Tag Archives: Baseball

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.”


“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.

Play Hard, Pray Harder

By Gabriel Weinstein

Just two years after leaving the University of Florida facing charges of larceny and theft Auburn University quarterback Cameron Newton was full of gratitude winning the Heisman Trophy. Though Newton thanked his parents, coaches and teammates, he opened his speech thanking someone who has never helped him ice sore muscles or analyze a blitz–God.  He proclaimed: “First giving all the honor and glory to God, who is the head of my life. Without him we would not even be here right now. Thank you for that.”

The number of athletes publicly proclaiming their faith has ballooned over the past 50 years through the establishment of sports ministry organizations such as Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. These ministry organizations have made religious expression more socially acceptable in the locker room and on the playing field. According to former San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants team chaplain Pat Richie, sports ministry organizations encourage athletes to publicly proclaim their Christianity. Since sports ministries became a major force in collegiate and professional sports they’ve had mixed success in creating religious sentiment both tolerant and respectful of Christian and non-Christian individuals.

One notable example is Bill McCartney, who transformed the University of Colorado football team from a perennial cellar dweller to a vaunted national power between 1982 and 1994. Though McCartney guided the Buffaloes to a share of the 1990 national championship, his tenure was marred by scandals surrounding his evangelical Christian beliefs. Player complaints about McCartney coordinating religious activities forced administrators in 1985 to create a university policy outlawing coaches from organizing team prayers or Bible study sessions.  In 1990, McCartney filled the 50,000-seat football stadium with members of his all male Promise Keepers ministry. Critics accused Promise Keepers of promoting a misogynistic agenda. In 1992, McCartney labeled homosexuality an “abomination against almighty God” from a university podium (he’s since apologized for his comments).  When McCartney surfaced as a candidate for the position of Colorado’s head football coach a few weeks ago, professors sent protest letters to the university’s chancellor.

The Washington Nationals were thrust into the center of the faith and sports debate in 2005 when a Washington Post article described how team chaplain Jon Moeller, who gathered the teams for prayer and distributed religious pamphlet, told one player that all Jews go to hell.  Local rabbis seethed at Moeller’s statement and put pressure on team officials to discipline Moeller.

While the Nationals’ attempt to promote religious expression proved a blunder, the Colorado Rockies managed to create a religious environment comfortable for Christians and non-Christians alike during the 2007 season. The previous season the Rockies had gained a reputation as an organization with a strong Christian culture after USA Today published an article describing the religious zeal of players and club executives. About 10 players on the Rockies’ 25-man active roster that season regularly attended Sunday chapel. The evangelical presence on the 2007 Rockies did not stifle or alienate other players. Jason Hirsh, a Jewish pitcher who was with the Rockies that season, said in a New York Times article that the Rockies’ religious players didn’t “impress it upon anybody”.

Professional football players have faced similar problems in their relationship with Christianity and football.  Former NFL player Anthony Prior resents Christianity’s presence in professional football. According to Prior, Christianity is used as a vehicle to breed a culture of submission among players, particularly African-American players. Prior said that during training camp players in danger of getting cut carried around Bibles to impress management. Once players secured roster spots, they stopped carrying Bibles. Former tight end Esera Tuaolo said that during his season with the Jacksonville Jaguars there was a major rift between members of the Champions for Christ ministry and the rest of the team.

While Prior is skeptical about Christianity’s presence in professional sports, chaplains state their purpose is to help religious players achieve spiritual nirvana, not conduct outreach with non-Christian players. Ritchie said that the ultimate reason chaplains work with professional teams is because “Most teams want to have their players’ needs met.”

Though Christianity’s presence on the athletic field has been met with mixed reactions, it seems primed to remain a major factor in high profile athletics. The massive presence of ministerial organizations on campuses combined with the presence of several high profile Christian athletes will continue to make Christianity popular among elite athletes. But the greatest challenge for these divinely inspired athletes will be creating a tolerant environment for players of all religious practices and levels of faith.


New York Jets Accommodate Jews…Unlike the Red Sox!

New York JetsBy Marista Lane
According to the AP (via  NYT), the Jets have successfully changed the start of their game against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 27 from 4:15 p.m. to 1 p.m. so as not to interfere with Yom Kippur:

N.F.L. has moved the start time of the Jets’ game against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 27 to 1 p.m. from 4:15 after the team complained about having to play home games on consecutive Jewish holidays. The change was made a day after the Jets’ owner, Woody Johnson, sent a letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell suggesting the switch to allow fans to arrive home before sundown on Yom Kippur.

How considerate.