By Bruce F. Lowitt
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Think Jewish baseball players.
OK, now that you’ve come up with Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, think about, say, a dozen Jewish major leaguers playing right now.
There’s Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox and Gabe Kapler of the Rays, and … um … Ryan Braun of the Brewers and … and … is John Grabow of the Cubs Jewish? (Yes.)
And Shawn Green of the Mets? Sorry. He hasn’t played since 2007.) Oh, and David Eckstein of the Padres. (Sounds like he might be Jewish, but he’s not.)
And how’s Braun doing this year? (Very well, thank you, as is Youkilis.) And why is it necessary to scour the box scores in the newspaper or online sites to find out how Grabow is doing this year?
Former St. Petersburg Times reporter Scott Barancik created the Jewish Baseball News, online at www.jewishbaseballnews.com in May for just that purpose.
The Rays’ Gabe Kapler is one of the players followed on the new website: http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com It isn’t his first online venture.
He is also the founder, in 2008, of www.baylawsuits.com, a news service that researches court cases – about 2,000 so far — for his clients. That venture was an outgrowth of the former American Banker writer and then eight-year Times business reporter being caught up in the first wave of layoffs as the economy slumped.
Looking back on it, he acknowledges, “I think daily journalism was not for me. I always had trouble making deadlines. I was much more into wordsmithing than the job and time allowed.”
He came up with the idea for http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com while researching his family history.
“At some point, probably in my 20s (he turned 46 on May 21), well after I’d become interested in baseball in general, Barancik said, “I started looking into genealogy, trying to find ancestors, immigrants who’d changed their names when they got here or were in some other way concealed by the records of history.”
After a while, he said, “I thought, ‘I’m spending all this time on dead people. … There are all these living (relatives) I don’t know about. Maybe I should concentrate on looking at the family tree going forward.”
He realized he had the same attitude about Jewish ballplayers, about having a sense of pride in the performance of Jewish athletes.
But do an Internet search for Jewish major leaguers and you’ll find that most of the sites take a historical approach, looking back at Koufax, Greenberg, Cal Abrams, Rod Carew, Al Rosen, Moe Berg, Ron Blomberg, and dozens of names rarely mentioned outside of a line or two in the Baseball Encyclopedia’s list of all-time players.
If there are discussions, debates, it often comes down to just what makes a player Jewish. Did Carew convert or did he not? If a player has a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother, is he Jewish? Does it matter how observant he is?
“I found that a turnoff,” Barancik said, “and, kind of like with my family history, it made me look to the present. Who’s Jewish today? … I started looking into it and I was blown away that there were more than a dozen last year.
“I started asking my Jewish friends, ‘How many Jews do you think are playing (in the major leagues) today? Invariably they said, ‘One?’ ‘Two?’ Usually Youkilis, maybe Braun.”
He found it interesting that when people say Jewish ballplayer, Koufax and Greenberg – and rarely anyone else – come to mind.
“There’s all of this stuff going on now and why aren’t we celebrating that?” Barancik said. “And I thought, ‘How can I keep track of these guys, keep track of how they’re doing? How can I, y’know, live out the Jewish male fantasy of seeing how these Members of the Tribe are performing on a daily basis.’ ”
Unlike other websites, jewishbaseballnews.com provides daily and season-total up-to-date statistics of the 12 current “Members of the Tribe” major-league players, plus blogs, news updates, and features, Barancik said.
There are other websites devoted to Jewish athletes in general and baseball players in particular, notably jewishsportsreview.com, run by Shel Wallman and Ephraim Moxson.
It’s a one-man operation at the moment — with a lot of assistance from Wallman and Moxson.
“At this point I’m relying on them,” Barancik said. “They don’t call me every time they find someone and say, ‘Hey, there’s a new Jew.’ When they find somebody new they break it in their own publications. But they’ve been very generous in sharing their information with me, the historical stuff they’ve gathered.
“They’re the go-to people for knowing who is Jewish. They call players or their families and try to both confirm that they’re Jewish and comfortable with being identifi ed as Jewish in a publication,” Barancik said.
He is developing a blog for features and opinion pieces. He says he wants to add more bloggers and to establish a give-and-take with his readers and hopes that, over time, he can introduce other writers “who have a voice and are interested in waxing eloquent on the subject of Jewish baseball players.”
He has also learned that feeling pride in the success of one member of a group, whether it’s religious (Greenberg), racial (Joe Louis) or anything else, is commonplace.
“I’ve met folks from the Dominican Republic who can name every one of the roughly 40 Dominican players in the majors,” Barancik said, “and fans who can tell you every Cuban-born player. There’s that sense of pride, and I think that we as Jews feel the same way.”
He wonders if, in fact, there’s anyone else out there with the same passion, the sense of group pride. He thinks there is, although he doesn’t have an answer yet because the site is barely a month old.
But that’s why I created it,” Barancik said, “to indulge my own interest with the hope that others might be interested as well.”
Which begs the question: Why should that many people care about Youkilis as a Jew rather than what he’s doing to help carry the Red Sox? Why should people who aren’t Rays fans care about Gabe Kapler?
“I think it’s fair to say that if you’re not a baseball fan, if you’re not a Rays fan, you’re not going to care about Gabe Kapler,” Barancik said. “Granted, if there’s, say, an incredibly talented Jewish soccer player in the English Premier League, I wouldn’t care about him that much because I don’t really care about soccer.”
Barancik, a Chicago native and Cubs fan, said he was a Youkilis fan before discovering after the 2008 season that the Red Sox first baseman was Jewish.
“I never would have guessed it. Usually you tend to ‘hate’ the best guys on the other team, but I had such an admiration for Youkilis,” Barancik said. “He’s butt-ugly, he has the weirdest (batting) stance, he’ll foul off 10 pitches before he gets the one he likes. And he always seems to have fun. It was like, ‘I wish we had that guy.’ ”
This article previously appeared in the Jewish Press of Pinellas County.