Day 24 of 2022 baseball books: Updated & heavenly fortified with more Hebrew-ness

“The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position by Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players”

The author:
Howard Megdal

The publishing info:
Triumph Books
320 pages; $28
Released May 3, 2022
The book’s Twitter page

The links:
The publishers website
At Bookshop.org
At Indiebound.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

The review in 90 feet or less

It was a joyous occasion when we first came across this project in the Year of our Baseball Existence 2009.

It made the cut as part of our inaugural list of 30 new baseball books to be reviewed — 307 pages with index for Harper Collins, a swell sell at $22.99, taking more than two years to knit together.

Megdal, at that time covering baseball for the New York Observer, may have secured glowing reviews about the book’s importance from industry scribes such as Jeremy Schaap, L. Jon Wertheim and John Eisenberg. But we were more enamored with how Megdal summarized it all himself in the last graph:

“Let this … book ring out in response to the well-known ‘Airplane!’ gag about Jewish athletes. In baseball alone, there are more than just a pamphlet. I encourage you, should anyone make that joke to you — throw this book at them. And I don’t mean rhetorically. Actually throw this book at them and say, ‘Does this feel like a pamphlet? Well? Does it?’”

Not then, and not now.

Note the book has increased in size, dropped the index, found a new publisher, procured a snappy new forward by Jason Stark (to augment more quippy endorsements from Schaap, Eisenberg and Wertheim), all there for the low, low price of $28 — at a time when too many things of value go up exponentially to keep up with inflation.

Make no inflated mistake in how Stark, the former ESPN reporter and now senior baseball writer at The Athletic who in 2019 was given the Baseball Hall of Fame’s BBWAA Career Excellence Award, admits that this “one of the most important baseball books ever written – it’s one I’ll keep handy on a shelf near me every day of the year.”

Stark’s point was driven home by a cool thing that happened in the 2021 World Series: In the second inning of the sixth and final game, Max Fried pitched to Alex Bregman, who flew out to Joc Pederson. It was the first time three Jewish players were on the field for a World Series game at the same time — and now were involved in the same play. (The Astros also had a Jewish backup catcher, Garrett Stubbs, who didn’t get into the series, but he adds to the history).

(One more thing we found as astounding in the 2020 World Series, when the Dodgers were facing Tampa Bay in Texas: The Rays had last-minute roster addition — a left-handed reliever named Ryan Sherriff. Both his material grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Jewish fans (and those with a sense of history) were anticipating a time when Sherriff might be brought in as a specialist to face the Dodgers’ Pederson. It didn’t happen. But it could/should have, so those of us paying attention.)

Before we get into the frolic and perhaps frivolity of what’s at stake here, it is poignant to note how Megdal, whose calling card now focuses on his founding of The IX: Your Curated Guide to Women’s Sports as well as The Next @ The IX that highlights women’s basketball, writes in his introduction why we should have a better understanding how this project brings some added value and renewed importance. Consider the rise in hate crimes against Jews. Community centers under bomb threats. Insane, incited things elected representatives are allowed to say and do these days:

This is an America where some figures on the left, preaching intersectionality, always manage to leave Jews out of the equation. This is not an accident. We hear those comparisons. We hear the silence. These people mean to write us out of the American story. This is the American Jewish conversation in the summer of 2021 at socially distanced barbecues and family dinners. … This is most definitely not the book that grapples with such disturbing, sinister trends. This is where we go to escape from it, to revel in what the Jewish people have accomplished, and to celebrate what achievements lay ahead. What makes baseball such a perfect emotional haven for us all is the sheer size and complexity of it. That we could engage with the game, even as we all navigated the early unknowns of COVID-19, speaks to the ways baseball can fill our lives even during periods when most other aspects of life are shut down. But the reason it matters so much to us as Jews is the extent to which baseball itself is an extension of America writ large.”

There are far more things to honor, Megdal points out — the emergence of Jewish leaders like Justine Siegal, creator of Baseball For All (see above), creating a pipeline for women to play the game. Two Orthodox Jews taken in the 2021 MLB Draft (Jacob Steinmetz and Elie Kligman. The emergence of Team Israel in the Olympics.

Megdal then concludes, perhaps referencing his own “throw this book at them” line from years earlier:

“Celebrating Jewish excellence in baseball is not a difficult thing to do despite all the jokes through the years. It is, at its heard, a supremely Jewish thing to do, too: Finding joy in the argument, in the discussion of statistical evidence and sense memory and arcane topics, in cultural pride. It’s a recognition that one of us did something that made our group proud and a larger group, us among them, collectively cheer.”

Here’s a mensch who doesn’t mince words. Hear, hear.

But don’t think that trivializes the next 300-some pages trivial.

Just the opposite.

