September 2, 2007


The 18 best Jewish ballplayers of all time: With bashin' boychiks knocking the seam off the ball this year, Salon highlights the greatest Hebrew hammers and fireballers to step onto the diamond. (Jonah Keri, Sep. 01, 2007, Salon)

"Would you like something to read?"
"Do you have anything light?"
"How about this leaflet, 'Famous Jewish Sports Legends.'"
-- "Airplane"

Mark Spitz, the seven-time gold medalist swimmer at the 1972 Olympics, is Jewish. So's Dolph Schayes, honored as one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. Then there's the great Sandy Koufax. His refusal to play on Yom Kippur in 1965 sparked a firestorm of criticism and philosophical debate, since the holiday fell during Game 1 of the World Series. But Koufax came back to start three times, including a complete-game shutout in Game 5 and a three-hit shutout on just two days rest in Game 7, which clinched the Series for the Dodgers.

Koufax's decision to put his religious beliefs ahead of his pitching career enhanced his Jewish folk hero status and his legacy remains a big reason why so many otherwise non-observant Jews take the day off every Yom Kippur. Yet Spitz, Schayes and Sandy represent an exceptionally rare group of Jewish athletes who have reached the top of their profession.

Given the guidance that many Jewish children get from an early age, it's no surprise that few become superstar athletes. Growing up, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I was 6 feet tall by the time I hit my bar mitzvah, 6-foot-4 by age 14, and had been playing competitively since I was 7. But in the Jewish culture, old biases still often rule. Kids are encouraged to become doctors or lawyers. Practicing jump shots and learning to throw a curve ball are seen as frivolous pursuits. I quickly realized I lacked the natural talent to even play Division I basketball, let alone get a shot at the NBA. So at one family dinner just before I started college, my great-uncle Jack asked me what I wanted to do for a living. Sportswriting, I said, smiling. Jack threw me a cold stare and shouted: "What kind of career is that for a good Jewish boy?!"

As luck would have it, 2007 has been a banner year for Jewish athletes, most notably on the baseball diamond. Ryan Braun, a third baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers, has led the charge, engineering one of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of the game. While most of his teammates have struggled in recent weeks, Braun has kept crushing the ball, keeping the Brewers in the race as they pursue their first division title in 25 years. And yes, Ryan Braun is a member of the tribe (Jewish, not a player for the Cleveland Indians). The great thing about being part of an exclusive group of athletes is that it allows a player to immediately jump to all-time-best status. Braun's meteoric rise has propelled him onto the list of the 18 greatest Jewish baseball players in history.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 2, 2007 7:54 AM
Comments for this post are closed.