A grand slam decade for Jewish major leaguers
A conversation with baseball maven Martin Abramowitz
By Judie Jacobson
Martin Abramowitz is founding president of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc. a Boston-based not-for-profit organization that documents "American Jews in America's game." His first project, in affiliation with Fleer Trading Cards and the American Jewish Historical Society, was a 2003 baseball card set, commemorating the 142 Jewish major Leaguers from 1871 on, which sold out all 15,000 sets produced. Since then Jewish Major Leaguers has issued annual updated editions of this best-seller baseball card set. The 2009 "Record-Setters" edition combines photos and stats of all current players, plus Jewish baseball "record-setters" and "firsts," along with updated cards of career leaders and a complete all-time roster of Jewish players.
A retired vice-president of planning at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, Abramowitz lectures on his favorite subject all across the country. Recently, the Jewish Ledger spoke with Abramowitz about what made this year - and, in fact, this decade - the best ever for Jewish major leaguers.
Q: Tell us about some of the accomplishments of our Jewish major leaguers?
A: This has been an amazing year. First of all, we've already tied the all-time high for the number of Jewish major league players. Fourteen players have already appeared in ball games and I think we're about to break the record with number 15; the Yankees have just acquired the contract of Jason Hirsch of the Rockies and I wouldn't be surprised if he was called up in September. The thing about some of this year's highlights is that you have some accomplishments that are uniquely Jewish, but then you also have achievements which are unique in all of baseball, and not just in terms of Jewish players. There have also been some accomplishments that are just amazing:
• Jason Marquis, the pitcher for the Colorado Rockies was the winning-est pitcher in the major league at the all-star break and he is the first Jewish pitcher since Sandy Koufax to win 10 or more games six seasons in a row. Ian Kinsler not only became the second Jewish player to hit for the cycle - that's when you get a single, a double, a triple and a home run in the same game - a feat that is rarer than no-hitters - but he did something even rarer; In that same game he went six-for-six - six hits in six times at bat. The combination of hitting for the cycle and going six-for-six in the same game hasn't been done in 100 years by anybody - not just by Jewish players.
• Two Jewish players this year have hit walk-off home runs - that's when you're the home team and you're at bat, it's the bottom of the ninth and you're either behind or you're tied, and your home run causes the other team to walk off, basically, in defeat. Kinsler hit a walk-off home run against the Twins in mid-July, and Youkilis hit a walk-off homerun against the Yankees in one of the big Red Sox-Yankees games earlier this season.
• The Texas Rangers have a pitcher named Scott Feldman who actually is becoming a major player on the rotation - a top-flight starting pitcher for Texas. In late July, Feldman out-dueled Zach Greineke, who is a pitching ace for Kansas.
• John Grabow has just been traded to the Chicago Cubs. He's morphed from becoming what's called a "situational lefty" - a left-handed pitcher who is brought in to pitch to one left-handed batter simply because left-handed pitchers have an advantage over left-handed batters - which is what he was most of last year - into a set-up man - that is, a relief pitcher just before the closer. It's an important position. Grabow went into the all-star break at mid-season with a record of three and 0.
• Brad Ausmus, who now plays for the Dodgers, has now played 1,936 games, which means he has passed the durability record of Buddy Myer for most games played by a Jewish player. And he's creeping up on the all-time Jewish record, which Shawn Green has at 1,951.
• For the second time in a row - and this is the first time it's happened two years in a row - we had three Jewish all-stars. This year, we had Jason Marquis; Ryan Braun and Kevin Youkilis. Last year, we had Braun, Youkilis, and Kinsler. There have been three Jewish players chosen before, but first time it happened two years in a row.
Q: What are some of the other highlights of the year in terms of Jewish players?
A: There are several. There are two new players who have come up: Aaron Poreda, a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, and Ryan Sadowski, who pitched for the San Francisco Giants. Both of them at the moment have been up and down. Poreda had a very good start. He was actually sent back to the minors, to Charlotte, but he counts as a player and he had a good initial appearance in the majors. He won one game and had 12 strikeouts in 11 innings of pitching. Sadowski was un-scored on in his first two starts. He was sent back to the San Jose Giants in July. But both of these guys will be back, there's no question about that.