== Explain how Hank Greenberg remains the greatest Jewish major leaguer in history instead of Sandy Koufax – who just got a statue in his honor at Dodger Stadium? C’mon, the gap has to be closing at some point with all the numbers crunched and re-crunched these days. (Spoiler alert: Nope).

== Is Buddy Myer, a .303 career hitter over 17 years in Washington from ’25 to ’41, still the greatest Jewish second baseman of all time? Two “nos” on that. First, Megdal can now reveal: Myer isn’t Jewish. (“I was fooled by his inclusion in, for instance, the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, an honor typically reserved for Jews,” Megdal updates. Myer, a Baptist, was inducted but “didn’t want to correct the record, worried it ‘would be taken the wrong way,’ according to his son.). Second, Ian Kinsler has the data to rise to that mantle. Plus, Megdal also re-confirms: Rod Carew isn’t Jewish. He married a Jewish woman but did not convert. He also played more games at first base than second base. So much for Esquire’s 1976 All-Jewish team including Carew on it based on an Adam Sandler song.

== Does Alex Bregman deserve to pivot past Al Rosen as the all-time best Jewish third baseman. It’s a done deal. (“One of those instances where the great Jewish hope has panned out,” Megdal notes.

Ryan Braun answers questions about alleged PED usage at the start of 2012 spring training (Getty Images)

== Let’s get to the heart of the matter with Ryan Braun, the other “Hebrew Hammer” out of Taft High in Woodland Hills and 2011 NL MVP ahead of Matt Kemp. He retired in 2021. Greatest Jewish left fielder? Yes, but “we have much to discuss here,” Megdal asserts right away. Then concludes: “My advice to you, if you believe Braun should have an asterisk next to his name, is to put one in your copy of this book. I won’t stop you.”

== Fried, the Atlanta Braves’ star left-hander since ’17 out of Montclair Prep and Harvard Westlake, won the clinching Game 6 of the 2021 World Series. But he’s got a ways to go before he pulls within range of Koufax as the greatest Jewish left-handed starter. Fried has a career WAR of 11.0 at age 28. (Actually, up to 14.7 on Baseball-Reference.com including this season) Koufax was at 27.5 at age 27 and only got ridiculously better. Megdal projects Fried has a spectacular chance to finish No. 2 to Koufax, which would also make him No. 2 among Jewish pitchers no matter which arm you want to assign to him.

== Where does Young Joc Pederson fit in all this?

In 2017, he was the subject of this headlined story in The Daily Beast: “Can Joc Pederson Kill the Cliché That Jewish Athletes Are Smart Weaklings?

Now he’s No. 3 all time in Jewish center fielders – because, Megdal writes, he is “another data point in the performance-enhancing qualities of having a Jewish mother.”

Pederson trails Kevin Pillar (who briefly had time with the Dodgers in ’22) and Goody Rosen, who deserves to be celebrated despite playing just six total seasons, almost all with the Brooklyn Dodgers from ’37-’39 (then military service) and again from ’44-’46. He made the 1945 All-Star team (.325 average, 12 homers, 75 RBIs, 126 runs, 197 hits, 10th in the MVP voting).

Good for Goody.

Megdal notes Rosen was “an elite defensive player” and his overall WAR of 11.8 is “misleading.” Pederson’s current San Francisco Giants manager, Gabe Kapler, is No. 6 all-time greatest Jewish center fielder (dropping from No. 4 in ’09). Just in case that brings him to want to have a reason to consider getting punchy with Pederson for anything beyond a fantasy league violation. Kapler still has 2021 NL Manager of the Year to rest on. Couldn’t that make him the greatest Jewish manager of all time?

That category, for now, doesn’t seem to exist. …. Maybe …

How it goes in the scorebook

Megdal has raised the Bar Mitzvah of this tribal tributary.

With faith-filled zeal in telling the story with humor and reverence – and correcting history that needs to be put in better context – this becomes an exciting way to set the stage for further updates as needed.

And they will be.

Back in ’09, Megdal gave us his Top 10 Greatest Jewish Baseball Player list:
1. Greenberg
2. Koufax
3. Lou Boudreau
4. Shawn Green
5. Buddy Myer
6. Al Rosen
7. Sid Gordon
8. Ken Holtzman
9. Harry Danning
10. Mike Lieberthal.

He then predicted a 2019 lineup that had the top two set, Braun at No. 3, Kevin Youklis at No. 6, with Kinsler at No. 7. The fun part is seeing how his actual 2022 lineup ended up being as he was in 2019 and ’20 preparing this book: The top 3 remain from ’09, with Kinsler jumping to No. 4. Green slides to No. 5, ahead of Braun (who still makes it in). Bregman asserts himself at No. 7. Rosen and Gordon fall to Nos. 8 and 9, with Holtzman at No. 10. Danning and Lieberthal fall out, and Myer … well, as explained earlier … shouldn’t have been there in the first place?

For the time capsule, here’s how Megdal sees the 2035 list changing — or not:
1. Greenberg
2. Koufax
3. Bregman
4. Boudreu
5. Kinsler
6. Green
7. Braun
8. Fried
9. Rosen
10. Gordon

He also has a top 18 list of Jewish baseball prospects led by San Francisco outfielder Hunter Bishop and Oakland third baseman Zach Gelof.

Which makes us wonder: Are there more Jewish players assimilating into major league baseball at a time when it seems more foreign-born players are coming in and African-American players are dropping?

As of July 2008, Megdal said there were 16,696 players recorded in MLB history and fewer than 160 were Jewish – less than one percent.

The most recent data at the Baseball Almanac suggests the MLB has had 20,133 Major League players as of June, 2022, starting in 1876. In alphabetical order, the Baseball Almanac also has its notations of about 190 Jewish players of all time. A list on Wikipedia identifies 193. Any way it is sliced, the numbers could actually be shrinking.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== The Jewish Virtual Library has a list of Jews in Major League Baseball including executives, coaches and managers.

== This looks like it was a blast to complete with more info at JewishBaseballPlayer.com and this story link:

== Megdal has a conversation with noted Jewish baseball historian Ron Kaplan in a recent Kaplan Baseball Bookshelf post.

== Nice timing to mention “Hebrew Hammer: A Biography of Al Rosen, All-Star Third Baseman,” by Joseph Wancho (McFarland, 230 pages, $29.95), which came out last December to spotlight the playing career of the Cleveland Indians’ 1953 AL MVP who came within one percentage point on his batting average of winning the Triple Crown. And now No. 2 on the all-time list of Jewish third baseman behind Alex Bregman? Magden reminds us that back and leg problems zapped Rosen of his playing ability, forcing him to retire at age 32 on “what should have been the second half of a Hall of Fame career … He was robbed and so were Jewish fans.” His transition into the executive part of the baseball world, however, is duly noted with his 14 seasons as a president or general manager for the New York Yankees (1978-1979), Houston Astros (1981-1985) and the San Francisco Giants (1986-1992). He remains the only one in MLB history to have an MVP award and recognized as Executive of the Year (by the Sporting News in 1987). Here is his SABR bio project write up that includes: “On one occasion, columnist and TV host Ed Sullivan wrote that ‘Rosen was a Catholic because he always marked a cross on home plate each time he came to bat.’ Rosen responded that ‘it was not a cross but an x’ and that he wished his name was ‘more Jewish’ so no one would mistake him for being Catholic.”

== Worthy of having if Jewish baseball research is to be cherished and honored: “Jews and Baseball, Volume I, Entering the American Mainstream, 1871-1948,” as well as “Jews and Baseball, Volume II: The Post-Greenberg Years, 1949-2008” (McFarland & Co.), by Burton and Benita Boxerman. If only for the stunning Koufax illustration on the second book. It’s part of a collection captured here by the STL Jewish Light for the St. Louis Jewish community.

== The photo at the top of the post — credit: James Estrin/NYT — comes from a 2012 New York Times story that begins: “It was an incongruous sight for a baseball stadium: tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, all dressed in black suits and white shirts, filing through the gates of Citi Field on Sunday, wearing not blue-and-orange Mets caps but tall, big-brim black hats. There was no ballgame scheduled, only a religious rally to discuss the dangers of the Internet. More than 40,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews were expected to attend — a sellout in a season where the average attendance at a Mets game has been barely half that. The organizers had allowed only men to buy tickets, in keeping with ultra-Orthodox tradition of separating the sexes. Inside the stadium, a dais was set up by the back wall of center field, where rabbis led the packed stadium in evening prayers and offered heated exhortations to avoid the “filth” that can be found on the Internet. English translations of the speeches appeared on a jumbo digital screen, beneath an enormous “Let’s Go Mets!” sign.”

== In 2017, The Jewish Baseball Museum (who knew?) produced a book with Jewish Major Leaguers Inc. (again, who knew?) called “The Jewish Baseball Card Book” by Bob Wechsler with Peter McDonald and Martin Abramowitz (202 pages). Amazon didn’t seem to know (or care) how to help a customer find one (currently unavailable?). So we tracked one down for $49.95 at the IsraeliBookStore.com.

== In 2014, Seth Ruben wrote: “The 8 Jewish Players Who Shined the Brightest in the Careers.” Might want to update that one, too.

2 thoughts on “Day 24 of 2022 baseball books: Updated & heavenly fortified with more Hebrew-ness”

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