Bases Bloated: The Jewish Baseball Museum’s Ed Sherman
Jews. We’re everywhere. We’re on your TV. We’re in the stands. We’re in the majors. And now, we’re on your internet. JewishBaseballMuseum.com is a website dedicated to those in the Jewish community who’ve changed the face of baseball. Whether they’re players like Moe Berg or writers like Jonathan Eig, JBM highlights the Heebs who are involved in baseball in some capacity.
We’re here, we’re schvitzing and like you, we’re ready to play ball.
Ed Sherman is the Managing Editor of JBM. He’s also an award-winning journalist for the Chicago Tribune. No bigs, right? I spoke to him about the power of the Torah – jokes! We spoke about baseball.
Me: Why do us Jews love baseball so much? What is it about the sport – because I don’t know any Jew who doesn’t love baseball.
Ed: I think Jews initially became attracted to the game and the intricacies as a way of being accepted. John Thorn who is now the Official Baseball Historian for MLB was actually born in Germany. He came over as a little boy from Germany and baseball kind of made him feel more American. And I don’t think we can underestimate the accomplishments of Hank Greenberg and what that did for a whole section of people. You know the Jews who came over from Europe and Eastern Europe, they kinda felt, here was this guy who was doing amazing things and he was one of them and he really kind of helped them assimilate into society.
I think going forward there is a strong connection of fathers passing down the game to their children and there’s some mothers too who love the game. That’s how I got to love the game, through my dad. It [baseball] started with those roots of helping them feel like they’re part of American culture but then it’s really just as basic as fathers passing the game down. I’ve done that with my kids.
Me: And have you made them into White Sox fans? [Ed is a big White Sox fan. When I called to do this interview, he was in the middle of watching a game.]
Ed: Well, I’ve got one White Sox fan and one Cubs fan. They call it sibling rivalry. I’m just happy that they’re both baseball fans.
Me: Jews as a community, we’re so quick to latch on to any player with a Jewish sounding name we feel sort of represents us. I’ll use Ryan Braun as an example because his mother is not Jewish which technically doesn’t make him a Jew and I’ve read conflicting reports, some say he was raised Jewish, some say he wasn’t and when he gives interviews he’s also kind of vague about it but we still love the guy. No matter what issues he had with illegal substances in the past, we still put him on a pedestal because we think he’s just like us. We do that with any guy who has a Jewish sounding last name whether they’re Jewish or not. I wonder if that plays in to what you were saying about the community and wanting to belong to something.
Ed: I think people are kind of surprised that there are eight or nine players playing in the big leagues who are Jewish and a couple of these guys are really playing at a high level right now – Ian Kinsler, Joc Pederson whose mother is Jewish, Ryan Braun’s off to a great start, Kevin Pillar of Toronto is a spectacular defensive player and he’s gonna hit … hopefully.
Me: Hopefully. [I am the reverse Pillar of my softball team. I can hit but I can’t field.]
Ed: So you kind of take pride that he’s one of ours. There’s not too many of us so it’s kind of neat when one of ours does something spectacular.
Me: Actually one of my questions is about Pillar – I was going to ask you if he’ll ever find his way to the Hall of Fame or at least find his way to hitting the ball.
Ed: Hall of famer? No. He does a lot of things well, you could argue that he and Kinsler are the best all around players – everyday you can see another highlight of a spectacular catch he’s made and yeah he’s struggling a bit at the plate. But a lot of guys are struggling this year and it’s kind of a weird year hitting wise. What he can do in terms of speed and defence even though he’s not hitting, he’s still making a contribution to the team.
Me: How did you get involved with JewishBaseballMuseum.com? You’ve had quite the career already, so how do you have the time?
Ed: There’s a guy in Chicago called Jeff Aeder, a local real estate guy, a big Jewish baseball fan who’s amassed this collection of Jewish baseball memorabilia – really cool stuff and he wants to not only display it but also tell the stories and he was looking for someone to help kinda tell the stories. I hooked up with him about 15 months ago and we do have plans to do an actual bricks and mortar museum in Chicago. Even on the website there’s an online museum where you can see a portion of Jeff’s artifacts. There’s really a connection to history. One of my favorite items is an autographed hall of fame ball with Sandy Koufax’s signature below Yogi Berra’s. It’s great because Berra had one of the all time great quotes on Koufax when after the World Series he said, “I can understand how he won 25 games but I can’t understand how he lost five.” So I just kinda got into it because I’m Jewish, I’m a sports writer, I love baseball. It’s a natural fit for me and as I got into it I learned that I don’t know as much as a I thought I knew. [Same here! I did the quiz on JBM and failed pretty hard.]
Me: I’m really impressed because one of the stories you feature on the site is about Justine Seigel. [The first woman to throw big league batting practice.] Baseball is mostly considered to be a man’s game since women can’t play in the majors. How important is it for you to showcase not just a woman but a Jewish woman who is involved in the Major Leagues?
Ed: I’m a big supporter of women, especially as a sports writer and I write about evening the playing field and this is great story because if you’re a young Jewish girl you can see that you can have a career in baseball. Everyone especially gravitates to stories where people beat the odds, where people say you nave no chance but she did have a chance and continues to beat the odds. Hopefully it will serve as an example not just for Jewish girls but for everyone. A lot of these stories, they obviously resonate because the connection for us is that they’re Jewish but a lot of these people just have great stories to tell. And that’s kind of our plan that yes, we want Jewish fans to see it [the site] but they’re also baseball stories too. It’s about baseball at the end of the day.
Me: I think we will one day see a woman playing in the majors.
