A historical context is necessary to understand why this is so exciting.
The history of the Jews in the United States has been linked to baseball for decades. When my ancestors came through Ellis Island and saw the Message from the Statue of Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus – “Give me your tired, poor, huddled crowds who yearn to breathe freely.” – One of the quickest ways like this latest Making Americans breathe freely and, well, feel American was the game of baseball. That is why it has always been and always will be the national pastime for our people.
However, there is some degree of assimilation associated with this embrace of the game. Immigrants often gave up parts they were supposed to fit in, and that included players good enough to make it into the major leagues. As MLB historian John Thorn wrote in his “Overcome Adversity” essay that originally appeared in the book Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming Americans‘Names were often changed to avoid the hatred that sometimes came with being outwardly Jewish.
“Sammy Bohne and Phil Cooney were also born Cohen, as were Harry Kane and Reuben Ewing,” Thorn wrote. “Jesse Baker was born as Michael Silverman. Henry Lifeschütz became Henry Bostick. Joe Rosenblum became Joe Bennett. James Herman Soloman became Jimmie Reese. “
“There must have been at least half a hundred Jews involved, but we will never find out their real names,” wrote Ford Frick in 1925. They changed their names. “
Hank Greenberg helped change that narrative with his willingness to face any abuse and his ability to master home runs. Sandy Koufax was a two-coast hero, and the story of his sitting out in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series is passed down from generation to generation, just as the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is retold each year on Passover.
In today’s game, it’s not uncommon to have Jewish players in the major leagues. While the current Jewish baseball fan probably knows what Alex Bregman is up to or when Ryan Lavarnway will convene, Thorn argues that it’s more of something remarkable than actually celebrating like it was in the days of Koufax.
“It is now more routine than remarkable that Jews are baseball players – stars and extras like any nationality or creed,” he wrote. “Is that a triumph? Yes, but it’s also a challenge. What are these things that make Jews special – even chosen ones – if not their outsider status? What drives us to prove the individual excellence of our employees, alone or through our heroes? As a people forged in adversity, America’s Jews must find something else to create the bond that binds. As in the past, baseball will be of help. “
Thorn wrote this back in 2014, but his words seem forward-looking when you consider the 2021 draft as well as Steinmetz and Kligman.
Fans have to wait for both of them to play professionally. Steinmetz signed with Arizona, but Kligman decided to go to Wake Forest to begin his college career. Even so, what happened on days 2 and 3 of the draft earlier this month is nothing short of remarkable.
“At first it was like who I always was,” said Steinmetz, a right-handed pitcher from New York who pitched at Elev8 Academy in Florida this spring to increase his inventory. “But once I was kidnapped and I had all these people coming up and all… showing a lot of support and stuff. And I only get random emails from people I didn’t even know existed or from anywhere in the world. And to know that most of the Orthodox Jews are behind me and support me, it was just a great feeling. “
This goes beyond calling up a few Jewish players. While most Jewish players have assumed this part of their identity, and many are playing for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic and currently the Olympics, very few have paid attention. Being Orthodox means staying kosher and not doing things like driving a car or answering the phone on the Jewish Sabbath, which lasts from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Steinmetz will play during this time, but he must be able to run to and from the stadium while Kligman grew up without playing and will continue that practice in college and beyond.
Should either Steinmetz or Kligman advance to the major leagues, neither would be the first observant Jew to reach the highest level. Morrie Arnovich, who was said to have remained kosher throughout his career and played 1940 World Series games on Rosh Hashanah, was an All-Star and played for 10 years. The difference now seems to be that these players are being hailed and they both report that they received nothing but support during high school and now beyond. Steinmetz said the D-Backs are working with him to figure out how to adapt to his needs, and Kligman, a Las Vegas native, hasn’t seen much opposition to his beliefs.
“I had pretty much the same experience,” said Kligman. “Mostly people who are just curious and want to know what we’re doing [the Sabbath] and what we do on vacation, what we are allowed to, what we are not allowed to eat. I had people who were very interested here, they came to us for dinner on Friday night. But all of our experiences have been positive for me. “
There are all kinds of Jews all over the world, with varying degrees of attention. And suffice it to say, the more secular and attentive you have not always seen everything at eye level. But when Steinmetz and Kligman worked out there was no disagreement.
“My father said that Hasidic people would come forward and not religious people, as is the case across the spectrum of Judaism,” said Steinmetz. “It looks like me and Elie would only be able to get where we were, all kind of united for a bit.”
And there was support from non-Jews too. Although both had to answer many questions about their beliefs, they always came out of curiosity, not hate. They hope it will continue to do so as they grow their careers, knowing that regardless of your upbringing, you can be an example of who you are.
“I think the people who consider it a curiosity are not a bad thing at all,” Kligman said. “Because I think what I and Jacob are doing is showing people that you don’t have to change what you believe or do or anything to achieve what you want to do in life. And if people want to see it that way, I think that’s a good thing. “
Both teenagers understand that they are and will continue to be examples of how to be true to yourself while doing what you love. They’re both in a place where they hope to be known for their game on the field without shying away from the pioneering nature of their goals.
“My dad always said, ‘If you’re good enough, they’ll help you,'” said Kligman, whose dad is a Marc baseball agent. “So I think if we can show that we are good enough baseball players, I think that people and teams and regardless of age they will always find more acceptance than maybe not [been], at different times.”
This speaks for an important part of Thorn’s essay, in which he combines the experiences of former great Jewish players with those of Jackie Robinson, in whom the hope existed that the “other” would simply be known for excelling in the sport.
“That was Sandy’s success and Jackie and Hank’s success,” Thorn wrote. “In the end, the only question anyone who was asked was, ‘Can you play?’
“We are Orthodox Jews, we were drafted and are the first known Jews, and that will come with all this attention,” Steinmetz said. “But hopefully I’m not saying over the years that people can’t see me as a Jewish baseball player, but hopefully all that attention will go away. And people just look at me as a baseball player and see that it’s a normal thing that really anyone can do … that you can be religious and just be a normal baseball player.
“Even if it’s a non-Jewish child and see that you can be who you are, no matter what. If you stay true to the game and train and work hard enough, anything is really possible, no matter who you are, what you do and how you live. “