08/30/2004 6:21 PM ET
Jewish players celebrated at Hall
By Bill Francis / Special to MLB.com
Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner was famously quoted as having said, "There ain't much to being a ballplayer, if you're a ballplayer."
|Eight former Jewish Major Leaguers gathered at the Hall of Fame on Aug. 29. Top row (left to right): Mike Epstein, Ron Blomberg, Ken Holtzman and Bob Tufts. Bottom: Larry Yellen, Elliott Maddox, Richie Schienblum and Norm Sherry. (Milo Stewart Jr./Baseball HOF Library)
Honus Wagner's sentiments were shared by many of the eight former big leaguers in attendance at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as it hosted "A Celebration of American Jews in Baseball." Richie Scheinblum, a seven-year veteran of Major League action, concurred, adding, "I think most Jewish ballplayers would rather be just anonymous baseball players who are Jewish."
The Cooperstown weekend featured 15 events during the two-day celebration ranging from roundtable discussions with former Major Leaguers, a youth skills clinic, trivia contests, and book signings to presentations from authors and filmmakers.
The celebration was inspired by a set of baseball cards issued last year and produced by the Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc. The card set, made up of the 142 Jewish players in Major League history up to that point (Boston's Kevin Youkilis has brought the total to 143), includes two Hall of Famers -- Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg -- as well as such current players as Shawn Green, Brad Ausmus, Gabe Kapler, Jason Marquis and Mike Lieberthal.
In attendance at the Hall of Fame was Mike Epstein, a former first baseman who considered himself fortunate to be Jewish, even though he had "to figure out how to manipulate my schedule of practices and Hebrew school on Tuesday afternoon, Thursday afternoon, Saturday morning."
"To get out here with the throng of Jewish people and to be not singled out but to be included in a group like this is really special," said Epstein on Sunday night. "I've been blessed. And I honestly believe being a Jewish player and crossing the white lines everyday was one of the biggest thrills that I ever had because I was representing people that I really cared about.
"It's just not celebrating my Jewishness today, but it's almost a culmination of the celebration all during my nine-year Major League career."
Other players appearing for the events included Ron Blomberg, Ken Holtzman, Larry Yellen, Bob Tufts, Elliott Maddox and Norm Sherry. Visiting authors and filmmakers included Marty Appel, Nicholas Dawidoff, Jane Leavy, Roger Abrams and Aviva Kempner.
Holtzman, an author of two no-hitters, came with friends as well as his high school coach.
"This was one opportunity that they got to see not just me but Jewish heritage in the Major Leagues," Holtzman said. "You're proud to be Jewish and represent a group that historically hasn't been in great numbers in Major League sports, but all of us here finally made it to the major leagues. It's good to go back and reflect once in a while."
"I've been blessed. And I honestly believe being a Jewish player and crossing the white lines everyday was one of the biggest thrills that I ever had because I was representing people that I really cared about."
-- Mike Epstein
For Blomberg, baseball's first designated hitter and currently working on his autobiography entitled "Designated Hebrew," the taunts he suffered as a young minor league because of his religion stay with him to this day.
"When you're 17 years old and you've never heard any of that stuff before and then all of a sudden you get some catcalls in the minor leagues, 'Jew boy' and things like that, it does hurt you," Blomberg said. "But you know that you've got to prevail and come out of it and I feel like I did."
Epstein felt he never encountered anti-Semitism on the ball field, but he had a good reason for that.
"I think the Jewish players in the '40s and '50s absorbed the brunt of it, blazed a trail for us. I really didn't notice anything," Epstein said. "Of course I was a lot bigger than the average player, too, so they probably wouldn't have said anything to my face."
Scheinblum hopes that events like the one at the Hall of Fame will inspire future Jewish ballplayers.
"I bet that there are a lot of quality Jewish baseball players out there that may have shied away because of there being only a handful in the past," Scheinblum said. "But now all of a sudden they're seeing Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler playing and maybe they'll say, 'Hey, why I don't I try it?'"
Daniel C. Kurtzer, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, who recently helped organize the first Jewish-Arab baseball game for Israeli youngsters, made the trip to upstate New York from the Middle East especially to participate in the weekend's events.
"I've loved the game and I thought the idea of this kind of conference just seemed like a really good way to bring together a number of parts of my own life," Kurtzer said. "The Jewish ballplayer has made a serious contribution to baseball not because they were Jewish but because they were part of American life and played the game as well as anybody else."
Kurtzer thinks the idea of role-modeling is probably the single most important thing that can come out of celebrations like this.
"There was one woman who asked a question today: 'What do I do with my kid who only wants to play baseball 24 hours a day?' And the answer is 'Make sure he reads books, but let him play. It's a good game,'" Kurtzer said. "The kid may not make it to the Majors, but he's really probably going to have a good life if he likes the game."
Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey may have summed it up best in his welcoming comments Sunday morning. Standing on the outside steps of the Hall of Fame before hundreds of spectators, he said. "Sure we have Jewish Hall of Famers immortalized in the plaque gallery a few feet from here. Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg are two of our greatest. But baseball and Judaism is about much more than just Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg. We'll remember the dignity and the grace and the courage of 143 Jewish-American big leaguers.
"Is there any other sport like ours that allows us to blend our customs and our beliefs and our culture with our passion for the game? It's a beautiful thing."
Bill Francis is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.