big leagues, and he was on three world championship teams with Oakland.

Stone played for the Cubs, Giants, Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles in an 11-year career and was the 1980 Cy Young Award winner after going 25-7 for Baltimore. He points out in the conversation with Cohen that there have been two Jewish Cy Young winners -- Koufax and himself. Stone has enjoyed a long post-baseball career as a broadcaster, first with the Cubs and now with the White Sox.

Macon chiropractor Jim Gaudet also is featured in the book. Gaudet, who had a brief stint in the major leagues with the Kansas City Royals, grew up in New Orleans in a Catholic family and converted to Judaism in his 20s. In the book, he describes the process he went through in the conversion.

“Matzoh Balls and Baseballs” was first published in 2010, and Cohen is constantly adding to it. He has added four more interviews, including one with Art Shamsky, who played with the Macon Peaches in 1962.

One common trait among all the players included in the book was that they would not play on the Jewish High Holy Days. It’s an interesting and entertaining read and gives great insight on the Jewish culture as it relates to baseball.

Bobby Pope is the executive director of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Email him at bobbypope428@gmail.com

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