A Minyan in the Outfield

From his office in Pico-Robertson, Ephraim Moxson counts Jewish professional athletes. There are five playing in the National Hockey League, a couple in the National Basketball Assn., four in the National Football League. But in Major League Baseball, there will be, by the end of 1999, 11 Jewish ballplayers. “That’s more than any decade, even the 1960s,” says Moxson, co-publisher of the Jewish Sports Review.

Which raises two questions: Why so many Jews in the majors? And why should we care?

As to the first, theories abound. As Jews moved from the cities to the suburbs, they abandoned the urban sports (basketball, boxing) and picked up suburban ones, such as baseball, soccer and tennis. Great baseball requires pricey coaching from an early age, something upper-middle-class families are more likely to afford. There are more pro baseball players (about 900) than pro football or basketball players, so, naturally, more Jews. Finally, there’s more money in pro sports these days, so Jewish parents are less likely to frown on a career with a ball. When the Toronto Blue Jays’ Shawn Green turns free agent this year, he could command upward of $10 million a year.

As to why we care, the answer is murkier. Since the days of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, Jews have always drawn flat-out feel-good pride from “their” sports heroes, even when the heroes themselves, such as the Philadelphia Phillies’ Mike Lieberthal, prefer to downplay it. Maybe it helps us counteract the stereotype of the Jewish wimp — though you’d think the Israel Defense Force would have put that to rest by now. Maybe it just gives us one more excuse to go out to the ballgame.

Shawn Green told a New York Times reporter that when he’s playing away games, the Jewish fans for the opposing side will boo his team but still cheer him. There is an ethnic loyalty, for better or for worse, that transcends a jersey.

There’s also the White Rhino Effect. A Jew in professional sports is still a novelty. We are not so commonplace a thing in the pros as, say, Czechs in the NBA or Pan Americans in the National League. Take a walk through Koreatown when Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park is winning (which hasn’t been often this season). His poster hangs in every travel agency and car dealership window. The message seems to be, See, see what we can do.

We are all proud of our separateness, but we still like to be like everyone else. For Jews, the Woody Allens of the world answer to the former need, the Shawn Greens to the latter.

But there is something more. The best piece in the première issue of Talk magazine is a memoir by Tom Stoppard called “On Turning Out to Be Jewish.” The great English playwright was born Tomas Strassler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in 1937. His mother was highly assimilated. “Hitler made her Jewish in 1939,” he writes. The family fled to Singapore, where Stoppard’s father was killed at sea in a Japanese bombing attack. Then his mother married a proper Englishman, Ken Stoppard, and, in 1942, at age 8, Stoppard landed in England and never looked — never knew to look — back.

Much later, when his fame was established, came the letters, and photos of aunts, uncles, cousins killed in the camps. “You,” a relative informs him, “were completely Jewish.”

The piece ends ambiguously. Stoppard decides he has no particular draw toward Judaism or Israel, but, he admits, that could change. “Until a couple years ago,” he writes, “I never had any interest in going back to Zlin.”

I get a little thrill knowing that the man behind “Travesties” and “Shakespeare in Love” is completely Jewish. It also makes me smile that two Jews pitch for the Angels. It’s good to know that Jews can throw a fastball as well as win an Oscar. It’s good to let our children know that — call it positive identity building. And it’s good to make sure the world is aware as well. Just call that covering our bases. — Rob Eshman, Managing Editor