Jews in Sports (Well, Mostly Baseball)
Last week’s MLB All-Star Game featured three Jewish players – Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, and Colorado Rockies pitcher Jason Marquis. It could have been four had Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler … Read More
Last week’s MLB All-Star Game featured three Jewish players – Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, and Colorado Rockies pitcher Jason Marquis. It could have been four had Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler won the fan vote for the 33rd spot. It was the first time baseball had seen three Jewish All-Stars since 1999, when Shawn Green, Mike Lieberthal, and Brad Ausmus all made the team.
Today there are a total of 10 Jewish Major Leaguers, and with Braun and Youkilis in the MVP discussion, this might be a golden age for Jews in baseball. It’s a far cry from other sports where Jews have not had as much success lately.
This past season, Jordan Farmar of the Lakers was the only NBA player who was at least half-Jewish. This led to a running joke I used to have, in which I claimed that there were more Jews in the NBA who were commissioner of the league (David Stern) than players. Of course now there is considerable optimism over recent Sacramento Kings draft pick Omri Casspi from Israel, but by and large, Jews have struggled to make the NBA.
Jews haven’t seen much more success in pro football lately, with only four expected to put on an NFL uniform in 2009. Of those only San Diego Chargers defensive lineman Igor Olshansky and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sage Rosenfels are expected to make any significant impact, and for Rosenfels that’s only if Brett Favre decides to stay retired.
There are currently two Jews on the US national soccer team (Jonathan Bornstein and Benny Feilhaber), four in the NHL, and two on the PGA Tour. Also the names Sasha Cohen, Dara Torres, and Jason Lezak (more on him later) are recognizable to most of us.
But baseball continues to be the sport where Jews have the most success. Why is that? Well, I think there are a variety of contributing factors. First, over the past generation, baseball has become something of an elitist game in this country. While poor and disadvantaged children in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela play baseball in droves, it’s become far more exclusive in the U.S.
Baseball is an expensive sport to play when one factors in all of the equipment one must purchase. While basketball can be played in any park, requiring just a ball, baseball players need to have a bat, a glove, cleats, batting gloves, mitts for different positions, stirrups, and a whole host of other apparel just to play at a youth level. Just as important is a quality playing surface, and fields are often not well-maintained in inner-city communities, nor in troubled neighborhoods located in cold-weather climates. Fields are more likely to be well-kept in wealthier suburban neighborhoods. Also, baseball has numerous specialized skills which require expensive coaching to teach at a high level.
While Dominican ballplayers actively play baseball as their "ticket out of poverty," poorer Americans have turned to basketball and other sports to land their lottery ticket to success. As a result, most American baseball players today come from the suburbs. Players like Youkilis, Braun, and Marquis came from reasonably well-off families, and grew up in suburban environments where it’s not uncommon to find Jews.
In 2007, the percentage of African-American players in baseball dipped to an all-time low of 8.2%. It has since increased to 10.2%, thanks in part to efforts by Major League Baseball to promote baseball in the inner-cities. But for now Jews are flourishing in the sport as well as they ever have because they are growing up in environments that support the game.
And what about sports that end in a gold medal, instead of a World Series title? This past week swimmer Jason Lezak passed up an opportunity for a medal at the World Swimming Championships in Rome in order to compete in the Maccabiah Games in Israel. The move was rather shocking. For swimmers, only the Olympic Games eclipse the World Championships, and few people in the international sports community care about the Maccabiah Games.
The US Olympic hero, who preserved one of Michael Phelps’ gold medals thanks to a heroic relay swim in Beijing, predictably dominated this past week. He won four gold medals – far more than he could have possibly won in Rome – and set several Maccabiah Games records.
Lezak’s decision begs the question of whether other elite Jewish athletes will compete in the Maccabiah Games and raise the profile of the minor event. It seems like a longshot. Elite athletes might compete, but only if the Maccabiah Games neatly and conveniently fit into their training and competition schedules. Even Lezak is nearing the end of a successful career, and this may have been more of a farewell event for him.
Still, it’s nice to see the Maccabiah Games get something of a boost, and perhaps some of the names I listed above will one day compete.