Ed: Yes and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a woman general manger. A lot of general managers did not play baseball. Who’s to say a woman couldn’t be in there? Theo Epstein did not play baseball and he might be the greatest general manager of all time.
Me: So my favorite Jewish baseball player is Sandy Koufax.
Ed: I think you’re not alone there.
Me: I know and in my opinion he’s probably one of the most important baseball players ever and that has a lot to do with all the books I’ve read about him. [He played way, way, way before my time.] Plus there’s so much lore surrounding him. Like him not wanting to pitch on Yom Kippur and people claiming they saw him in schul [Synagogue or as my grandfather once described it to a hotel front desk clerk as “Jewish church.” My grandfather also thought he invented the McRib.] that day even though he wasn’t there. Why do you think that Sandy Koufax – who is still alive – is so shrouded in so much secrecy? Why do we still do this to this day and create urban legends around him? What is his power over us?
Ed: He was such an unbelievable pitcher for such a short period of time that it was so memorable. There are very few athletes who had such a short window – the only other one I can think of and he’s a Chicago connection is Gale Sayers. I mean he [Sayers] had a good three and half good years before his devastating knee injury but it was like no one has seen that before or since. He [Koufax] was arguably the greatest pitcher for 4-5 years that anyone had ever seen. Then he retired at his peak because of that arm condition so there’s that mystique. And if he was someone like a Pete Rose or one of these guys that’s always out there, you know maybe, would he have the same mystique? Part of it is that he doesn’t do many interviews, he’s kind of reclusive and it adds a little bit to the mystery that you kind of perk of when you do see him talking or see him at an all star game like you did last year. Even though he’s not a recluse – he was at Dodger Stadium this year for opening day – he just does not like to talk to the media and he doesn’t like the attention. I think in his perfect world he’d just be Sandy Cohen, [Shout out to Peter Gallagher. Yeah, I watched The O.C. What of it?] who’s just a guy that sells insurance and wasn’t recognized when he goes to places. We did a piece last week on Jeff Passan who had an interview with Koufax and he talked about – here’s this guy who’s interviewed everybody and he was nervous going into that interview, didn’t want to screw it up. And to me that was kind of like all of us. I have that too. I always get more excited to interview people that I grew up watching and I always try to picture myself as being 12 or 13 years old never imaging that I would talk to someone as famous as Sandy Koufax or Mickey Mantle or for me one of the Cubs like Ernie Banks – and I got to know him later in his life – but as a kid the idea that Ernie Banks would ever call me back was like whoa. I think that Koufax was so spectacular and he’s kind of a forever young kind of guy because we never really say him get old like Willie mays, Hank Aaron of Mickey Mantle.
Me: He reminds me so much of JD Salinger and how Salinger handled his personal life as well. [Minus Salinger’s pervy interest in young women. The Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book but come on, dude liked him some way younger ladies.]
Ed: But even then, JD Salinger you didn’t see at all but Sandy Koufax you see. He’s at opening day every year and he goes to spring training. It’d be a thrill just to talk to him. If you go to our site you can see him pitch Game 5 and Game 7 of the 1965 World Series where he’s on two days rest and he shuts [everyone] down and is constantly pounding the strike zone. He’s so graceful. That was the other thing too. There was an element of perfection, that spectacularly graceful motion. And he was, still is a great looking guy. [Damn right.] Everything was in place.
Me: I actually googled him after watching what you have on the site because I couldn’t remember how old he is. He’s 80. He doesn’t look 80 at all.
Ed: He’s one of these forever young kind of guys. You never saw him at less than his peak.
Me: Let’s talk about anti-Semitism. Although we’d like to hope it’ll eventually disappear, it plays a very large role in our society in North America. I see JewishBaseballMuseum.com and the actual museum that is slated to open in the future as a way to show everyone that hates us for no reason how awesome we are and that we can play in the majors and we can write and that whatever your preconceived notions are of the Jewish people as a whole you’re kind of knocking them down.
Ed: It’s interesting you say that because some of those preconceived notions are held by Jewish people too. ‘What do you mean, we play baseball?’ And yeah, we do. I think part of the story of Jews in baseball is about overcoming and dealing with anti-Semitism. The early players who changed their Jewish sounding names so they wouldn’t be subjected to it. We know that Hank Greenberg was really subjected to it as a high-profile player. It’s pretty well documented, the taunts and what was said to those players. And there were time where they couldn’t stay in hotels because they were Jewish. It’s also interesting to note that some of the Jewish players helped with the integration of baseball because they gave the African-American players a lot encouragement and support because they went through something similar.
Me: My grandparents were Holocaust survivors so it’s important for me to see those stories.
Ed: Exactly. Especially for young kids, they don’t really see it [anti-Semitism] but their parents or grandparents did so I don’t think they realize how you can use sports to tell a story. It’s kind of like, yes they persevered but they had to go through a lot BS to get to this point. I’m always a believer in paying tribute and not forgetting the past the people who came before you.
Me: You’re showcasing a certain sect of our people by saying look at all this talent we have.
Ed: We get into non-players, the writers, the owner and the guy who wrote ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ was Jewish. So again, the contributions are immense and look at Marvin Miller and Bud Selig.
Me: It’s nice for me to know that site like this is out there. When I was a kid the internet didn’t exist so it’s not like I could go online and look up my favorite Jewish player. You’re taking all your encyclopedic knowledge and you’re hiring great writers who also have a history in sports writing and you’re putting it all in one place.
Ed: There are a lot of good stories to tell. We’ve just scratched the surface.
Even if you’re not one of the chosen ones, check out JewishBaseballMuseum.com.
*Photo of Ed Sherman courtesy of Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune