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Sharing the love — bringing baseball to Israel

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Kenneth Fried in Sderot at the dedication of a youth recreational center.

Dr. Kenneth Fried loves baseball. He also loves Israel.

Working with the Jewish National Fund, the Demarest resident — and chair of “Field of Dreams,” JNF’s “hardball mission to the Holy Land” — has found a way to combine those two interests.

Several years ago, Fried and his wife Sharon, both physicians, were approached by JNF to help establish a secure indoor recreational center for the youth population of Sderot. The couple seemed a likely choice, having provided outdoor recreation equipment to the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, where the bases are dedicated to their four daughters.

Coming from a family of athlete/physicians, Fried — a vascular surgeon whose parents, Drs. Seymour and Sylvia Fried, live in Tenafly — told the Standard at the time, “We feel physical education is part of growing up along with academics.”

“I was enamored of the experience,” Fried said of his involvement in the Sderot project. He was also impressed by the JNF projects he saw in Israel.

Now, his enthusiasm is directed toward another project. Approached once again by JNF — where he has been named to the group’s North Jersey board — he said “a light bulb went off” when he realized that the competitive men’s baseball games he’s been participating in here could also be played in Israel.

Part of a baseball league dubbed “A League of Our Own,” which includes 18 teams, Fried says “probably a third of the members are Jewish, because of the demographics.”

Members play both in North Jersey and in Florida. One of his team members is Fair Lawn resident Ritchard Rosen, who will be participating in the Israel trip.

Fried thought, “Why not do this in Israel as well?” he said.

The plan came together when he was on a bus, speaking with Russell Robinson, the chief executive officer of JNF. The two were talking about the Israel Baseball League, launched several years with great fanfare but little success.

“He said JNF felt there still was a strong interest” in developing baseball in Israel, said Fried. “It was an agenda they wanted to pursue.”

Fried believes strongly in the power of baseball.

“It becomes part of one’s own fabric and personality,” he said. “Your experiences are better when you connect to it.”

The plan, he said, is to bring a group of baseball lovers to Israel and “to start with the youth, running clinics in addition to participating in games against Israeli teams.” The Israel Association of Baseball, he said, has four teams in four cities.

Mission participants will have an opportunity “to see Israel through JNF eyes” and use field facilities to connect with Israelis through baseball, said Fried. In addition, “We’d like to try to sow the seeds for a more established youth program, maybe starting a pilot project like a baseball academy.”

Because Israel has many expatriate Americans and Canadians who already love baseball,
the sport “could become part of the fabric of Israel sports,” he said, suggesting that the IBL didn’t work because “Israelis don’t understand the slow pace of baseball. They have to learn the game.”

He called it shortsighted to assume that “if you build it, they will come,” unless the groundwork has been properly laid and baseball is partnered with a youth program.

While JNF’s “e-mail blast” has generated tremendous interest, he said, the trip, originally slated for May 8-15, will need to be rescheduled, since many respondents have said they need more time to prepare. In addition, to keep costs affordable for the different constituencies who might attend, JNF has agreed to make side trips optional to participants who are coming mainly to play baseball.

“We’re hoping this will become an annual thing,” said Fried. “People are coming out of the woodwork. Three people want to send their sons or nephews who are playing college baseball, youth who need a different kind of Jewish connection. Another e-mail was from a kid looking for a mitzvah project and wanting to send baseball equipment to Israeli kids.”

He also received a note from a man on Kibbutz Lotan in southern Israel who would like to introduce baseball to the kibbutz and needs equipment — and another from a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary who wants to play baseball and explore how Israeli society accepts the sport.

For more information about the upcoming mission, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Former Yankee hitter a hit at youth league bbq

Major League baseball’s first designated hitter, Ron Blomberg, was a special guest at a barbecue on Sunday marking the conclusion of Yavneh Youth League baseball’s regular season.

The author of “Designated Hebrew” (Sports Publishing), written with Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, Blomberg was the New York Yankees first draft pick in 1967. His career ended prematurely because of injury.

“The 2009 season was dedicated to the memory of 10-year-old Miriam Avraham, z”l, a former player who tragically passed away on Sukkot of 2008,” Howard Eisenstadter, commissioner of the YYL, told The Jewish Standard at the barbecue, which had to be moved into Yavneh’s Paramus building because of the weather. “League families raised funds for the Miriam Avraham Arts and Literature Program at her school,” Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford. “Miriam’s mother and brother, who had been involved in our league, are part of our league family.”

There was no special dedication for the season just past.

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Former N.Y. Yankee Ron Blomberg, with Yavneh Youth League player Avi Eisenstadter of the Campmor White Sox at a June 6 barbecue.

The YYL has five divisions: a coed instructional division (first grade), junior boys and girls (grades two to four), senior boys and girls (grades five to eight). Unlike most youth leagues in the area, the YYL plays softball as opposed to baseball.

The league states, on its Website, http://www.yavnehyouthleague.com, “We find that playing softball makes the league more accessible to more children, and does not diminish the value of the league at all.”

In that spirit, Eisenstadter told the Standard, “We try to place a strong emphasis on the team aspect of sport. We keep the league appropriately competitive, but work hard to ensure that everyone in the league (including coaches and parents) understands that this is just a game. Coaches are constantly reminded that players will remember their coach’s attitude and the example coaches set long after they’ve forgotten the scores. That is reinforced on our Website, in our coaches’ meetings, and throughout the season.”

Michael Dworkis, director of the coed instructional division and himself a Yavneh Youth League alumnus from the late ‘80s, noted that “we have kids who have played baseball, but we also have a lot of kids who have not yet. The idea of the division is that everyone becomes on the same level. Everyone will learn how to play. Everyone gets to hit. Everyone gets on base. And what I’ve seen is that the kids enjoy it a lot more.”

This year, a league-high of 60 first-graders signed up for the instructional division. “It’s a group effort,” says Dworkis. “We get the parents involved with one simple goal: to teach.”

Through a connection with Ira Stern, the sports director of Camp Nesher, the YYL invited Ron Blomberg to speak to the kids and families about his life in baseball as a Jew.

Introduced after a quick “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played on the piano by Mark Infield, Blomberg, who has a heavy Southern accent, said, “The greatest thing in the whole world is to be able to speak to y’all a little bit about baseball. I am a proud Jew, and that was no easy thing growing up in Atlanta.”

Blomberg added, “When I grew up … half my [youth baseball] teammates were in the KKK,” the Ku Klux Klan, and he stressed that area kids are lucky to be able to play not only free of anti-Semitism but also in an entirely Jewish league that takes the Jewish calendar into account.

After his speech, the athletes lined up to get his autograph, with sponsors of the event receiving autographed copies of his book.

 
 

Making it to the majors

Pro baseball’s next generation of Jewish players

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From left, clockwise, Josh Satin, who suited up for the New York Mets in September, during his time in Class Double-A. Ken Mandel; Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis. Courtesy MLB; and San Francisco Giants Minor League catcher Aaron Lowenstein. Ken Mandel

It is simple, really. If you are Jewish, wield a scalpel, not a baseball bat. Master the nation’s laws rather than the rules of the national pastime.

“You’re not supposed to be a ballplayer if you’re Jewish,” former White Sox pitcher Marv Rotblatt says in the 2010 documentary “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.” He adds, “You’re supposed to be an attorney or a doctor.”

However, while Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, and Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler remain the exception — not the rule — among Jewish athletes who have risen to baseball’s Major League ranks, a growing number of young athletes are looking to join them.

“It’s a terrible stereotype,” said Houston Astros pitching prospect Josh Zeid. “A lot of my friends are really athletic and could’ve played college sports. Maybe at an early age, their parents tried to be more realistic. You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer, though getting an education is important. When you look across the Major Leagues, you see the Jewish players. I want to be one of those guys.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Zeid found it easier than most to focus on athletics. All students were required to participate in sports at school, and Zeid thrived. A hard-throwing pitcher at Hamden Hall Country Day School, he possessed a blazing fastball that produced a school record of 400 strikeouts.

As a senior, he led the Hamden Hall Hornets to a second straight New England Championship and was listed by Baseball America as the nation’s 27th-best prospect.

His collegiate travels took him from Vanderbilt to Tulane. After struggling in his third year of college, Zeid considered non-athletic endeavors, like law school or writing spy and murder mystery novels. Things improved once he stopped worrying about on-field performance.

