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Jews in Baseball

NOTE #1: This is not a sponsored blog post. Jason just really likes baseball and Jewish community life, and is therefore extremely excited to share the many Jewish baseball festivities happening this summer.

NOTE #2: Jason is also getting married this WEEKEND! If you want to wish him and his bride Carly a Mazel Tov, email us at info@gatherdc.org , and we’ll relay the message.

 

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Nationals Park ahead of the 2018 MLB All-Star Game

For the first time in nearly 50 years, DC hosted the Major League Baseball’s (MLB) All-Star Game. Our hometown fan favorite, Bryce Harper, won the Homerun Derby and represented the National League, along with his Nationals’ teammates Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle. As a huge baseball fan, this was a very exciting day for me.

Alex Bregman, the first time All-Star third baseman from the Houston Astros, was named the game’s “Most Valuable Player”. Bregman hit a homerun in extra innings and clinched the game for the American League. Also, Bregman happens to be both Jewish AND has some DC roots! According to ESPN, Bregman’s grandfather used to serve as the Washington Senators’ general counsel. The baseball playing Senators left DC in 1972 (those playing the game of politics still remain).

The Nationals, and their Jewish owners – the Lerner Family – should be proud of the job that they did in hosting the All Star-Game game this year. DC should be proud of the work done by MLB and the Nationals in showcasing our vibrant city to the world as a baseball town. From the Fan Festival at the Washington Convention Center to baseball related activities at The Wharf, DC demonstrated that we are far more than just a political town.

A few Jewish groups leveraged the excitement around the All-Star Game to host some amazing events for baseball fans across DC’s Jewish community – all for good causes.

One such event was The JNFuture (the young professional arm of The Jewish National Fund) Happy Hour & Watch Party near Nationals Park during the MLB All-Star Home Run Derby. This Watch Party raised awareness around JNF’s “Project Baseball” Initiative. According to JNFuture DC Chair Ben Goodman, this initiative is focused on “growing America’s national pastime to Israel by building state-of-the-art baseball and softball fields, and teaching [Israeli] children the game through Little Leagues, camps, clinics, and more.”

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JNFuture Happy Hour & Home Run Derby Watch Party

B’nai B’rith International organized a tour of the Japan Information & Culture Center (JICC) whose current exhibit happens to be, “A New League: Shared Pastimes and the Story of U.S.-Japan Baseball.”  The exhibit is a joint effort of the JICC, The Embassy of Japan, together with The Gordon W. Prange Collection, University of Maryland Libraries, and Japanese baseball specialist, Adam Berenbak.  Berenbak led the tour for the B’nai B’rith group of the exhibit, which will be on display until August 10th.

I’m personally very happy to report that, even though the All-Star Game has come and gone, the Jewish baseball festivities are just getting started. On Sunday, August 19th, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington will be hosting Grand Slam Sunday, an annual Jewish community celebration at Nationals Stadium. This is a day when more than 1,500 Jewish community members come out to the ballgame to celebrate our city’s love of America’s favorite pastime, and cheer on our home team.

Federation is selling tickets here, and is working with other Jewish community groups and synagogues so you can buy tickets to sit with a specific group – including GatherDC.

Access to the ballpark on this Jewish community day will begin two hours before game time at 11:35 am. Before the first pitch, fans can enjoy food from Signature Caterers, family-friendly activities, games, giveaways, and even a free Nationals hat if you buy your tickets with Federation. Young adults are invited to gather at The Bullpen ahead of the game for a drinks and fun.

One of the groups partnering with Federation for this day at the ballpark is Israel Bonds New Leadership – a group that I volunteer for in my free time. Israel Bonds New Leadership Washington division will offer access to party suites for young professional who invest in Israel by buying a bond at their 8th Annual Israel Bonds Day at the Ballpark. They’ll be providing a kosher lunch and drinks in their suites, but they’re nearly sold out, so get your ticket now if you’re interested.

As a Nationals season ticket holder who just had the chance to attend my first MLB All-Star Game, it’s been great to see, first-hand, how DC is becoming a baseball city.  Even more so, as a Jewish young professional, seeing how our home team has helped to support our Jewish community is truly incredible.

I hope to see you at the Jewish community day at Nats Park on August 19th!  And as an aside, big thanks to the Lerner Family for not trading Bryce Harper this week!!! It would have been quite a “shonda” (a shame) for the Nats future.

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B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network-DC volunteers join B’nai B’rith staff, guests from the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C., and Adam Berenbak at the JICC in downtown DC.

