If Jews had pantheons, Shawn Green — the premier Jewish baseball player of the last quarter-century — would be right up there in the baseball wing, a notch below Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.
It would be hard to overstate the significance of Greenberg and Koufax in the history of American Jewish life.
That two of the best ballplayers of their generations could be Jewish — and that they could, 30 years apart, gently but proudly assert their Jewish identity by declining to play on Yom Kippur — was incredibly important for the self-confidence of American Jews of the 1930s and 1960s.
A few years ago, Green split the difference on Yom Kippur, skipping one game scheduled on the holiday, while playing in the other.
But if the question of his religious observance seems less fateful to this generation, the reason lies partly in the changes in American Jewry, and partly because Green, who recently was traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the New York Mets, is not Hank Greenberg.
At many levels, there simply is no comparison between the two players.
Greenberg was a consistently awesome slugger and a more successful overall batter than Green. His career slugging percentage of .605 is still among the top 10 in the history of the game, while Green went into the 2006 season at a respectable .505.
Green's career batting average of about .283 is solid, but pales next to Greenberg's .313 career average.
We also need to remember that Greenberg played for only 91/2 seasons, missing virtually all of 1936 with an injury and virtually all of 1941, all of 1942-44 and half of 1945 because of military service.
Green, on the other hand, is in his 12th full season, having gone into this year with almost 1,000 more career at-bats than Greenberg. So it's no wonder that Green's cumulative statistics, as distinct from his averages, are rivaling Hank's.
Still, the fact remains that Green's cumulative stats are impressive; if he stays healthy, he's likely to become the all-time Jewish major-league leader in home runs and base hits. He also has an outside chance of overtaking Greenberg in runs batted in.
Consider the following data, as of Aug. 27:
· Green's 316 home runs leave him 17 shy of Greenberg's 331. At his current pace — he has 11 so far this season — Green would pass Greenberg during the first half of the 2008 season. (All statistics are up-to-date as of Sept. 7.)
· Green's 1,859 career hits — Greenberg had 1,628 — leaves him within a three-year reach of Buddy Myer's total of 2,131. A second baseman for the Washington Senators, Myer — also Jewish — was a contemporary of Greenberg.
· Greenberg's total of 1,276 career RBIs would be more of a stretch for Green, who heads toward a possible appearance in a Subway Series with 1,017.
Green's power numbers have been declining for the past few years, even as his batting average has remained relatively steady. Nonetheless, five more years at an average of 60 RBIs per year would take him past Greenberg at age 39.
However many productive seasons may lie ahead of Green, we can be sure of two things:
· He'll be remembered as the premier Jewish major-leaguer of his time, but Green won't follow Greenberg, Koufax and Lou Boudreau to become the fourth Jewish major leaguer in the Hall of Fame.
· Perhaps as long as baseball records are kept, Green will be remembered as the player who had the most productive nine-inning-game performance in the history of baseball: On May 23, 2002, he electrified the baseball world by slugging four homers, a double and a single in a game for the Los Angeles Dodgers against Milwaukee.
But will he or won't he overtake Greenberg and Myer to become the all-time Jewish career leader in homers, RBIs and hits? And will he or won't he achieve his final stats while wearing a Mets uniform?
And at this time in American Jewish life, aren't those questions at least as interesting as whether or not he plays on Yom Kippur?
Martin Abramowitz produces Jewish baseball cards and lectures on Jews in baseball as president of Jewish Major Leaguers Inc. at: www.jewishmajorleaguers.org.