Jews and Sports… Stop Laughing: The Rabbi of Swat, The Spy, and The Most Fascinating Jewish Baseball Team

Moe Berg

Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun recently won the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award.  But rather than present the best Jewish baseball team of all time—which would undoubtedly also include the other Jewish MVPs with Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, Cleveland Indians third baseman Al Rosen and Cleveland Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau — here is the most intriguing Jewish baseball team of all time.  The sixteenth century German Reformationist Martin Luther urged his followers to “sin boldly,” and this Jewish team certainly made a unique impression on the national pastime.

Pitcher – Ralph Branca.  Arguably the greatest baseball play of all time involved the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branca giving up a game-winning three-run home run to the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951, that won the Giants the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series.  The play became known as “The Shot Heard ’Round the World,” in large part due to the immortal call by WMCA radio announcer Russ Hodges, “There’s a long drive. It’s going to be—I believe—the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”  Nearly 60 years later, Branca learned he was Jewish. His mother, Kati Berger, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who married a Catholic and raised Branca and his 16 siblings Catholic.  “Maybe that’s why G-d’s mad at me—that I didn’t practice my mother’s religion,” Branca said to the New York Times.  “He made me throw that home run pitch.”  The fateful pitch was thrown the day after Rosh Hashanah.

Catcher – Moe Berg.  The catcher and shortstop with five teams from 1923 to 1939 was a member of a baseball All-Star team that travelled to Japan in 1934.  What was a modest .251 hitter described by famed manager Casey Stengel as “the strangest man ever to play baseball” doing with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig?  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Berg was not only playing for Washington’s baseball team but also its government.  The enigmatic Berg spoke seven languages (but “can’t hit in any of them,” according to Washington Senators teammate Dave Harris) and became a World War II spy gathering information in Japan and Eastern Europe for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA.  The subject of several biographies, no mediocre baseball player has received as much interest.

First Base – Lou Limmer.  When the Philadelphia Athletics first baseman stepped up to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning on May 2, 1951, ready to face Detroit Tigers Jewish pitcher Saul Rogovin who was being caught by Jewish catcher Joe Ginsberg, it marked the only known time that a Jewish hitter faced a Jewish pitcher with a Jewish catcher behind the plate.  The three missed the only opportunity to say Grace After Meals at a baseball game over a kosher hot dog with a quorum, but Limmer hit a home run.  Limmer later became the first baseball player to become the president of a synagogue, serving for five years at Castle Hill Jewish Community Center in New York.

Second Base – Gavin Fingleson.  Fingleson is probably the wandering Jew of baseball.  He started playing the sport at age five in his native Johannesburg, South Africa.  He moved to Australia and played for the country’s Under-16 and Under-19 teams.  Then he played college baseball in the United States at Wallace State Community College in Alabama and at Southeastern Louisiana University.  He also played minor league baseball in the United States and professional baseball in Taiwan.  In 2004, Fingleson helped Australia earn a baseball silver medal at the Athens Olympics.  He’s won the Maccabi Australia Sportsman of the Year award three times as the nation’s top Jewish athlete.  In 2009, Fingleson was named fielding coach of the Sri Lankan national cricket team.  “I will try and utilize my baseball skills while working with the Lankans,” he told Sri Lankan media.  Although Fingleson may never win a World Series, Fingleson has certainly traveled the baseball world.

Third Base – Kevin Youkilis.  The utility player for the Boston Red Sox since 2004 is a major subject in the Michael Lewis best-seller Moneyball that became a blockbuster movie this year.  Youkilis was not the most physically eye-catching player.  At the University of Cincinnati, also the alma mater of all-time great Jewish pitcher Sandy Koufax, he was “a fat third baseman who couldn’t run, throw, or field,” Lewis described in his book.  But Youkilis had a keen, discriminating eye for hitting good pitches.  He became one of the poster children for the movement in baseball that favors statistical efficiency and output over scouted talent and potential.  He is now a three-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion.

Shortstop – Jesse Baker.  We’ll never know how great Baker, born Michael Myron Silverman, may have been.  Baker played in only one game his entire career.  As a 24-year-old for the Washington Senators in 1919, Bennett started at shortstop in a 9-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers on September 14, had the ball hit to him once, fielded it cleanly, and made an out.  Bennett was replaced by Frank Ellerbe, and who knows why because Ellerbe went 0-for-3.  Baker never batted and never appeared in a Major League game again.  But the one time the ball came his way, he was perfect.

Left Field – Guy Zinn.  Zinn started arguably the greatest rivalry in baseball.  As a member of the New York Highlanders, the predecessor to the New York Yankees, Zinn led off against the Boston Red Sox in the first ever game played at Fenway Park on April 20, 1912.  Zinn walked and then scored the first ever run at Fenway.  New York and Boston Jews recount this tale every Passover during the Seder.

Center Field – Lipman Pike.  All the tradition of Jews and baseball can be traced back to Lipman Pike, the first known Jewish professional baseball player.  Pike played from 1871 to 1887 as a second baseman, shortstop, center fielder, and manager for the Troy Haymakers (1871), Baltimore Canaries (1872–1873), Hartford Dark Blues (1874), St. Louis Brown Stockings (1875–1876), Cincinnati Reds (1877–1878), Providence Grays (1878), Worcester Ruby Legs (1881), and New York Metropolitans (1887).  In 1877 Pike led the National League with four home runs.  Pike’s best attribute was his speed, which he also showed at Baltimore’s Newington Park in August 1873 when he won a 100-yard race against a horse named Clarence in a speedy 10 seconds.

Right Field – Mose Solomon.  In 1923, the New York Yankees had Babe Ruth, “The Sultan of Swat.”  The New York Giants had Mose Solomon, “The Rabbi of Swat.”  The Giants publicized the nickname and his signing at the end of the season.  “We appreciate that many of the fans in New York are Jews, and we have been trying to land a prospect of Jewish blood,” manager John McGraw said.  But with the Giants in a pennant race and already having proven outfielders, Solomon did not start right away. Solomon only played two career games.  He was 3-for-8 for a respectable .375 batting average but did not return to baseball after the season.

Designated Hitter – Ron Blomberg. Blomberg was the first player to be a designated hitter when the American League adopted the rule in 1973 that has become the major distinguishing factor between the American and National leagues.  On April 6, 1973, Blomberg walked for the New York Yankees with the bases loaded in his first at-bat against the Boston Red Sox.  After the game, Blomberg’s bat was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Gather the Jews member Jonathan Horowitz (www.jjhorowitz.com) is the horse race announcer at Arapahoe Park and host of the show “A Day at the Races” on Altitude Sports TV in Denver. He also has authored The ONE and ONLY: A Sports Quiz Deck of Definitive Games, Teams, Players, and Events that will be published by Pomegranate Publishers in January 2012. If you would like to purchase a personal copy ($9.95), please contact him at jjhorowitz@gmail.com for details.