“Baseball became easier,” he said. “I didn’t stress out as much and failing didn’t matter as much. When you’re a high school star, everyone tells you it’s easy, and you listen when you’re 18 years old. It takes being humbled to fight through it.”

The Philadelphia Phillies drafted him in the 10th round in 2009. He advanced as high as Double-A Reading this year before being included in the July 29 trade for outfielder Hunter Pence.

Academics are still a big part of his life. An English major, Zeid blogged about his experiences in the Arizona Fall League and wants to compose stories about growing up as a Jewish baseball player in New England.

“A lot of people don’t know anything about Jewish people and our culture,” said Zeid, who’s read biographies about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. “There are a lot of bad stereotypes. It’s about letting people know we are capable of playing sports, doing well in school, and being generous.”

The U.S. Jewish population, despite waves emigrating from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has remained underrepresented in dugouts.

According to “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” only 160 of more than 16,700 MLB players have been Jewish. Because of such scarcity, aspiring Jewish baseball players know the stories of Greenberg or Koufax, who each famously sat out games on Yom Kippur. But do they also know about Phil Weintraub or Harry Danning, who were nearly refused road lodging in 1934 because of their religion?

Lipman Emanuel Pike, a Jew of Dutch origin, was the first known salaried player, earning $20 in 1866 from the Philadelphia A’s. When the first professional baseball league was formed years later, Pike was one of its first stars.

Thirteen Jewish players populate Major League baseball rosters today: Braun, Breslow, Ike Davis, Scott Feldman, Sam Fuld, John Grabow, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, Josh Satin, Michael Schwimer, Danny Valencia, and Youkilis. Three of them: Satin (Mets), Schwimer (Phillies), and Lavarnway (Red Sox) debuted this season. More could be on the way.

Like Zeid, pitcher Eric Berger is another Minor League farmhand looking to break through. The lefty generated a lot of misses this season, striking out 87 batters in 71 and 1/3 innings at Double-A and Triple-A in the Cleveland Indians organization.

“I love the fact of how few we are and I’m trying to represent for us that we can be athletes,” said Berger, a former star at Woodcreek High School in Roseville, Calif. “The amount of professional [Jewish] athletes is so small. If kids can latch onto somebody, he can help inspire them.”

Berger and San Francisco Giants catching farmhand Aaron Lowenstein grew up in California, finding that inspiration in their home state from former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green. The pair would love to become big-league role models.

“It’s awesome to get recognized for being Jewish,” said Lowenstein, who spent the 2011 season with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. “For some reason, it’s tougher for us. Hopefully, Jewish kids can look up to us and follow in our footsteps.”

The list of Jewish players is increasing. According to jewishbaseballnews.com, which tracks the progress of Jews in baseball, 50 populate rosters from Triple-A to the Rookie Leagues, including former top picks Aaron Poreda (Padres) and Jeremy Bleich (Yankees).

Jesse Levis has noticed. The former catcher, who spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers, is now a professional scout for the Phillies. He does not recall meeting as many Jewish players when he was coming up in the late 1980s and 1990s.

“I notice the names,” Levis said. “My mother always talked about it. Could he be...? It’s a topic of conversation. When I hear a name, I’m always curious. When I met a Jewish kid, we would start talking and become friends.”

Levis is a Conservative Jew and raising his three children with that identity.

“The older I got, the more proud I felt and the more it meant,” he said. “My sense of religion really increased when I got married and my wife’s family was religious. That’s when it hit me. I was so happy to be a Jew who played Major League baseball, because not many of us did.”

Levis got lucky in 2005 when, while in spring training with the New York Mets, he met Koufax. Although the two did not discuss religion, Levis understands the importance of sharing experiences.

“A couple of times during my career, youth groups would come to the park and ask me questions,” Levis said. “That was always an honor. I was never a superstar. I was the backup catcher, but still a big leaguer. You can make an impact and give them someone to identify with.”

For Zeid, furthering customs and a Jewish identity never stops.

“If you become a successful athlete, you should let people know where you’re from,” said Zeid, who always wears a star of David and a chai. “Guys aren’t afraid to say they’re Jewish. The more you can tell people, the more everyone will understand who we are as a community.”