 

 

About the Author: Jason Langsner is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. Jason has been an active lay leader of the Washington Jewish community since moving to the city in 2004, and volunteers for several Jewish organizations including B’nai Brith International. He is a small business owner and formerly served as the head of digital strategy for the oldest Jewish human rights and humanitarian organization in the world. When not blogging, he can often be found walking around his Eastern Market neighborhood, or riding around DC area bike trails.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Meet Alissa: Jewish Sports Fan of the Week!

Want to nominate your amazing Jewish friend to be featured with GatherDC? Send his/her name, brief blurb, and contact info to info@gatherdc.org.

German opera singing. Indigenous language preservation. Aaron Judge wedding fantasies. Alissa Platz is one unique lady. Get to know her in this exclusive interview!

Allie: How did you wind up in DC?

Alissa: I’m from central New Jersey, went to college at American University and have been here ever since.

Allie: I hear you work at AJC. What motivated you to become a Jewish professional?

Alissa: Growing up, I was the only Jewish person of my friend group, so Judaism took a back seat. But, my mom always instilled in me that it was important to be proud of my Judaism. I associate the Jewish community with positive childhood memories, and I love the values of being Jewish, like tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (charity).

When I went to college, I really tried to get involved in the Jewish community in as many ways as I could. My Hillel director once said to me, “Why don’t you consider being a Jewish professional? You could make a great impact.” So, when I was looking at jobs, I looked in both International Relations (my major) and Jewish professional jobs – and landed at Sixth & I [and later went to AJC].

Allie: What do you do at AJC?

Alissa: I manage the young professional division at AJC called ACCESS, which empowers millennials to advocate for the values of AJC. On May 22nd, we are having a Young Diplomat Reception at Social Tables. This is one of our signature events that brings members of the Jewish young professional community together for a night of conversation around a specific theme. This year, the theme is sports and diplomacy. I’m personally a really big sports fan, so I’m excited to use a lot of sports puns in my Facebook posts [to promote this event].

Allie: What are your favorite sports?

Alissa: I’m a really big Yankees fan, and I love the Chile National Futbol team. I love watching sports in general, and am really excited to watch the World Cup this summer. I’m also a big Nationals fan. I love Mark Teixeira, Rhett Gardner, Derek Jeter is a classic, and Aaron Judge is my future husband.

Allie: Do you play any sports yourself?

Alissa: I’m in a rec softball league with DC Fray, we play each week next to the Washington Monument which is really beautiful. We haven’t won a game yet, but we’re working on it.

Allie: If you could be amazing at any sport what would it be?

Alissa: Baseball. But, that would require me being a lot taller than I am. I’d want to be catcher because you have to know what’s going on and strategize with the pitcher.

Allie: Where did your love of baseball come from?

Alissa: In middle school, my teacher always talked about the Yankees, and I wanted to be a part of the conversation. So, I started watching Yankees games with my dad every night. My dad turned 65 last year, and I took him to a baseball game and surprised him with his own personalized jersey.

Allie: What are you most excited about summertime?

Alissa: Warm weather, the heart of baseball season, and going to Italy with my friends! We’re going to go to Venice, Florence, and the Alps.

Allie: What’s your favorite smell and why?

Alissa: Freshly cut grass, I love warm weather and that smell signals to me that warm weather is coming.

Allie: What is something people might be surprised to find out about you?

Alissa: I love singing opera style –  in German.

Allie: Is there a quote that inspires you?

Alissa: Ellen Degeneres, who is a phenomenal human being, and the voice of Dory, says to “be kind to one another.” Today, politics can be pretty divisive, people are segregating themselves based on their political beliefs, and a lot of nasty things are being said by our elected officials – and we should all try to be kinder.

Allie: What’s your favorite way to spend free time in the city?

Alissa: I love being outside in nature. I love Rock Creek Park, the National Mall, and still have on my bucket list to go to Great Falls and Shenandoah. DC always has new festivals or activities happening, and I like to check the events section of Facebook or GatherDC’s calendar and see what’s coming up.

Allie: If you could be anything (besides an awesome Jewish community professional) what would you want to be?

Alissa: I’d want to live in an indigenous community in Latin America studying indigenous languages, and how to preserve them.

Allie: What do you find funny?

Alissa: A combination of 6-year old boy humor, SNL, and observational humor. I love John Mulaney, and also really love a good pun. I feel like an old soul trapped in a 24 year old’s body.

