Ethnic pride: In baseball, going to bat for the Jews

March 21, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I DON'T know about my Jews. Albert Einstein we gave to the world, and Sigmund Freud, too. From the great figures in literature and science and philosophy, we could fill entire ballparks. Nobel Prize winners, we got 'em by the score. But, scoring in major league baseball -- this, we can't seem to manage.

Go figure. At the Charles Theatre this week, they are showing the heartwarming (and vexing) documentary, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." For those whose baseball history goes no deeper than Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, understand that Greenberg, more than 60 years ago, hit 58 home runs in a single season. In another summer, he drove in 183 runs. Once, he hit a ninth-inning grand slam homer on the last day of the season to put his team into the World Series. He was a Detroit Tiger. Also, never to be minimized, a Jew.

And for this, more than half a century after his retirement, and more than a decade after his death, Greenberg remains not only a great baseball player but a great ethnic icon. And such things, in the American polyglot, are not to be underestimated.

For example, at the Raddison Hotel restaurant at Cross Keys last week, I had breakfast with Tommy D'Alesandro, the former mayor of Baltimore. We talked about ethnic identity, about the great sense of pride when one of our own makes it big in the American mainstream.

"Me, I'm still looking for Italians in the box scores," D'Alesandro laughed.

"Exactly," I said. "The Jews do that stuff, too."

Only, where does such a box score exist? A few weeks ago, I was talking about such things with Ted Venetoulis, the former Baltimore County executive. He remembered the pride he felt about the great 1950s Baltimore Orioles of Greek descent: the slugger Gus Triandos and the pitching mainstay Milt Pappas.

I mentioned Joe Ginsberg, a reserve catcher on those teams. As a ballplayer, Joe wasn't much, but the Ginsberg part of his name was ready to be saluted by entire congregations hungry for an athletic Hebrew hero.

"It broke my father's heart," I told Venetoulis, "when he found out Ginsberg had converted."

Whenever my people talk about the great Jewish baseball players, we go straight to Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Then commences a certain hemming and a hawing.

At the Charles Theatre the other night, there was Aviva Kempner, who spent 13 years putting together her glorious Hank Greenberg movie. When it finished, and rounds of spontaneous applause had died down, Kempner took questions from the audience. One man mentioned Rod Carew, the great hitter for the Twins and the Angels.

"Sorry," Kempner said. "Not true. Carew married a Jewish woman, but the rumor that he converted to Judaism just isn't true."

So what are we left with? The Orioles once had the pitcher Steve Stone, who won the Cy Young award and retired shortly thereafter. We had the outfielder John Lowenstein, who played a fine good-natured joke on The Jewish Times once by claiming to be Jewish when he wasn't. Jim Palmer has spoken lovingly of his Jewish stepfather. The Orioles once had a first baseman named Mike Epstein, and there was another named Ron Blomberg.

It looks like a trend: Epstein, Blomberg and Greenberg. What is it with Jews and first base? It gets crowded down there, with the fielder, the first base coach and the runner. Do we gravitate there for the kibbitzing?

Still, it leaves a hole in the other eight positions, and raises that eternal question: Why are there so few big leaguers?

Seeking the great wisdom of the ages, I called Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, spiritual leader of the Beth Tfiloh Congregation, a man of great religious and historical insight.

"A question," I said, "that I know the Talmudic scholars have puzzled over for centuries: Why aren't there more Jewish major leaguers?"

"Speaking historically," Wohlberg said, "sports was never emphasized by the Jews. The mind came before the body. Almost from day one, Judaism's emphasis has been on the spiritual. Look at the two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the student, Esau the hunter. Jacob was the one to be emulated. It goes back to those days.

"Other cultures stressed the holiness of beauty. The Jews stressed the beauty of holiness. This is why we have a disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners instead of athletes. Although, I have to admit, as you're talking to me on the telephone, I'm watching Tiger Woods play golf on the television."

At the Charles Theatre, Aviva Kempner said, "The question I'm always asked is, `What's a nice Jewish girl doing spending 13 years to make a movie about Hank Greenberg?' "

A better question: Who else should she do? Joe Ginsberg?

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