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Waiting for Hank Greenberg: A conversation about heroes

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A conversation on Jews, baseball, Jews-in-baseball, and why the people that care about it seem to care about it so much.

Hank Greenberg
Hank Greenberg
Getty Images

According to the website, which we might as well defer to in matters like this, there are 14 active major league players that identify as Jewish. This list does not include fake-you-out non-Jewish players with Jewish-ish names, although congratulations are due in this area to 2014 David Eckstein Award winner Trevor Rosenthal. The list does include the names of five players that made playoff rosters: Ike Davis, Ian Kinsler, Joc Pederson, Nate Freiman and Sam Fuld. Jewish minor leaguers are listed, too, by level; Jason Marquis is included seemingly just in case. All told, this seems about as comprehensive as a list like this could be, and we salute for its attention to detail.

Of course, there is the question of why such a list even needs to exist and who such a list would be for. The answer, the most precise answer, is that it exists for my father, a 71-year-old man who has called me on the phone, during business hours, to see if I thought Anne Hathaway was Jewish. Another answer would be that the list is there for me, and a large number of my co-religionists. A more revealing answer, maybe, would be that I already knew all the names on it, and that I generally do at any given time.

A lot of it is just something that fans do, and in the choked hoarder-house of a fan's memory -- leaning towers of factoids, encrusted mounds of stat -- this list at least does not take up too much space. But it is also a thing that every Jewish baseball fan I know does, and most any Jewish baseball fan can at least fake it for a few minutes worth of conversation on topics like "how is Texas Rangers reliever Phil Klein not Jewish, I literally went to Hebrew school with someone named Phil Klein" and "Ryan Braun's dead-eyed douchery: is it bad for the Jews?"

This is harmless stuff, this particular performance of de-weaponized clannishness and the strange unearned pride -- or bemusement, or at the very least surprise -- at the successes of other Jews in sports. There are not all that many of us, after all, in the United States and in professional baseball. There are only those 14, and the now completely attrited postseason five. But if it's harmless, it is also epes a little weird, all this taxonomizing and record-keeping regarding people we'll never meet and with whom we share only this thin thousands-year-old thread of connection.

This season, the playoffs began at the end of the Jewish year's holiest week. The postseason's first Saturday was Yom Kippur, a holiday defined by fasting, introspection, self-laceration above and beyond the usual, and atonement before God for a year's worth of sins. The gates close, and we go back to being the biased, self-flattering, occasionally hypocritical and mostly well-intentioned goofs that we generally are. This -- and I am paraphrasing the Torah, now -- is why Yom Kippur happens every year. It's the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg both famously refused to play on Yom Kippur. This is the sort of thing that Jewish boys and girls learn growing up, a sort of secular Torah story in old-timey flannel. What it means or doesn't, as with most parables, tends to get lost in the retelling. Whatever meaning there was or wasn't in all that, as tends to happen with stories that get repeated too casually for too long, begins to converge on kitsch.

In hopes of getting to something bigger than that, I talked to SB Nation baseball editor Steven Goldman -- who knows more about baseball than I do, and probably roughly as much about being Jewish -- about why Jews care about Jews in baseball, and other things. Special thanks are owed to Vox's Dara Lind, who helped start this conversation. -- David Roth

I: Why do we need legends of the fall?

David Roth: What is it that's off about the way we reheat and serve the Greenberg and Koufax stories every year, like so much gummy kugel? Obviously if you tell the same story for sixty-odd years it'll lose some potency, but at this point the way in which it's told and re-told has come to feel nearly as rote as the season's Torah and Haftarah portions.

Steven Goldman: Greenberg was a symbol of assimilation at a time that American Jews really needed one, but I question how true the story they were telling themselves about him really was. There was a whole poem about Greenberg, that went down in baseball lore and is still reprinted sometimes -- in the first few decades of the 20th century sportswriting involved a lot of poetry for some reason. It was a whole thing about how, yeah, Greenberg is sitting down, but we gentiles can at least respect him for honoring his religion (right?).

David: It's a weird little bit of doggerel, but weird mostly because of what's implied about how that decision would seem to the people presumed to be reading it.

Steven: Right, like this is a totally alien idea that has to be explained to people. And maybe it did. It would be fascinating to see a demographic map that showed where Jews were clustered in the country at that time (one could probably find it in the 1940 census data). Even today you can meet people who never ran into any Jews growing up if they are from certain states. My mother used to tell me about going away to college and meeting a girl from the South who really, sincerely believed that Jews had tails. That's what she had been taught. This was a long time ago, obviously, but that just puts it closer to Greenberg's era. Ideas about race, not to mention some of the old prejudices, were stronger in America then. Even though Greenberg was playing in a major city, maybe there just wasn't that much exposure so his religion was a bigger label than who he actually was or what he did. Given the jeering Greenberg took at times, people knew how to slur Jews even if they didn't know what a Jew was.

