Rabbi’s Newsletter for November, 2016
From the Heart: A Tale of Two Jews!
At the time of writing, two teams will face off in an effort to end “their curse!” They are the Cubs who have not won a World Championship since 1908 and the Cleveland Indians whose deficit goes back to 1948. Being ethnocentric, I thought it important to research the Jewish connections not only to these years (1908 – Turkey gave Jews political rights) and (1948 – the State of Israel is founded) but to two “Jewish” ball players who were present at their last victories: Al Rosen (Cleveland Indians 1947 – 56) and Johnny Kling(Chicago Orphans/Cubs (1900–1908,1910–1911). Though each was part of the historic victories for their respective teams, these two could not have been more different.
Al Rosen was born (guess where?) in Spartanburg. His life was the stuff about which movies were made: Navy Lieutenant in WWII (He navigated an assault boat in the initial landing on Okinawa in the bitter battle for the island.), professional boxer, stockbroker, and baseball executive. (In 1978 he became President/CEO of the Yankees (1978–79), then the Astros (1980–85), then president and general manager of the Giants (1985–92).) While many a legend is celebrated about Sandy Koufax’s bravado and of Hank Greenberg’s refusal to allow an anti-Semitic barb to go unanswered, Rosen was that and more. Rosen challenged an opposing player who had “slurred [his] religion” to fight him under the stands. And during a game, when Red Sox bench player Matt Batts taunted Rosen with anti-Semitic names, Rosen called time and left his position on the field to confront Batts. Hank Greenberg recalled that Rosen “wanted to go into the stands and murder” fans who hurled anti-Semitic insults at him. For this reason alone he was called the “Hebrew Hammer!”
By comparison, while Johnny Kling was a fine ball player, his “Jewishness” was quite questionable. Like Rosen, he led a decent and productive life. Baseball player: owner of a baseball team where he desegregated the stands so blacks could sit with whites freely and without recrimination and an owner of a legendary hotel and billiard parlor which gained a national reputation. As for his Jewishness, the picture is less clear. Historians have debated his ethnicity for nearly a century. While his wife and children were undoubtedly Jewish (they were married by a rabbi), Kling’s identity has been sidelined for decades. Rumors abounded that his wife falsely claimed he converted to Christianity to better his chances of making it into the Hall of Fame. Bogen is a retired Chicago psychiatrist and author of the recently published book, “Johnny Kling: A Baseball Biography” (McFarland & Company). A lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, Bogen maintains that Kling, the hub of the 1906-10 Cubs, “deserves to be recognized as the first Jewish baseball star. Not Greenberg.”
After spending an hour researching this history, I must plead what my teacher called “Historical agnosticism,” a fancy way of saying “I have no idea!”
However, this “Tale of the Two Jews” does give me pause. If Kling was Jewish, he clung loosely to his heritage while Rosen did cling on to his heritage unashamedly and proudly.
He was the truest champion on the field and off, standing tall, holding the line against all those who sought to diminish him and his faith.
By the time this writing reaches your eyes we may well know who has won or who will most likely win the series, The Cubs or Cleveland, both deserving, both worthy. I imagine both Rosen and Kling will be watching the games from on high.
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz D.D.