There are never a lot of Jewish baseball players in Major League Baseball at the same time. So few in fact that when there are prominent ones, it almost defines them. They are given nicknames that point out their heritage, regardless of how religious they are. And their recognition as a Jew is intensified tenfold when they play for the New York Yankees.
That’s just what happened on Dec. 12, when the Yankees came to a verbal agreement with former Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, which will pay him $12 million for one year.
When he signed, the biggest story was that Yankees fans now have to root for a player who they have literally hated since he debuted with the Red Sox in 2004. But when that initial shock wore off, the story became about how the city with the most Jews in the U.S. now had a new Jewish ballplayer. The same day that Youkilis agreed to join the Yankees, Richard Sandomir of the New York Times did a story about Youkilis’ Jewish heritage.
One would think that a team from New York City would have a long history of prominent Jewish players, but that is not the case. Infielder Phil Cooney was the first Jewish Yankee, making his debut in 1905, but his tenure with the team lasted one whole game.
In 1969, first baseman/outfielder/designated hitter Ron Blomberg made his debut with the “Bronx Bombers” and became only the fifth Jewish Yankee in history, and the first famous one, hitting .329 in 1973. He is best known for being the first designated hitter in baseball. Before Blomberg, the longest a Jewish player was with the team was one season.
But Blomberg’s time in the majors was short, as he only played seven years with the Yankees and one with the Chicago White Sox.
This didn’t open any doors for Jewish players on the Yankees though, as there have not been many important ones since Blomberg in the 1970s. And really he is the only notable one in the team’s history.
The Yankees wanted to sign Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg, but when he attended a game in the Bronx and saw Lou Gehrig at first, he realized that he had no role on the team.
The New York Giants passed on Greenberg because manager John McGraw saw him as “too clumsy.”
Just imagine what his fan base would have been like if he signed with one of those teams.
But what is a Jewish baseball player? If only a player’s mother is Jewish, does that automatically make him a Jew? And if the father is Jewish, but not the mother, is the player automatically not Jewish? If so, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun should not be called the “Hebrew Hammer.” And Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler is not Jewish either. Or is it someone who embraces their religion? Because if that is the case, Braun and Kinsler are definitely members of the tribe.
But there is no doubt that Youkilis is a Jew. His father is Jewish. His mother converted. He had a Bar Mitzvah. And according to the Times article, he can still read Hebrew. If the Yankees make the playoffs in 2013, I think it’s safe to say we can mark him out of the lineup for High Holy Days.
Youkilis isn’t the greatest Jewish hitter of all time; that title goes to Greenberg. But he has to be in the discussion for the top five. While he is in the decline part of his career, he can still be an inspiration for a new generation of young Jewish baseball players.