During this Coronavirus pandemic, I've been trying to scratch the itch for baseball. No games being played means nothing new is happening, but with that comes the opportunity to dig into baseball history. Throughout some of my offseason research, I stumbled onto the Jewish Baseball Museum. It's an online collection of Jewish baseball history, trivia, stats, and more. It is also an extremely comprehensive project, undertaken by several people. As someone who likes learning about the sub-cultures and deeper buried stories of baseball, I spent an afternoon reading the site.
Interested, I reached out to the museum. I was able to spend some time talking with Bob Wechsler, frontman of the Jewish Baseball Museum. He spent four decades as a sports newspaper editor for The Express-Times, a paper based out of Lehigh Valley. He covered sports for the eastern USA: Phillies, New York, and Orioles primarily. Bob has also authored several books, including an encyclopedia of Jewish baseball cards and a daily trivia of Jewish sports history. Bob was a pleasure to speak with, as with that kind of background, he's extremely knowledgeable about baseball history. He should have an open invite to trivia night, if you catch my drift. He's modest, and wouldn't give himself this title, but he's a legitimate baseball historian.
What began as an online museum has become a database and wealth of Jewish baseball information. It was founded by Jeff Aeder in 2016. Jeff accumulated Jewish themed baseball memorabilia, and had the dream of opening his own museum. Jeff also runs a famous BBQ restaurant, and didn't have the time to do it all himself, so he enlisted a few people to help out, one of whom was Bob. Life happens, and although the museum hasn't physically materialized yet, perhaps someday. For now, it's a very impressive online exhibit that's chock full of information.
I encourage you to check it out. There are full sections on players, a timeline, a section for memorabilia, a blog, videos and much more. Even on the homepage, they mention how few Jewish baseball players there have been. But looking through their collection, you couldn't tell.
As a former newspaper writer, Bob has accumulated decades of knowledge and baseball history. In addition to maintaining the website, he's working on assembling a Jewish baseball sports trivia calendar and a 365 day trivia page. I'm usually pretty good with baseball trivia but Bob was metaphorically doing laps around me during our conversation.
I asked Bob who the top 5 Jewish baseball players were. Beyond Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, I wasn't too sure who else might belong. Bob did me one better and gave me his Jewish All-Star team:
C Harry Danning: New York Giant and 4x All Star.
1B Hank Greenberg: A really cool baseball story you should look up, as one sentence won't suffice.
2B Ian Kinsler: Recently retired longtime Detroit Tiger.
SS Alex Bregman: He's played 20% of his games there, and the field is thin.
3B Al Rosen: A monster with the bat who unfortunately lost a few years to WW2 and injury.
OF Shawn Green: Longtime Blue Jay and Dodgers slugger.
OF Ryan Braun: Yes I gave him a little trash talking about this one.
OF Sid Gordon: Long time New York Giant.
P Sandy Koufax: A pitcher who needs no introduction
P Ken Holtzman: A pitcher who had two no hitters for the Cubs.
On the website, they did have a comprehensive list of Jewish baseball players. The list had a full bio for each player, so more like an encyclopedia. The criteria was that if the player had a Jewish parent and identified during his career, he's on the list. A couple of names I didn't quite realize:
• Bud Selig: Brewers owner and former commissioner
• Sam Fuld: the former Cub
• Steve Stone: pitcher, Cy Young winner, and broadcaster
• Scott Feldman: Jake Arrieta trade bait
• Theo Epstein: arguably the most likely next Jewish person to make the HOF
• Jose Bautista: Not the Blue Jays slugger, but a former Cubs pitcher
• Gabe Kapler: The favorite manager of the Cubs DNA ladies and whose nickname is the "Hebrew Hammer"
• Dave Roberts: **NOT** the Dodgers manager, a pitcher from 1969-81 (including 1 1/2 seasons with the Cubs)
• Jason Marquis: Pitcher for Cubs and Team Israel
We spoke about some of the struggles of Jewish baseball players in history. Fortunately, there's not a lot of prominent antisemitism in the game today, but back in the day, there were a lot of name calling and slurs and a few fights here and there. There was never a full barrier like there was for African American players, although some early players changed their name from more Jewish sounding names like Cohen, to avoid harassment.
There are 5 Jewish members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Just two are players: Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Three are executives: Marvin Miller, Bud Selig, and Barney Dreyfuss. Bob expressed disappointment that Al Rosen wasn't there but completely understood it was because of the lack of longevity. Bob did a good job of not playing favorites. Bob mentioned his fandom of Barney Pelty, a turn of the century pitcher who has the lowest ERA of all Jewish pitchers: 2.63 ERA but a hard luck 92-117 record.
Bob loves baseball cards. Heck, he wrote a book on them. In the early 2000s he worked on a project with a card publisher that was issuing cards for Jewish players who had no cards back in the day. He was able to attend a weekend symposium at the Baseball Hall of Fame as a part of the project, and got to meet many prominent figures in the Jewish baseball community.
If you have a chance, I highly recommend walking through the digital halls of the Jewish Baseball Museum! If we get lucky, it will someday have a physical presence. Bob's working on growing the JBM's Twitter page and could use some followers. T hanks again for taking the time to talk with us Bob!