The coming golden age for Jewish major leaguers
(RNS) — In 2021, three Jewish Major League Baseball players suited up for the World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves. At the time, I wrote that this was a record (about which there is some controversy, but let’s go with it). It seemed reasonable at the time to think it might have been a high-water mark for Jewish ballplayers.
This perception turns out to have been a flaw of Jewish baseball fandom, which has long been backward-looking. Accounts of Jews in the MLB have historically been dominated by two names: Hank Greenberg, the legendary Detroit Tigers’ and Pittsburgh Pirates’ slugging first baseman of the 1930s and 1940s, who hit more home runs per at-bat than Henry Aaron; and Sandy Koufax, the Brooklyn-born Los Angeles Dodger who, for a half-decade in the 1960s, was simply one of the best pitchers ever.
But as the 2023 season gets underway Thursday (March 30), it’s become clear that the three Jewish players in the 2021 Fall Classic were no anomaly. In fact, we may at this very moment be on the cusp of a golden age for Jews in the sport.
It’s not the raw numbers alone: The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reported that 17 Jews suited up for major league teams in 2022, a record in all likelihood. On opening day this year, there are only slightly fewer, with 14 Jews on major league rosters (though some will begin the season on the injured list. Oy).
But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Of the three who took the field in in October 2021, two were bona fide stars — the Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and Braves pitching ace, lefty Max Fried. The third, outfielder Joc Pederson, had been a World Series fixture for both the Dodgers and Braves since 2017.
Bregman and Pederson are both 30 years old. If they stay healthy for another six or seven seasons, they may well finish with more than 300 career home runs apiece, a height only previously scaled by Greenberg and Shawn Green, a former Toronto Blue Jay and Dodger who retired in 2007. Fried, the 2021 World Series hero, finished second in 2022 in the National League Cy Young voting. (Aside from Koufax, the only Jew to win a Cy Young Award and the last to do so was Steve Stone, in 1980.)
But it’s not just the World Series troika. Rowdy Tellez slugged 35 home runs last season for the Milwaukee Brewers, tied for fifth in the National League. Scott Effross, Dean Kremer and Harrison Bader, all under 30, have all established themselves as solid major league contributors.
And there are more in the pipeline. Jared Shuster, a pitcher, is considered the top prospect in the Atlanta organization and may join his co-religionist Fried in the Braves rotation this season. Indeed, Shuster is only the fifth Jewish player in the 58-year history of the annual MLB amateur draft to have been selected in the first round. Three of those five, including Shuster, are still playing, including the aforementioned Bregman and Fried. (One Jew, Ron Blomberg, was drafted first overall, by the Yankees, in 1967. Blomberg is also credited with having been the first designated hitter in major league history, when he batted in 1973.)
Zack Gelof, a 23-year-old outfielder, is considered the No. 3 overall prospect in the Oakland A’s organization (and as JTA reports, his younger brother, Jake, is a possible first round draft choice later this year). Another intriguing prospect a bit lower in the minors is 21-year old pitcher Eric Reyzelman, the son of Ukrainian and Moldovan immigrants, whom the Yankees drafted in 2022. His pitches have been clocked at 100 miles an hour.
So, accounting for the presence of Jews already on major league rosters, the productivity among the major leaguers and the young talent knocking on the door of “The Show,” it might be that the year 5783, according to the Jewish calendar, will be remembered as the beginning of the most glorious time for Jewish ballplayers, and their fans.
(Jonathan Weiler is a professor of global studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and co-hosts the sports and politics podcast “Agony of Defeat.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)