JointMedia News Service

 
 

Talkin’ baseball

Jewish Major Leaguers and why we care about them

_JStandardgeneral
Published: 20 April 2012

Nearly all fans of baseball history have heard of Hank Greenberg. Most have heard of Al Rosen. Fewer, however, have heard of Cal Abrams, and hardly any, it is safe to say, have heard of Lou Limmer. All four are members of a compelling team — the 165 American Jews who played Major League Baseball between the 1870s and the end of the 2010 season.

Why should we care about Jews who played in the Major Leagues?

Baseball helped American Jews feel at home and helped non-Jewish Americans feel comfortable around them. For instance, there is the famous Greenberg story of sitting out a game on Yom Kippur in 1934. The actions of the slugging Tigers’ first baseman along with his home runs made him a hero to Jews and non-Jews.

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Adam Greenberg, who was hit in the head in his first and only Major League plate appearance with the Chicago Cubs in 2005, is one of 165 Jewish Major Leaguers. Courtesy Jewish Major Leaguers

The conundrum of whether to play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, has resurfaced for many players, from Sandy Koufax deciding not to pitch in the first game of the 1965 World Series to, more recently, outfielder Shawn Green, both of the Dodgers. Every time a star player rests on the High Holy Days, it generates national headlines and fosters Jewish pride. Of course, non-stars have to make the same call.

The story of Jews in baseball goes beyond the well-trod turf of the “High Holy Days dilemma.” Rebutting anti-Semitism and fighting hecklers was not uncommon for Jewish players, even when the hecklers were on the opposing bench. In particular, Rosen, a former amateur boxer, was not shy about taking on hecklers.

Racial awareness is another theme. Most Jewish players understood some of the prejudices faced by black players. Some, like Abrams, felt a special bond with their black teammates.

“I associated with them because we had a rapport about being with each other,” Abrams said of his black teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers, including Jackie Robinson. “We kibitzed around with each other, but I didn’t go out with them. I mean, I wouldn’t go into the end of town to go dancing with the black people, but whenever we could we were together clowning around and kidding around.”

Jewish pride is a recurrent trope, too. Ron Blomberg made many New York Yankees’ ushers happy when he made his debut for the team in 1967.

“Most of them were Jewish, with names like Hymowitz or Lichstein, and three or four of them told me they never thought they would ever see a Jew play baseball in Yankee Stadium,” Blomberg recalled. “They had tears in the eyes and said to me, ‘You little Yid, you’re someone I can look up to now.’”

Pride in being Jewish is one thing, but being actively Jewish is another — most Jewish players, like most American Jews, were not observant. Many were raised Orthodox — Al Schacht says his mother wanted him to be a cantor — but none seemed to have maintained this level of observance as adults. It makes sense: Eating kosher food and maintaining any sense of Shabbat, which restricts behaviors from sundown Friday through an hour after sundown Saturday, would be impossible while pursuing a professional baseball career.

The collective accomplishments of Jewish Major Leaguers likely would surprise most people. Jews, who made up about three percent of the U.S. population during the 20th century, made up just 0.8 percent of baseball players from 1871 to 2002, the latest year for which the nonprofit organization Jewish Major Leaguers has complete figures. Jewish players on the whole, however, have fared better than average. They hit 2,032 homers — 0.9 percent of the Major League total, and a bit higher than would be expected by their percentage of all players. Their .265 batting average is three percentage points higher than the overall average.

Jewish pitchers are 20 games above .500, with six of baseball’s first 230 no-hitters (four by Sandy Koufax, including a perfect game, and two by Ken Holtzman). The group ERA is 3.66, slightly lower than the 3.77 by all Major Leaguer hurlers. With the recent influx of top-flight Jewish Major Leaguers — Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, and Max Scherzer come to mind — the statistics may have improved since 2002.

The stat in which Jews have fallen short is stolen bases, with a total of 995 through 2002 — many fewer than Rickey Henderson stole all by himself. Apparently, Jewish players have observed the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.”

Of the 141 Jewish Major Leaguers as of 2002, 122 were born into families in which both parents were Jewish and 13 had one Jewish parent (seven with a Jewish father and six with a Jewish mother). Six players — including Elliott Maddox, an African American — converted to Judaism. Sixty-eight players hailed from New York or California, and the rest were born in 21 other states, as well as Russia, France, Canada, and the Dominican Republic. Ten players changed their last names, all but one of them before Greenberg played.

Limmer, by the way, was a slugger who played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951 and 1954.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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