Allie: Complete the sentence: When Jews of DC Gather…

Alissa: We play Jewish Geography.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Jews and Sports… Stop Laughing: The Rabbi of Swat, The Spy, and The Most Fascinating Jewish Baseball Team

Moe Berg

Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun recently won the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award.  But rather than present the best Jewish baseball team of all time—which would undoubtedly also include the other Jewish MVPs with Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, Cleveland Indians third baseman Al Rosen and Cleveland Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau — here is the most intriguing Jewish baseball team of all time.  The sixteenth century German Reformationist Martin Luther urged his followers to “sin boldly,” and this Jewish team certainly made a unique impression on the national pastime.

Pitcher – Ralph Branca.  Arguably the greatest baseball play of all time involved the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branca giving up a game-winning three-run home run to the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951, that won the Giants the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series.  The play became known as “The Shot Heard ’Round the World,” in large part due to the immortal call by WMCA radio announcer Russ Hodges, “There’s a long drive. It’s going to be—I believe—the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”  Nearly 60 years later, Branca learned he was Jewish. His mother, Kati Berger, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who married a Catholic and raised Branca and his 16 siblings Catholic.  “Maybe that’s why G-d’s mad at me—that I didn’t practice my mother’s religion,” Branca said to the New York Times.  “He made me throw that home run pitch.”  The fateful pitch was thrown the day after Rosh Hashanah.

Catcher – Moe Berg.  The catcher and shortstop with five teams from 1923 to 1939 was a member of a baseball All-Star team that travelled to Japan in 1934.  What was a modest .251 hitter described by famed manager Casey Stengel as “the strangest man ever to play baseball” doing with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig?  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Berg was not only playing for Washington’s baseball team but also its government.  The enigmatic Berg spoke seven languages (but “can’t hit in any of them,” according to Washington Senators teammate Dave Harris) and became a World War II spy gathering information in Japan and Eastern Europe for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA.  The subject of several biographies, no mediocre baseball player has received as much interest.

First Base – Lou Limmer.  When the Philadelphia Athletics first baseman stepped up to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning on May 2, 1951, ready to face Detroit Tigers Jewish pitcher Saul Rogovin who was being caught by Jewish catcher Joe Ginsberg, it marked the only known time that a Jewish hitter faced a Jewish pitcher with a Jewish catcher behind the plate.  The three missed the only opportunity to say Grace After Meals at a baseball game over a kosher hot dog with a quorum, but Limmer hit a home run.  Limmer later became the first baseball player to become the president of a synagogue, serving for five years at Castle Hill Jewish Community Center in New York.

Second Base – Gavin Fingleson.  Fingleson is probably the wandering Jew of baseball.  He started playing the sport at age five in his native Johannesburg, South Africa.  He moved to Australia and played for the country’s Under-16 and Under-19 teams.  Then he played college baseball in the United States at Wallace State Community College in Alabama and at Southeastern Louisiana University.  He also played minor league baseball in the United States and professional baseball in Taiwan.  In 2004, Fingleson helped Australia earn a baseball silver medal at the Athens Olympics.  He’s won the Maccabi Australia Sportsman of the Year award three times as the nation’s top Jewish athlete.  In 2009, Fingleson was named fielding coach of the Sri Lankan national cricket team.  “I will try and utilize my baseball skills while working with the Lankans,” he told Sri Lankan media.  Although Fingleson may never win a World Series, Fingleson has certainly traveled the baseball world.

Third Base – Kevin Youkilis.  The utility player for the Boston Red Sox since 2004 is a major subject in the Michael Lewis best-seller Moneyball that became a blockbuster movie this year.  Youkilis was not the most physically eye-catching player.  At the University of Cincinnati, also the alma mater of all-time great Jewish pitcher Sandy Koufax, he was “a fat third baseman who couldn’t run, throw, or field,” Lewis described in his book.  But Youkilis had a keen, discriminating eye for hitting good pitches.  He became one of the poster children for the movement in baseball that favors statistical efficiency and output over scouted talent and potential.  He is now a three-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion.

Shortstop – Jesse Baker.  We’ll never know how great Baker, born Michael Myron Silverman, may have been.  Baker played in only one game his entire career.  As a 24-year-old for the Washington Senators in 1919, Bennett started at shortstop in a 9-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers on September 14, had the ball hit to him once, fielded it cleanly, and made an out.  Bennett was replaced by Frank Ellerbe, and who knows why because Ellerbe went 0-for-3.  Baker never batted and never appeared in a Major League game again.  But the one time the ball came his way, he was perfect.

