By Saul Golubcow
When I heard the news that Gabe Kapler had been named manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, I experienced a Jewish American baseball fan’s happiness in having one of our own, who coached Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic in 2012 and who wears tattoos showing a Star of David and “NEVER AGAIN” — yes, I know, tattoos, but I don’t care — assume a vaunted position in America’s pastime. And for my beloved team, no less.
I swelled with personal and cultural pride and thought about why I care so much that Kapler, or any other Major League baseball figure, is Jewish. (I don’t have the same interest in Jewish football or basketball players.) Indeed, much has been written about Jewish Americans across the religious and cultural continua having shown for over a century an affinity with baseball. The most common explanations posit that from early on in America, we have been proud of the success of Jews in scholarship, jurisprudence, science and business. But sports was and may still appear to be a last frontier for “making it,” and baseball, representing our country’s game, has loomed as part of a Judeo-American conflated promised land. Perhaps due to an insecurity of having been an “other” experiencing anti-Semitism, some of us may view success on the diamond as one means of validating our full integration into our country.
My own story may reflect this thesis. One spring night when I was 11, I joined around 50 other kids in the city park and waited to be chosen by one of the managers for a Little League team. Although I was a good player, and while a few non-Jewish kids who knew me advocated for my being picked, perhaps because I was small or perhaps because of the murmurs of my being called “the Jewish kid,” I waited until I remained the only child left. I felt an anger as I silently fulminated against a strongly perceived unfairness feeling shame and humiliation. Then the man who was to be my manager for the next two years came over, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “I guess you’re mine. What’s your name?”
Turned out my manager was a wonderful mentor, fair to me and all my teammates. Back then, we weren’t allowed fist pumps, but when I delivered a base hit, I felt a surge of satisfaction for what “the Jewish kid” just did. When my teammates slapped gloves with me as I came off the field, I felt an inclusion that made manifest the sense of our country being fair to all. At those moments, I might have changed the name of the baseball standard from “Take me out to the ballgame” to “Take me into the ballgame.”
But my emotions somewhat aside, I’d like to suggest that there is more to why Jews have been drawn to baseball. There seem to be elements in baseball that naturally link it to the Jewish disposition. Here are a few examples.
The baseball season begins in spring, overlapping with Pesach, a holiday — particularly for children — filled with renewal and expectation, melding beautifully with a Jewish fan’s hope that after a cold winter following a moribund, sometimes heartbreaking previous season, one’s team would reap the ultimate measure of success around Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival. And spring after spring, Pesach after Pesach, I allowed such hope to bloom despite my Phillies’ seemingly endless run of arid seasons.
The baseball season is long, a day after day progression that fits easily within the Jewish psyche’s resonance with the type of journey we have traveled for the past 3,500 years. Whether on a 40-year trek to a “promised land” or afterward toward building a more perfect society, to help us travel the Jewish pathways, we have been given commandments and laws to rule the journey, absorb the bumps and failures, and learn along the way. We argue among ourselves as to how to interpret our teachings and traditions, what must be sacrosanct and with difficulty what may change. Baseball also, to guide each game through the long season, has its rule book — some parts archaic, other parts arcane. We fans love to debate the rules, argue against or advocate for amendment, and often with resignation accept what has been decided. (I’m still not sure if I recognize the American League since the designated hitter rule was instituted.)
And while Judaism always moves us toward the more perfect, we realize we may not achieve it and there will be times of failure and discouragement, but within the effort reside the attainment and the value. The baseball fan watches with satisfaction every successful pitch, hit or play, but also endures the error, the blown save, the individual slump and team losing streak, certain that the struggle will make the player better, the team soon a winner. We have no expectations of a 1.000 batting average or 0.00 ERA. Instead we fans extol hustle, grinding out hits, hitting the right cut-off player, and repetitively working on pitching mechanics believing that in these daily dedications our team will harvest October victories.
Our bible stories are tightly wound, bringing us into the power of the narrative in a “you are there” manner. Think of the Akeidah story interaction between Abraham and Isaac when Isaac says: “There’s the fire and the wood, but where’s the lamb for the sacrifice?” And Abraham answers, “God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, my son.” And they traveled on together.
We trudge along with them filling in the emotional confusion, apprehension and terror we’re sure Isaac must have felt, grappling with Abraham’s anguish and our anger with him, and finally exhaling the moment the drama is resolved. We are with our progenitors as they lived their lives, and they remain with us through ours.
The progression of a baseball game along with the cadence of its rendering by the great announcers, particularly on radio, evocatively overlap for me with the way we respond to the tersely conveyed bible stories in the Torah. Thinking back, I’m sure my Jewish ears were primed for participation when I listened to By Saam, the iconic Phillies announcer of my childhood. Here’s my memory of Saam’s transmitting one moment of a Phillies-Dodgers game, each comma representing a pause: “Robinson waits at the plate, Roberts stretches, he looks at Gilliam dancing off first, the pitch … .” At the edge of the radio, I was left to fill in the pauses. What will Roberts throw? Will he try to pick off Gilliam? Will Robinson bunt? Will Gilliam try to steal a base? What decision would I make? Through these instances of repeatedly held breaths and exhalations of small triumphs and defeats, ties to and memories of the game were formed for me.
Within many of us from early on, Judaism and baseball have meshed together beautifully. Thus, as we have traveled our road, Jewish major leaguers have walked and run with us. As we progressed, we watched with awe and pride Hank Greenberg slugging 58 homers in 1938. Reverently, we sat together with Sandy Koufax at Yom Kippur services in 1965. We welcomed younger travelers such as Alex Bregman, who contributed greatly to the Astros winning this last World Series.
Now, I as a fan and Gabe Kapler as the Phillies manager, have our Jewish baseball journey ahead of us in the spring. May we go from strength to strength and from pennant to pennant.
Saul Golubcow follows his beloved Phillies from Potomac, Md.