David: And Detroit and its suburbs has had a Jewish community for a long time. There was also a concerted effort by teams at the time to appear Jewish-friendly, which seems sort of quaint. (This particular idea would not arrive in Cincinnati until after Marge Schott's death, oddly.)

Steven: Finding a Jewish star was an obsession of the New York Giants particularly up into the 1940s. At one point, they traded Rogers Hornsby and replaced him with Andy Cohen, which worked out about as well as it sounds like it would have. The columnist Dan Daniel -- a Jewish person himself -- wrote that Cohen was undone by all the matzoh balls he was served by the city's Jewish baseball fans. "The upper Broadway herring-teasers got the big series of banquets under way [and] Cohen couldn't run around the bases without finishing the last quarter on his hands and knees." Too much herring, a tale as old as time -- if you're a puffin. Cohen was just a mediocre player and that's all that needed to have been said. The excuse is as reductionist as the idea that any group would value a bad player of its own heritage over a good player of another.

David: It's strange to think of baseball being small enough that teams would need to pander to Jewish fans with Jewish players. But that was the game at the time, I guess. My first-generation great-grandmother was apparently sure that Pee-Wee Reese was Jewish. Which he very much was not. She just liked him so much that she was willing to take him in.

Buddy Myer
Joe Cronin (L) looks on as Buddy Myer avoids the Giants' Travis Jackson and completes a double play in the 1933 World Series (Getty).

Steven: Starting around the same time as Andy Cohen, the Washington Senators had  a really good second baseman named Buddy Myer. He had about two-thirds of a Hall of Fame career, but like many second basemen just petered out a little early. He too was a Southerner, from Mississippi. Because of his name, folks just assumed he was Jewish. Jewish descent is matrilineal, and Myers' mother was not of the faith. Myers doesn't seem to have self-identified as Jewish either, but hey, his middle name was Solomon and he seemed to be flattered that so many people wanted to adopt him, so he let it go uncorrected.

It says more about the otherness of Jews then that Jewish fans would cling to a weak player like Cohen or a non-Jew who was willing to play the part. Antisemitism was socially acceptable. You had an infamous immigration act in the 1920s that capped the number of Jews coming into the country. At the time the focus was on its being anti-Japanese, but it was targeted at Eastern European Jews as well. You had national figures like Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Father Charles Coughlin going around saying Antisemitic things or supporting media that did.

Even something as seemingly positive as Walt Disney's "The Three Little Pigs," often interpreted as a parable of resilience for the Great Depression, featured the Big Bad Wolf trying to trick the pigs by dressing up as a Jewish stereotype that wouldn't have been out of place in the Joseph Goebbels playbook (a dubbed version is generally circulated now). And just like today's birthers, there were a few paranoids who convinced themselves that Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish and therefore part of some Communist conspiracy. It was an open thing, and so it's not surprising that Jewish-Americans needed a hero. Heck, two Jewish boys created Superman, who in his early, 1930s days was more about fighting for social justice than mad scientists and monsters.

II: Who waits for Greenberg?

David: There isn't a team that goes out of its way to have Jewish players on it anymore. The Angels were good for one or two for a long time, I think entirely by accident, but now they have none except for Mike Trout and Albert Pujols (note: check this). The Nationals have two non-Jewish Zimmerman(n)s on the roster, for instance, and I personally can't forgive that.

Steven: That goes with being vexed by the original sometimes-Jewish Zimmerman, Robert. But I think that's how it should be. Baseball should be a meritocracy. The best athletes should play regardless of their ethnicity, period. It's clear given the periodic discussion we see about the presence of black players in the game that race will always be something baseball fans and media alike are watchful of. What I wonder is if, in our more secular and assimilated age, these religious identifications really matter as much to Jews as they used to.

David: They matter to my Dad. I cannot emphasize enough how much they matter to my dad. I don't know that it exactly stirs his soul that Cardinals draft pick Rob Kaminsky is Jewish, but he sure as hell knows it.

Steven: Assimilation and the ebbing of Jewish identity is a big issue in America, right? So how many people, your pop aside, are waiting for the next Greenberg?

David: Well no one because it was Shawn Green. Shawn Green was the next Hank Greenberg. Also Gabe Kapler. We have had two of them and neither of them was as good as Hank Greenberg, but QED imo.

