“Gentlemen, in order to be a success in the American rabbinate, you must be able to talk baseball.” - Solomon Schechter (1847-1915), early leader of Conservative Judaism in America
Passenger: Do you have any light reading?
Elaine Dickinson: How about this leaflet, Famous Jewish Sports Legends?
Over the course of the past century, it has seemingly been the Holy Grail (if you will forgive the mixing of religious metaphors) of New York baseball teams to find a Jewish superstar that would draw in fans. While Ike Davis has established himself as an everyday player if not (yet) a superstar, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at his colleagues.
First, a basic ground rule: who is a Jew? According to Jewish law, there is no such thing as being half Jewish: if your mother is Jewish – or you’ve undergone conversion – you’re Jewish. If your father is Jewish and your mother isn’t, you’re not Jewish. Most lists of Jewish athletes tend not to distinguish between the two, and for simplicity's sake I’m not going to either. There are others who may have Jewish roots, but may not be Jewish themselves. In addition, different sources have conflicting information. I have used www.jewishmajorleaguers.org as a reference tool, but it doesn't always give a player's roots. Also, no matter what your personal beliefs are, you can’t really renounce your Judaism. So before you mention this in your comments, this is the reason why David Newhan is on the list. Feel free to mention anyone else I may have missed.
The first Jewish player in Mets history was Joe Ginsberg, a 35 year old journeyman catcher who had played more than 10 years in the American League. Ginsberg was a member of the Original Mets of 1962. He played in two games that April, went 0 for 5 and was released faster than you can say Harry Chiti. He would never play again in the majors. Sadly, Ginsberg died on November 2 of this year.
The next season saw the appearance of another catcher, Norm Sherry. Norm was a minor league lifer who finally made the Dodgers as a backup catcher in 1958, where his brother Larry was a pitcher. Norm played in a career high 63 games in 1963, he hit .136 with 2 home runs and 11 RBI in 147 at bats. And that would be the end of his career as well.
In September 1965, Greg Goossen would be called up. There is conflicting information regarding Goossen's roots: while Jewish Major Leaguers includes him on its list, Wikipedia does not state his religion, and a comment to a piece about Goossen in The Hardball Times claims that he was a lifelong Roman Catholic. (Both could be right: if Goossen's mother had been Jewish, Goossen would have been Jewish as well, no matter which religion he may have practiced.) It was about Goossen and fellow 20 year old prospect Ron Swoboda that Casey Stengel was alleged to have said, “in ten years Swoboda has a chance to be a star. In ten years Goossen has a chance to be thirty.” In fact, by the time Goossen first appeared in the majors, Stengel had already retired, although it’s possible the quote could have been said during spring training. It’s too bad that Goossen didn’t play for Stengel, because that would have been quite a trifecta: after being traded away in 1969, he would play for Joe Schultz and the Seattle Pilots (and be mentioned in Ball Four) and for the Washington Senators under Ted Williams. Goossen would be a Met in parts of four seasons (1965-1968), playing 99 games and hitting .202 in 238 at bats with 2 home runs and 16 at bats. His post-baseball career was even more eclectic: he would go on to join his brother Dan in managing boxers, and it was during that time he would meet Gene Hackman and eventually not only be Hackman's double but also appear in several of his movies. (The fact that Goossen and I were both born on December 14 is purely coincidental.)
For the 1968 season, Goossen would be joined by Art Shamsky, who had the most successful career of a Jewish player in Mets history pre-Ike. Shamsky was a St. Louis area native who had attended University City High School, a place that seemingly had an unusual connection in team history: among its alumni were former team president Bing Devine, former players Bernard Gilkey and Robert (traded for John Olerud) Person, and another prominent Jewish ballplayer, Ken Holtzman, who would battle the Mets as a 1969 Cub and beat the Mets in Games 1 and 7 of the 1973 World Series for Oakland. While with Cincinnati in 1966, Shamsky would tie the major league record with homers in four consecutive at bats. Art did it the hard way – two of the homers were done while pinch hitting. (Incidentally, Shawn Green would also hit four consecutive homers in his career; unfortunately, they both did it before arriving in Flushing.) One of the issues that always come up with Jewish ballplayers is playing on the High Holidays. In 1969, Shamsky wasn’t sure what to do and so he asked Gil Hodges for advice. Hodges told Shamsky to do what he would support Art no matter what. So Art took the night off and went to a synagogue in Pittsburgh, where the Mets were playing. The next day, Shamsky went into the clubhouse not knowing what had happened. The players gave him a razzing about letting the team down before letting him know that the Mets had swept a double header from the Pirates, winning each game by a score of 1-0. And the only run in each game had been driven in by the starting pitcher – Jerry Koosman in the opener and Don Cardwell in the nightcap. Shamsky’s numbers as a Met for four seasons (1968-1971) dwarf the other (pre-Ike) players listed here – in 406 games (1,186 at bats), Art hit .266 with 42 homers and 162 RBI, with a comnined fWAR of 7.7. One of his post career highlights was managing the Modi'in Miracle in the Israel Baseball League's one and only season in 2007. The Miracle would lose in the championship game to the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, managed by Ron Blomberg, whose career with the Yankees paralleled Shamsky's Mets career. (Incidentally, the name Miracle was a true stroke of genius: besides the 1969 connection, ancient Modi'in was the locale of the beginning of a revolt against the Syria-Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes in the year 165 BCE, culminating in the holiday now known as Chanuka.)