Also, Craig Breslow is leading the American League in appearances by a pitcher (53 at the moment). This is an important "stat", since it shows a high degree of trust in him as a key relief pitcher.
Q: Who would you say is the best Jewish player?
A: Another thing that's unique about this year is that right now there are four players who rank among the premier players in major league baseball: Braun, Kinsler, Youkilis, Marquis. I can't remember when we've had four like that before. We don't yet have a superstar, but Braun is on the verge of superstardom. Youkilis is up there, but not a superstar. He's not in the category of A-Rod or Pujols. But he is, I would say, a second tier, highly prominent major leaguer.
Q: You have also said that this has been a unique decade. What makes it so special?
A: Our next set of cards is going to be called "the deck of the decade" and we'll focus on the years 2000-2009; the first decade of the 21st century. First of all, it had more Jewish players than any other decade; there were 29 Jewish players in the decade. Secondly, it saw the establishment of some records that are all-time baseball records, not just Jewish records. One, of course, is Kinsler hitting for the cycle and going six-for-six in the same game; the other is Shawn Green who, on May 23, 2002, had the best nine-inning offensive performance of any baseball player in the history of baseball. Not only did he hit four homeruns, but he hit a double and a single When you add up his total bases you get 19, which no one has ever done in a nine-inning game before or since. It was the greatest single game in the history of baseball at bat. Thirdly, Youkilis set a fielding record for first basemen of 238 games (2,002 fielding attempts) without making an error.
The other thing about this decade is that we had two Gold Glove winners during the decade. The Gold Glove is an award given by their peers for the best defensive play by position. Ausmus won it three times and Youkilis won it once. We also had two Silver Sluggers - the award for the best batting average for a particular position. One was Braun in the outfield and the other was Jason Marquis as a pitcher.
We had the first Jewish "Rookie of the Year" winners in this decade: Ryan Braun. We had seven different all-star players: Youkilis, Kinsler, Braun, Marquis, Ausmus, Green and Lieberthal. Also, in 2000, Gabe Kapler tied Shawn Green for the longest consecutive game hitting streak for a Jewish player: 28 games.
What's particularly interesting for me is that this decade saw the most attention ever paid by American Jews and by the American baseball public to Jewish players. I think it was a decade of greatest awareness. I know there was a high level of awareness when Greenberg had his Hall of Fame years and during Koufax's time...and it's true we don't have a Hall of Famer now. But that period also did not have the internet, blogs, the variety of sports mags that exist today. So, there's just been more out there, and there's been more evident pride in the Jewish community and more attention in the general community. How do I know that? I counted six new books during the decades on Jews in baseball; there were two Hall of Fame events commemorating Jews in baseball during the decade; and I think it's not an accident that professional baseball got a start in Israel during the decade. So something is going on - some combination of pride and performance is bringing Jewish baseball to a new level of attention in America.
Q: Who would you say among the players identifies most strongly with his Jewish heritage?
A: It's interesting - I asked a photographer who was going to be at the all-star game to approach Youlklis, Braun and Marquis and ask them to pose for a photo for a Jewish Major Leaguers baseball card. That's a clear indication who's into this and who's not into this. All three agreed. I would say that Youkilis has the richest Jewish background. He actually went to Hebrew school in Cincinnati. Gabe Kapler also identifies very strongly. I would say Kapler and Youkilis identify most clearly, and not far behind are Marquis and Kinsler.
Q: Can you tell us something about Adam Greenberg who is not a major leaguer, but plays in Connecticut?
A: Adam Greenberg grew up in Guilford, CT. He's still trying to make it back to the majors. In June, he played for the Bridgeport Bluefish, an Independent League team and he was leading the team in hits and runs. He was up in the majors in 2005 and holds the unfortunate distinction of being hit in the head on the very first pitch. He was knocked unconscious and his story since then has been that he's trying to work his way back.
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