Steven: Conversely, it's possible that even if American Jews didn't need or want a next Greenberg, the next Greenberg needed American Jews -- by which I mean that one thing that social media has done is make it okay to be Henry Ford or Charles Lindbergh again. A whole lot of hate-speech that was probably there all long but wasn't widely circulated now gets blasted across the Internet routinely. In retrospect, it seems safe to assume that at times Green and the others faced the same kinds of hostility that Greenberg did, just at a lower volume. And tI think because there was less social media at the time, not only was the hostility less visible, but the backlash to that couldn't coalesce the way it would now. I saw an Antisemitic slur against Kapler in the comments on a baseball site just this week. So maybe they were there for us, but we weren't there for them.

David: Honestly, though, I think this is an interesting question not because we need or even want another Hank Greenberg -- not any more than anyone wants or needs another Mel Ott or Jimmie Foxx -- but because of how little it would matter. When Hank Greenberg was a star, Jews were something much stranger and more complicated and less comfortable a part of American life. There are the stereotypes and the archetypes, there will be a-hole bigots in comment sections until the sun goes out, but a Jewish person in 2014, on a baseball field or anywhere else, is just less of a deal than it was generations ago. Right?

Steven: Yes, but maybe not all the way yes. I did an NPR spot just recently. They tweeted it out, and among the responses was, "Not another money-grubbing Jew." And I've seen it from time to time in reader comments here and elsewhere as well as my incoming email. There was quite a bit of it in social media when Ryan Braun got in trouble with PEDs. It doesn't take very much for it to come out.

Ryan Braun

Ryan Braun (Andy Lyons).

David: It's not real in my day-to-day life, though I've been in workplaces in and out of sports where it has been a thing to various degrees. Every now and then I get shit from some braveheart egg-avatar Twitter account, or via email. I got a lot after I wrote about the 9/11 Truther that crashed the Super Bowl press conference last year. It sucks, of course, but it's nothing at all in comparison to what prominent black or Muslim people routinely get on Twitter, or what most all women I know get online constantly.

Steven: As far as women go, and this is relevant, we're seeing the truth of a point that John Lennon and Yoko Ono made in a song back in the early 1970s, that women are the most discriminated-against segment of humanity of all. They're the despised group even within despised groups. I hope what we're seeing is the very loud death-throes of misogyny in America, but that's undoubtedly naive. There's been a strange counter-reaction to the rise to prominence of people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Perhaps it's counterintuitive, but rather than erasing those old antiquated prejudices, their emergence has meant legitimate political opposition to positions taken by a woman or an African American has provided cover for sexist and racist speech. It has made it okay in some circles to be a he-man woman-hater (to borrow from the horrible old "Our Gang" shorts) or a racist again, because, I guess, the enemy of your enemy is your friend and you stop seeing the difference between disagreements based in policy and those based in hate. If we had a Jew in high office, we'd see the same thing, with the time-honored slurs and libels.

This is to be expected; Greenberg didn't curtail antisemitism, Jackie Robinson didn't end racism. Positive examples don't rewrite ignorance. People disregard notions that contradict their prejudices and set aside a safe space for that Jew or that African American, but not all Jews and all African Americans. It's bizarre.

III: Can there be a next Greenberg?

Steven: Athletes often come out of underprivileged groups. This is a point that Bill James made years and years ago, and once you see it it's clearly true -- in baseball's early years there were a ton of Germans and Irish. Then there were Italians, Jews, Poles. Once they let African Americans in, obviously they became a big part of things. Then, with them, came the darker-skinned players from Latin America; people who, if they couldn't get out of the Dominican Republic, might be working for pennies in the cane fields.

David: I think a lot of why Jewish non-baseball players care about Jewish baseball players comes back to that. You see this sort of sentimentality and willful anachronism in a number of places in the greater Jewish discourse; the more distant that desperate, marginal tenement past becomes, the greater the urge to grab onto it. There is still this wish to see ourselves as persecuted underdogs -- claiming victimhood seems to me the defining tic of the broader American conversation circa now -- which manifests more benignly in some cases than others. This is part of why we pull so hard for those that make it, the idea that we're somehow still struggling like we were generations ago and need a Greenberg or a Koufax to deliver us into the mainstream, when we've mostly been there for years.

Steven: Even after the Jews made it out of the tenements on Manhattan's Lower East Side and became doctors, this need was still felt. Philip Roth wrote about it in Goodbye, Columbus, which came out in 1959. Maybe I'm becoming cynical as a result of the current level of political and social discourse, but maybe that need still existed because assimilation can never really happen, or if it has happened, if it can be taken away. I think you and I are fortunate to live where we live, to move in the circles we do. Assimilation may be a lie we let slide because we float in a safer fishbowl than can be safely extrapolated to greater America. You'd think this would apply to African Americans as well, this need for representation, in terms of a group that's currently underrepresented in the bigs, but there are other structural problems in cultivating African Americans prospects, mainly the way players are developed now.

