A league of their own

Jewish baseball fans will find this book indispensable.

baseball talmud book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
baseball talmud book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Baseball Talmud By Howard Megdal Collins, 308 pp.; $22.99 Would you believe that there have been 160 Jews who made it to the major leagues? Howard Megdal, who covers baseball for the New York Observer and who contributes articles to baseball magazines, has tracked down each of them from a variety of sources. Going back to the 19th century and continuing to 2009, he provides commentary and statistics for each of these achievers, even including some whose experience included only one game in the big leagues. Megdal is expansive in who he includes as a Jew, asserting that he is "a baseball expert, not a Judaism expert." Accordingly, he includes players with one Jewish parent, male or female, as well as converts, and one man who is a self-described Messianic Jew, accepting Jesus but celebrating Jewish holidays. The book begins with an argumentative chapter on who was the greatest Jewish baseball player. Megdal lists 10 possible candidates but claims that the contest is really between Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. He makes a persuasive case for his selection. (Read the book to learn his pick!) With the exception of his last chapter, Megdal divides his presentation into discussions of Jewish baseball players grouped by the position they played. When it comes to pitchers, he offers four categories: left-handed starters, right-handed starters, left-handed relievers and right-handed relievers. The players are ranked with Megdal offering his opinions and statistics to back them up. Also, he discusses them individually, giving a lively discourse on their idiosyncrasies along with anecdotes about them. For example, he writes at some length about Moe Berg, who played for four major league teams and was a "catcher, spy and linguist." He studied at the Sorbonne, earned a law degree at Columbia, worked for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA; served as a panelist on a radio quiz show and spoke Japanese so well that he was the first player selected to tour Japan with a major league team. Megdal offers his judgment that Berg would have done better to focus on baseball and he rates him as seventh in the list of 16 Jewish catchers. An example of the esoteric material that Megdal unearthed in the course of his research was that Lou Limmer, who played first base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951 and 1954, was the president of a synagogue, the Castle Hill Jewish Community Center in the Bronx, New York. Also, in 1951, Limmer hit "a home run off the Detroit Tigers' Saul Rogovin." Joe Ginsberg was the catcher, making this "the first, and thus far only, Jewish battery and hitter in major league history." During the 1920s, John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, diligently searched for a Jewish player to appeal to Jewish fans. He thought he had solved his problem in 1926 when he signed Andy Cohen to play second base. Unfortunately, after a flashy start, Cohen faded and was sent to the minor leagues where he had a respectable career as a player and a manager. He eventually he returned to his native El Paso where, with the aid of his brother, he built a baseball program at the University of Texas, El Paso. The field there is named "Cohen Stadium." Among pitchers, the "discussion starts and ends with Sandy Koufax," although Ken Holtzman, who had a longer career, won 174 games versus 165 for Koufax. When creating his "All-Time Jewish Team," Megdal lists both of them as starting pitchers. In the final chapter devoted to his dream Jewish team, Megdal demonstrates his competence with statistics and supports the claim that "this team would have been by far the greatest baseball has ever seen." Jewish baseball fans will find this book to be indispensable. It is a compendium of facts, figures, and fragments that are appealing, amusing, and arcane. The author begins his book by saying that Jews like to argue and he concludes that those who disagree with his ratings can start the debate, armed with information as a consequence of his presentation. He is right and to quote his final words, "Let the discussion commence." The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.