Left Field – Guy Zinn.  Zinn started arguably the greatest rivalry in baseball.  As a member of the New York Highlanders, the predecessor to the New York Yankees, Zinn led off against the Boston Red Sox in the first ever game played at Fenway Park on April 20, 1912.  Zinn walked and then scored the first ever run at Fenway.  New York and Boston Jews recount this tale every Passover during the Seder.

Center Field – Lipman Pike.  All the tradition of Jews and baseball can be traced back to Lipman Pike, the first known Jewish professional baseball player.  Pike played from 1871 to 1887 as a second baseman, shortstop, center fielder, and manager for the Troy Haymakers (1871), Baltimore Canaries (1872–1873), Hartford Dark Blues (1874), St. Louis Brown Stockings (1875–1876), Cincinnati Reds (1877–1878), Providence Grays (1878), Worcester Ruby Legs (1881), and New York Metropolitans (1887).  In 1877 Pike led the National League with four home runs.  Pike’s best attribute was his speed, which he also showed at Baltimore’s Newington Park in August 1873 when he won a 100-yard race against a horse named Clarence in a speedy 10 seconds.

Right Field – Mose Solomon.  In 1923, the New York Yankees had Babe Ruth, “The Sultan of Swat.”  The New York Giants had Mose Solomon, “The Rabbi of Swat.”  The Giants publicized the nickname and his signing at the end of the season.  “We appreciate that many of the fans in New York are Jews, and we have been trying to land a prospect of Jewish blood,” manager John McGraw said.  But with the Giants in a pennant race and already having proven outfielders, Solomon did not start right away. Solomon only played two career games.  He was 3-for-8 for a respectable .375 batting average but did not return to baseball after the season.

Designated Hitter – Ron Blomberg. Blomberg was the first player to be a designated hitter when the American League adopted the rule in 1973 that has become the major distinguishing factor between the American and National leagues.  On April 6, 1973, Blomberg walked for the New York Yankees with the bases loaded in his first at-bat against the Boston Red Sox.  After the game, Blomberg’s bat was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Gather the Jews member Jonathan Horowitz (www.jjhorowitz.com) is the horse race announcer at Arapahoe Park and host of the show “A Day at the Races” on Altitude Sports TV in Denver. He also has authored The ONE and ONLY: A Sports Quiz Deck of Definitive Games, Teams, Players, and Events that will be published by Pomegranate Publishers in January 2012. If you would like to purchase a personal copy ($9.95), please contact him at jjhorowitz@gmail.com for details.

Jews and Baseball: New Takes on a Historic Game

This week marks the 60th  anniversary of New York Giant Bobby Thomson’s epic winning home run off of Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Ralph Branca.  In mid-August, media sources reported that Branca, a practicing Catholic, was actually ethnically Jewish.  GTJ had a chance to speak with the investigative journalist who first tracked down the evidence of Branca’s Jewish ancestry.  Read more below as Joshua Prager, a Wall Street Journal Senior Special Projects writer and the author of “The Echoing Green” — a book exposing the cheating scandal surrounding this famous game — discusses sports, Branca, Jewish identity, and more.  (Answers are paraphrased from a longer telephone interview.)

Bobby Thomson’s home run (and the equally iconic call ) nicknamed “The Shot Heard Round the World” is still viewed as the top play in the 100 + year history of Major League Baseball.  In today’s age of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ reality stars and an entertainment market that constantly seems more specialized and fragmented by the day, how would you explain this moment’s importance, not just to baseball but society as a whole?

This was a moment that played out like a movie script.  In 1951, baseball was by far the most popular sport in the country.  The NFL, college football, and the NBA were not nearly as popular as they are today.  The game was between the two biggest rivals in all of sports (the Giants and the Dodgers) who both played in New York City, which at the time was the epicenter of baseball.  At one point, the Dodgers were up thirteen and a half games, and this went down to a single playoff game. Also, this was the first live nationally televised sports event. The newsreel was combined with the famous radio call by Russ Hodges and replayed in movie theaters across the country.

The result of these factors, and others detailed in my book, “The Echoing Green”, made for a moment that transcends sports. Just like people can tell you where they where when Pearl Harbor was bombed, they can tell you where they where when this home run happened. The home run landed in the writing of Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Don DeLillo, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, and John Steinbeck. The TV shows MASH and the Simpsons and the movie The Godfather have also referenced it.

I assume that, in those days, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a large following in the Jewish community. If there is one things that Jews are good at, it’s making someone else feel guilty. So I have to imagine having a whole community view him with that “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” glare we do so well had to be very trying on him. What was the community’s reaction to the heartbreaking (at least to Dodger fans) ending and how hard was this on Branca?

