As baseball season heads into the home stretch and the High Holy Days approach, Ryan Braun is supplying a double dose of suspense: Will the Milwaukee Brewers’ slugging third baseman become the first Jewish player to be named Rookie of the Year in either league? And does he plan to take a day off on Yom Kippur in the tradition of Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green?
Braun, 25, has made an impact since his debut at the end of May. The California native made history in July by becoming the first player to be named the National League’s Rookie of the Month and Player of the Month.
After 83 games he was batting .333 with 25 home runs and 66 runs batted in.
If Braun, the son of an Israeli who immigrated to the United States at age 7, is selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America as the N.L.’s top rookie, it would mark a first in Major League Baseball history.
Jewish Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Lou Boudreau played before the award was instituted in 1947. Koufax wasn’t even close in 1955. Nor were the nine current Jewish major leaguers: Shawn Green, Brad Ausmus, Mike Lieberthal, Jason Marquis, Kevin Youkilis, Scott Schoeneweis and John Grabow, along with promising second-year players Ian Kinsler and Jason Hirsh.
The closest any Jewish player came to winning Rookie of the Year was another slugging third baseman, Al Rosen of the Cleveland Indians. In 1950 he led the American League with 37 home runs, but lost out in the balloting to Red Sox first baseman Walt Dropo, who batted .322 and was the RBI leader with 144.
Rosen went on to become the American League MVP in 1953, while Dropo never came close to matching his rookie totals.
Over the years, as the baseball season has wound down toward the playoffs, observers of Jews in baseball traditionally wonder what the prominent Jewish players will do on Yom Kippur, play or pray.
In earlier decades, Greenberg and Koufax made the American Jewish community proud with their decisions to sit out on the holy day — Greenberg attended services; Koufax did not. Boudreau publicly denied his Jewishness until the last years of his life. Green, the premier Jewish ballplayer of this era, has played and prayed depending on the year and the situation of his team.
Why believe he will take off on Yom Kippur?
Perhaps it’s his connection to Greenberg: Braun lived for a time with his maternal grandfather in a house that once belonged to the legendary Detroit Tigers’ slugger.
Then there is the interview Braun gave to the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.
“Being Jewish is something I take great pride in,” he told the paper. “There aren’t too many Jewish athletes who have achieved success at the highest level, so it’s something I’m very proud of.”
Of course, there is at least one good reason to believe he will play: Milwaukee is in the thick of a tight three-team race for the Central Division title and would hate to lose his bat, even for one night.
The Brewers aren’t providing any clues; they haven’t returned calls on the issue. So fans will just have to wait until Sept. 21 to find out if Braun will be wearing a uniform or a kippah.
Martin Abramowitz is the founding president of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc.