When Sam Bregman was a youngster, he would hang around the clubhouse of the Washington Senators. His father, Stan, was the attorney for the ballclub, which gave him access to such greats as manager Ted Williams and outfielder Frank Howard. One of his favorite players, though, was a big first baseman and left-handed power hitter named Mike Epstein, who hit 30 homers for the 1969 Senators.
"Mike would draw the Star of David on the handle of his bat," recalls Sam, now an attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "You can imagine what that meant to a Jewish kid like me. He gave me one of the bats once, but I'm afraid I don't know what happened to it."
Not to worry. Sam found another way to pass on both Judaism and baseball. His son, Alex Bregman, became the first Jewish player with a walk-off hit in a World Series game -- 10th inning, Game 5, Houston Astros 13-12 -- in what might have been the biggest week in Jewish baseball news since ... ever.
"Let's see," says Scott Barancik, the editor of The Jewish Baseball News website. "The Phillies named Gabe Kapler their new manager. Joc Pederson homers three times in the World Series. Sandy Koufax throws out the first ball in Game 7. And Alex Bregman gets a World Series ring."
During the Series, there was a certain glow in synagogues across the land, lit by a visceral longing among Jews for baseball stars of their own. "Even in Los Angeles, where I wore my Bregman jersey, members of the tribe kept coming up to me to tell me how excited they were for Alex," Sam says. "I hear that rabbis were saying blessings."
Rabbi Craig Marantz of the Emanuel Congregation, in Chicago, more than 1,000 miles from either Houston or Los Angeles, devoted an entire blog post to Pederson and Bregman, writing, "It's comforting and inspiring to know we can watch this sport event and see a couple of hard-working athletes represent our community and exemplify wholesome and redeeming goals like teamwork and shared triumph."
There have been books, websites, even a 2010 documentary entitled "Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story" and narrated by Dustin Hoffman. How to explain the obsession? In a way, it's a synapse between the American dream and the national pastime.
As immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, we feel a need to belong. What better way to do that than in sports followed by the general populace? At the same time, we want to be open and honest about our faith. And what better way was there to honor our ancestors than by doing what Koufax did: declining to start Game 1 of the 1965 World Series games because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism?
The history of Jewish baseball players is actually quite long, if not terribly rich. One of the first professional players was a diminutive power hitter named Lipman Pike, who was paid the princely sum of $20 a week by the 1866 Philadelphia Athletics. Five years later, professional baseball started in earnest with the National Association, and Pike played for the Troy Haymakers, tying for the league lead in homers (four!) and racking up an impressive OPS of 1.054 -- too bad they didn't keep track of it. Before he retired for good in 1887 at the age of 42, Lip Pike played for the Haymakers, Baltimore Canaries, Hartford Dark Blues, St. Louis Brown Stockings, Cincinnati Reds, Providence Grays, Worcester Ruby Legs and New York Metropolitans.
It wasn't until the 1920s, though, that Jews made any real impact on the game. That's when Andy Cohen became the Giants second baseman and Moe Berg began his career behind the plate with the Brooklyn Robins. (Berg would go on to bigger, more clandestine things as a spy for the Allies in World War II.) The '30s brought four-time All-Star catcher Harry Danning and the first Hammerin' Hank -- Hank Greenberg.
But that's not all they called Greenberg. Because anti-Semitism runs deep, the Tigers' Hall of Fame first baseman was subjected to constant verbal abuse. As he once rhetorically asked, "How the hell could you get up to home plate every day and have some son of a b---- call you a Jew bastard ... without feeling the pressure?" Though Greenberg wasn't particularly religious, he did sit out games on Yom Kippur. After one such decision in 1934, the syndicated newspaper poet Edgar Guest wrote a tribute to him that ended, "We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat/But he's true to his religion -- and I honor him for that!"
The next great Jewish star was Indians third baseman Al Rosen, who came within one hit of a Triple Crown in 1953 (.336, 43 HRs, 145 RBIs) and won the American League MVP. Then along came two Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers: reliever Larry Sherry, the MVP of the '59 Series, and the transcendent Koufax. Jews of a certain age and baseball statheads alike can recite the stats from his last season in 1966 when he won his third Cy Young Award, then given to the best pitcher in both leagues: 27-9, 1.73 ERA in 323 innings.
Without much prompting, we can also tick off the names of the good Jewish players who followed: Epstein, Ken Holtzman, Ron Blomberg, Richie Scheinblum, Art Shamsky, Elliot Maddox, Dave Roberts (the pitcher), Steve Stone, Bob Tufts, Mike Lieberthal, Jeff Newman, Brad Ausmus, Jose Bautista, Sean Green, Kevin Youklis, Jason Marquis, Gabe Kapler. ... As Rabbi Marantz pointed out in his blog post, the last time Jews faced one another in the World Series was 2004, when Kapler's Red Sox swept Marquis' Cardinals.
You can find them all on Barancik's website. His criteria for whether a player is Jewish or not are fairly simple: "If a player has a Jewish parent or converted to Judaism, does not practice another faith, and does not object to being identified as a Jew, we include him." By his count, there have been 164 Jewish players in the majors, not counting Hall of Famers Lou Boudreau, whose mother was Jewish but who was raised Catholic, and Rod Carew, who was cited as Jewish in Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song" but never actually converted.
Barancik, a freelance journalist living in Tampa, Florida, began the site in 2009, when Gabe Kapler joined the Rays. "There weren't a lot of credible sources for Jews in baseball," he says, "and I wanted to do a site that was a little more forward-thinking." Indeed, one of the more impressive aspects of the site is how comprehensive its list is -- he digs down to Rookie League and independent leagues. He even gives out minor league awards. (MVP: Braden Bishop, the Mariners' center field prospect.)
Kapler, who just named Sam Fuld, another Jewish major leaguer, as one of his coaches, is only the fourth full-time Jewish manager, following in the footsteps of Ausmus, Lefty Phillips and Norm Sherry (Larry's brother). "The presence of Jews in baseball tends to be cyclical," Barancik says. "But I have a sense that we are at high tide right now. Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Kevin Pillar, Ryan Sheriff, Bregman, Pederson ..."
How did we get here? Well, in Bregman's case, it began with his great grandfather. In a wonderful piece in The Athletic, Peter Gammons traces the family history back four generations: Bo Bregman left Pinsk in Belarus, became a boxing promoter and part-owner of the Redskins, fathered Stan, who got a law degree that led to his involvement with the Senators, then moved the family to Albuquerque. And just as Sam hung around the Senators, his son Alex served as the batboy for the University of New Mexico baseball team.
At one point during this year's World Series, Seth Meyers tweeted, "It's a testament to how little my wife and I talk sports that I JUST found out Alex Bregman went to her temple." Bregman, a natural shortstop, plays third for the Astros because there aren't many shortstops better than Carlos Correa. Which is too bad because he would easily be the best Jewish shortstop ever -- the bar is now set at former Blue Jay Eddie Zosky.
As for the Dodgers' Joc Pederson, a genealogist for the Jewish Journal traced the family roots of his mother, Shelly Cahn, to France, The Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Russia. Her paternal great-grandfather was born in San Francisco in 1864, when the family belonged to Temple Emanu-El. Shelly, an athletic trainer in college, married Stu Pederson, a former Dodgers outfielder, and together they raised four children, one of whom played for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic and four years later set a Dodgers postseason record with extra-base hits in five consecutive games of the World Series. Joc Pederson's three Series homers also broke the record for most round-trippers by a Jewish player, set by Greenberg in 1934.
"I have my theories on why we're seeing more and more Jews," Barancik says. "More intermarriages. The preponderance of travel leagues in the suburbs, which are replacing the inner-city sources of talent. Whatever the reason, I'm very excited about the future. There's Braden Bishop. But also keep an eye on Max Fried, a pitcher in the Braves' system, and Andy Yerzy, a Jewish-Chinese-Canadian catcher for the Diamondbacks."
Sam Bregman also knows of a certain Jewish freshman pitcher at the University of New Mexico, A.J. Bregman. "Anthony Joseph," his father says. "He's left-handed, just like Koufax."