Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 11, 2013

The Days of Awe and Baseball

Howard Megdal ranks all the Jews in MLB history in The Baseball Talmud.

David Goldenberg

It's always bothered me that Jewish people seem to have trouble coming up with clever nicknames for their Semitic sports heroes. (Is there even one moderately talented, moderately Israelite basketball player who hasn't been labeled the Jewish Jordan at some point?) I was particularly verklempt about the state of baseball, as every single chosen slugger—from Hank Greenberg to Al Rosen to Ryan Braun—seems to be called the Hebrew Hammer.

Howard Megdal
"Greenberg, when chasing the record, saw his walks increase in a way that was inconsistent with his walk rate both before and after the pursuit."

Howard Megdal

It turns out, though, that I simply haven't been looking hard enough. In The Baseball Talmud, an incredibly detailed and often hilarious look into the history of Jewish major leaguers, Howard Megdal—who writes for Sports on Earth and Capital New York—uncovers not just the Yiddish Curver but also the Rabbi of Swat among the Jews who have made it to the big leagues.

One of the reasons Jews tend to fuss over—and write books about—professional athletes in the tribe is that there aren't many of them. Even in baseball—perhaps the most Jewish of sports—Jewish players have made up less than 1% of all major leaguers in history, below their representation in the general population of about 2%. But those 165 or so ballplayers have a distinct grip on the rest of the American Jewish people, and their potential conflicts between the observance of Sabbath and the vagaries of playoff scheduling have taken on mythological proportions over the decades.

In The Baseball Talmud, Megdal finds the sweet spot between a hagiography and a clinical dissection. He may knock someone down in his all-time list when a modern look at the stats doesn't match up with the player's reputation, but then he'll bring him back up the ranking for having a cantor for a mother, or simply for being a mensch. In the following interview, edited for clarity, Megdal tells Gelf why he thinks Hank Greenberg was pitched around during his hunt for the all-time home-run record, and how an all-Jewish Mets team would perform in next year's pennant race.

Gelf Magazine: It's the season for forgiveness. Do you forgive Ryan Braun?

Howard Megdal: I do, primarily because I don't think it's my role to judge him. I will say, the character assassination about the test collector bothers me much more than the PEDs.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think there's a market for the Football or Basketball Talmud? Who's your top-ranked all time Jewish player in those sports?

Howard Megdal: I'd have to go with Sid Luckman in football, and Dolph Schayes in basketball. And yes, I believe there's a market for it, though it is far more difficult to compare across eras in those two sports.

Gelf Magazine: If Mark McGwire were to convert to Judaism today, where would he rank in the all-time list in The Baseball Talmud? And do you think he would be accepted into the tribe more readily than say, a freshly-mikvehed Sammy Sosa?

Howard Megdal: McGwire would land second, all-time, among Jewish first basemen. I do think he'd be more accepted than Sosa, because he was a better player than Sosa.

Gelf Magazine: You got a fair amount of statistical pushback to the assertion that Hank Greenberg was pitched around for reasons to do with anti-Semitism as he went after Babe's record. Do you still stand by your analysis?

Howard Megdal: I do. Frankly, I didn't find the pushback particularly persuasive. Greenberg, when chasing the record, saw his walks increase in a way that was inconsistent with his walk rate both before and after the pursuit. It may not be all anti-Semitism, but it is notable.

Gelf Magazine: If the Mets are going to be terrible anyway, why not just stock them with the best current Jewish players? Assuming that you could get all of them, would they stand a chance?

Howard Megdal: It wouldn't be so easy, and they wouldn't be terrible. That team would have Ryan Lavernway at catcher; Nate Freiman at first; Ian Kinsler at second; Danny Valencia at shortstop (we'd move him from third), Josh Satin at third, an outfield of Sam Fuld, Braun, and Kevin Pillar; and a rotation of Scott Feldman … OK, we'd be short on the rotation. Joc Pederson will be up soon to bolster the outfield, though, and we could call up Danny Rosenbaum to make a few starts while Rob Kaminsky, the first-round pick of the Cardinals, develops. We'd do OK.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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