In or Out of the Jewish Clubhouse?

by Theodore Samets

“Of the roughly 17,000 guys who’ve played professional baseball, precious few are Jews.”

That was how Scott Barancik, editor of Jewish Baseball News, framed the debate in the New York Times over whether to welcome Ralph Branca to the rather small club of Jewish ballplayers.

Not everyone agrees with Barancik, who argues that the revelation that Branca’s mother converted from Judaism to Catholicism is evidence enough for Jewish sports fans (a group far larger than professional Jewish athletes, it would seem) to claim Branca, a pitcher most famous not for something he did right, but for something he did wrong.

On Oct. 3, 1951, Branca, pitching in relief for the Brooklyn Dodgers, gave up a game- and series-ending three-run home run to New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thompson. The moment became known as the “shot heard ‘round the world.” The Giants went on to the World Series, and the Dodgers went home for the winter.

It’s an iconic moment in baseball – most baseball fans know at least part of the story – and clips of the home run are replayed every October, alongside footage of Carlton Fisk waving for his home run to stay fair in game six of the 1975 World Series and Bill Mazeroski’s walk off home run in game seven of the 1960 World Series.

For fans on the winning side, these moments are relished for generations. They still hurt for many of the losing fans, and the players associated with these moments often never reclaim any pretense of greatness.

So why would Jews even want to claim Branca as one of their own?

Barancik certainly has an argument – we only have so many Jewish players; every addition counts.

But for a player who caused nightmares for so many Jews (the Brooklyn Dodgers had a disproportionately Jewish fan base), wouldn’t it be better to just forget that Branca has a Jewish past?

That seems to be what’s behind Alan Dershowitz’s conviction. The expert in everything Jewish, including – it seems – the 1950s Dodgers, Dershowitz’s strong opinions extend to Branca’s Jewishness:

“Ralph Branca is not a Jew,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Brooklyn-born Dodgers fan, lawyer and Harvard professor. “Whatever the definition, it doesn’t include someone who willingly accepted a different religion. He didn’t stay home on Yom Kippur like Koufax.” (Koufax, of course, knew he was a Jew.)

Dershowitz, in fact, theorized that Branca, to his eyes as a boy, did not pitch “Jewishly.”

Jewishly?

“Koufax altered strength and guile and knew that you pitch for six days and you rest on the seventh,” he said. “Branca was straight-on; you could see there was nothing Jewish about Ralph Branca.”

All respect for Dershowitz aside, the second part of this argument barely makes any sense. Jews aren’t “straight-on” athletes? What about Mike Cammalleri, as straight a shooter as there is for the Montreal Canadiens, or Ken Holtzman, he of the killer fastball, who threw two no-hitters for the Cubs and played a major role on multiple A’s championship teams? As the esteemed lawyer would tell you, however, all that matters is that something sticks, and Dershowitz has one importantpoint: Branca never saw himself as Jewish, didn’t act like a Jew, and was never a Jewish idol like Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, or in more modern days, Shawn Green, a (Los Angeles) Dodger himself who sat out a Giants-Dodgers game of his own when it fell on Yom Kippur.

What is it, after all, that inspires many Jews to assemble lists of their religious brothers and sisters who have succeeded in nearly every field? I’m as guilty as anyone else – I shep naches thinking about Natalie Portman’s success on the silver screen, and appreciate Marc Chagall’s art more than I probably ought to, solely because they’re Jewish. In sports, it’s no different. Given that Jews aren’t generally stereotyped as prodigious athletes, we may be even more likely to idolize those few who have broken through and achieved success. Yet two aspects of Branca’s case make it unique: his infamy and his indentification with a faith besides Judaism.

Neither on their own is a deal breaker. Did we let Bob Dylan off when he temporarily found Christianity? Absolutely not. And infamous folks like Marc Rich? Still as Jewish as ever, helped in part by his support for Birthright.

But when both of these things happen? There’s precedent for the claim that we ought not to add Branca to our rolls. David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, isn’t a name we see often in Jewish encyclopedias, especially after he was born again.

So when it comes to Branca, it’s a bit of a stretch to welcome him as a Jew, at least until he speaks up and says something about it. For that, we’ll just have to wait for his upcoming autobiography.

One response to “In or Out of the Jewish Clubhouse?

  1. It’s a stretch to accept Branca as a Jew for several reasons. First, he actively identified as a Catholic, not a Jew. Second, it invalidates the conscious decision his mother made to convert to Catholicism. Third, it sets up a poor precedent when addressing who “is” or “is not” a Jew – if a Jew who converts to another religion is always a Jew, does that make a non-Jew who converts to Judaism always a Gentile? Claiming someone like Branca shows little respect for people within our community who have worked hard to assert their Jewishness, whether born that way or not.

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