At the time, one in every three Brooklynites was Jewish and Cal Abrams was a Jewish player on the Dodgers so there was a strong contingent of Jewish Dodger fans. The moment was extremely tough on Dodger fans. The famous Jewish lawyer Alan Dershowitz, for example, said this was the moment that turned him into an atheist.

The moment was also extremely challenging for Branca. His life was divided into two parts, before the home run and after it.  Branca is a religious Catholic and an overall good person.  Religion can’t do more than it has done for him. His Catholicism was a comfort to him and helped get him through this life-changing event. A priest told him that God chose him because of the strength of his faith.

Jews have always taken pride in their sports stars, and this seems especially true with baseball. Knowing someone in a professional sport is Jewish — be it Edelman with the Patriots, our local boy Jeff Halpern with the Caps, Ryan Braun, or even the lesser known players like the Nationals’ own Jason Marquis — makes me want to cheer for them. (That is, unless the Penguins signed a Jewish hockey player. I’m pretty sure I’d still hate him.) Do you think there is something different about Jewish culture that leads us to idolize sports stars?

Any minority takes pride in its athletes.  Chien Ming Wang, for example, was watched by millions in his native Taiwan every time he pitched.  When my great-grandmother came to this country from Russia she kept a piece of paper by her bedside with two things written on it in English so she could repeat the words to others. One was “Phi Beta Kappa” as my mother earned this honor. The other was “Sandy Kofaux” because he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur. Jews are still excelling at baseball. Recently there were three Jews in the All Star game: Ian Kinsler, Kevin Youkilis, and Ryan Braun. (Author’s note: As much as we would love to adopt them, Strasburg and the two Zimmermans on the Nats are not Jewish).

With regards to Branca finding out about his Jewish roots, Branca remembered to me that he was a Shabbos Goy, which to him elevated his experience over his genetics.  He was a religious Catholic at the time and he still views himself as Catholic and not Jewish. However, learning that his relatives were murdered in the Holocaust struck him more powerfully than finding out that his mother was listed as an Israelite when she arrived at Ellis Island. And bringing to light the forgotten deaths of his Uncle Jozsef and Aunt  Irma was very meaningful to me.

With Yom Kippur just around the corner, what do you think of the problem of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports compared to the traditional problems  (e.g. stealing signs, a pitcher doctoring a baseball, etc.)? Are these all just necessary evils to gain an edge (aka the old saying that if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying) or are our professional sports leagues in need of some major reflection?

I talk about this in my book, “The Echoing Green”. It is understandable why players use steroids, given the massive amounts of additional money they stand to earn playing baseball. While stealing signs with the naked eye from second base or the dugout is kosher, what the Giants did in 1951 went far beyond this and was certainly not okay. Both sides can do steroids, but only one side can watch from centerfield with binoculars as the Giants did. One guy watched for the sign. He then hit a button denoting which type of pitch was going to be thrown. A man in the bullpen received this information via buzzer and signaled the batter. Even more than the effect it had on play, the cheating affected the men involved because it’s a secret they had to carry for many years.  When I first confronted Bobby Thomson with evidence of the cheating, he immediately told me, “It’s something I’ve never been proud of.” And when we first met to discuss it, he began to cry.

While this generation’s Ralph Branca (Bill Buckner) is not Jewish, he has now been taught a little bit about our people via our pop culture ambassador, Larry David.  Any other future stories you would like to investigate surrounding Jews and Sports?

When I first started out at the Wall Street Journal, I often wrote of three different topics I knew well: baseball; people with disabilities, because of a spinal cord injury I suffered at age 19; and Judaism, as I grew up in an Orthodox family.  I got two of those topics into this story. Perhaps one day I’ll write a story that involves all three.

Nationals' Jewish Community Day. Get your tickets now

Come join hundred of other Jews from the DC area to watch the Nationals (now 44-43) take on the Colorado Rockies!

The Washington Nationals baseball team and Empire Kosher Foods are partnering up to bring you Jewish Community Day, a great outdoor event filled with food and fun!

The $35 community day ticket packages include:
-Game ticket
-Empire Kosher food sampling
-Special JCD T-shirt
-$10 concession ticket

To buy your tickets, go to:  http://nationals.com/jcd

Visit the event’s Facebook page to see who else is going:  http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=118336834922182&notif_t=event_admin

WHEN: July 10. Game time is 1:35 p.m. but be sure to come early to hear Jewish music and sample fine kosher food

WHERE: Nationals Park, 1500 South Capitol Street, SE. (Closest metro station: Navy Yard station, on the Green Line.)

 

Hope to see you there.  Go Nats!