Bob Myrick, a left handed pitcher from 1976 through '78, has probably the most tenuous connection on this list. His Jewishness stem from being the grand nephew of Buddy Myer, a second baseman from 1925 through1941 and AL batting champion in 1935. Myer was historically included in lists of Jewish major leaguers -- I remember reading about him while I was a child -- I have not found any evidence that Myrick himself was Jewish. (There is no guarantee that the men in the family married Jewish women. Allowing for the possibility that the name Myer was Anglicized into Myrick does not shed light either way.) Furthermore, Bill James wrote in The New Historical Baseball Abstract that Myer was not Jewish after all. I'm still including him on the offhand possibility. Besides, there's only one other pitcher listed here, and as ordinary as Myrick was, he was a lot better than the other one as a Met. Myrick would pitch in 82 games (5 starts), going 3-6 with 2 saves and an ERA of 3.48.
Elliott Maddox was a unique player: the only Met who converted to Judaism. After the 1977 season, he would do something that was arguably even more unusual: he signed a free agent contract with the Mets during the de Roulet era. It was even more unusual because in 1975, while playing for the Yankees in Shea Stadium (Yankee Stadium was being renovated at the time), Maddox would hurt his knee and later unsuccessfully sue the Yankees, the Mets as well as New York City (which owned Shea). His three seasons with the Mets (1978-1980) did not fare much better: 335 games (1,024 at bats), a batting average of .255 with 7 homers and 85 RBI.
It would be a quarter century until the Mets acquired their next Jewish player when Shawn Green came from Arizona in a 2006 trade. Green had easily the best overall career of anyone here, compiling a career fWAR of 34.9, including three different seasons of at least 5.7. Unfortunately, injuries had taken their toll, and Green was exactly replacement level for his Mets career. He retired after 2007, his one full season in New York.
For the 2007 season, Green would be joined by David Newhan and Scott Schoeneweis, making it the only year there were as many as three Jewish players on the Mets at one time. Neither of these men distinguished themselves any more than Green did: In Newhan's one season as a (f)utility infielder, he played in 56 games, batting .203 in in only 83 at bats, with one homer and 6 RBI. Schoeneweis, counted on to be a LOOGY, pitched in 143 games (all in relief), going 2-8 with 3 saves and an ERA of 4.20.
Finally, we come to two Mets who should be familiar to this audience: Ike Davis and Josh Satin. Since arriving in 2010, Davis has hit for a .252 average with 58 honers and 186 RBI In 339 games and 1,171 at bats, good for an fWAR of 6.4. That brings Ike just short of Shamsky in fWAR; Baseball Reference has Shamsky ahead by 5.5 to 5.0. (A change at the top is eagerly anticipated for 2013.) Meanwhile, Satin has had a couple of glasses of hot tea in the majors, going 5 for 26 (.192) in 16 games over the last two seasons, with no homers and only 2 RBI. As of this writing, Satin is not on the 40 man roster, leading to consternation among followers of Jewish ballplayers, not to mention one Jeff Paternostro.
The pattern of our list is mostly a group of has beens and never wases: only Davis and Maddox have spent any significant time as a regular, with Shamsky playing mainly a platoon role. Before Davis and Satin, only Goossen and Myrick would begin their careers as Mets. Newhan lasted one season after leaving New York, while Goossen, Shamsky and Schoeneweis would manage at least parts of two seasons. All the others saw their careers end as Mets. Personally, I would not object to Ike Davis finishing his career in Flushing as a Met -- provided it's not for another 15 years and after about another 400 more homers.