David: This all sort of goes back to the economics of baseball player development, which has always been about finding the most valuable players and getting them as cheaply as possible. You used to be able to do that in the Bronx -- and there used to be Jews in the Bronx -- but that economy is globalized now, and the other demographics have shifted, too.

Steven: Torii Hunter spoke to that with his comments on how big league teams are more inclined to pursue players from Latin America than to go after minorities from the United States (though he did so awkwardly). But I think that is a different issue, a cultural perception issue, that might be a separate matter. As I understand it there are pretty much no full rides for baseball in college, whereas football and basketball can offer that. So Major League Baseball programs like RBI can only do so much.

Sam Fuld

The legendary Sam Fuld (Hannah Foslien).

David: This is interesting, too, insofar as the pendulum has swung on white American players, who now tend to come from comparatively privileged backgrounds -- and from a few very specific regions of the U.S. -- relative to the past. It's like how so many NFL quarterbacks were born rich; they needed talent, they needed to work, but where they started helped them get where they've gotten. The way in which amateur baseball has become a business -- pay for tutors, travel teams, etc. -- sort of tends to shake a lot of people out, I think. The narrative that sells is that you have to be hungry to want it enough and all that, and I think it's sort of true. But for the prospects that come out of the United States right now, all that development happens at the intersection of wealth and wherewithal. It's not just that these players come from Florida/Georgia/Texas/Southern California, but but they come from very specific communities -- and not poor ones -- that prioritize baseball. And prioritize them in the ways that big league teams would want them to.

Steven: And, of course, if you're wealthy enough that mommy and daddy can afford batting lessons you'll have a leg up.

IV: Ryan Braun is not from Maine; Maine rejoices

David: My wife's family latches onto players from Maine in the majors the same way I imagine my grandparents did with Jews, for the same reason: idle playful clannishness, but also they're RARE. Their Hank Greenberg is either Ryan Flaherty or Mark Rogers. Which, I mean, it's Maine. They're mostly very nice people. Let's not judge.

Steven: Scouts like it where it's warm and baseball can be played year-'round. Those players get more exposure and are more polished for the lack of winter. But that gets back to what we were talking about before in terms of who can afford to play organized baseball 365 days a year. There is definitely an investment of time and money required in developing a baseball prospect that is not going to be easily achievable to anyone out of the middle class, such as that still exists. It's maybe not that different from developing a young tennis prospect. And if ethnic heroes are about a ticket out of the underclass into the mainstream, I wonder if a player who rises that way is less legitimate in the Greenbergian sense. Then again, Greenberg himself had a middle-class background. His parents were immigrants, but they seem to have done alright for themselves and I don't think he was ever poor or particularly oppressed by ethnic or religious hostility until he became a professional ballplayer. I have no idea if (say) Ryan Braun came out of the talent-showcase milieu, but if he did, doesn't that make him a product of privilege and not assimilationist striving?

The irony there is that even if we disassociate Braun from his Jewishness, there's a segment of the public that won't. When he admitted the PED thing, the anti-Semites came out of the woodwork on social media to say, "Of course he cheated, he's a Jew." And Braun did lodge apparently specious charges of anti-Semitism against the person who handled his testing samples.

David: Which is not a good look! It is very bad and in fact the opposite of a good look! But which always seemed sort of fake in the first place, and which wound up making Braun look even worse for all that. I think there's something to the transparent falseness of those accusations that's telling, though. Braun's douchiness speaks for itself, and loudly. But the mere fact that the allegation scans so false -- "[random innocent test-facilitating dude] messed with my tests because he hates Jews and that's why I tested super-positive, and definitely not because this particular non-practicing Jew was messing around with PEDs" -- says something.

For all the problems we haven't solved, it does seem like we maybe don't need The Next Hank Greenberg, or at least don't need Ryan Braun in that role. All the garbage that Greenberg ate, all the ignorant bullshit and hatefulness -- as real as that still is in the world, it is blessedly so much less urgent and ugly for us, here and now.

Or, more to the point, the more Jews become like everyone else, and the more clearly we've passed the barriers that were there in the age of our old martyr/heroes, the less we need baseball heroes of our own. Which is not to say that we shouldn't enjoy Scott Feldman. We just don't need him to be Sandy Koufax. We are all Scott Feldman, now. I don't know if this is what victory feels or looks like -- and Being Scott Feldman doesn't exactly sound like triumph -- but it sure seems a lot better than pretending Ryan Braun is a messiah. It seems normal, mostly, which was maybe the goal all along.

Steven: It always should have been the goal. Sports should be blind to all considerations except skill -- race-blind, religion-blind, even gender-blind if an athlete's skills support it. I hope you're right, David, but if we've learned one thing from the history of the world in the 25 years since the Cold War ended, it's that "end of history" predictions are inevitably premature because time doesn't stop and progress is an illusion. There is always retrograde motion.