Just as a team still can win a baseball game when its best fielder drops a popup, people at Wednesday's "A Night of Jewish Baseball" fundraiser at Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove still can celebrate their stars even if one is guilty of committing a ghastly error.
That error doesn't come up much among the dozens of people buying tickets for a raffle where the top prize is a piece of stunning artwork signed by dozens of Jewish baseball players, executives and celebrities. Others flock around a table where retired Jewish Major League Baseball players Ron Blomberg, Ross Baumgarten and Art Shamsky are signing autographs.
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The only Jewish player drafted No. 1, Blomberg was a lifetime .302 hitter with the New York Yankees until injuries took their toll and he retired at age 30 after spending the 1978 season with the White Sox. Famous for being baseball's first designated hitter (he drew a bases-loaded walk on Opening Day of the 1973 season), Blomberg titled his autobiography "Designated Hebrew: The Ron Blomberg Story."
"Our religion is very important to us," says Blomberg, who grew up in Georgia and says "half my teammates were in the KKK."
Most players marked their bats by writing their uniform numbers on the knobs. Blomberg drew Jewish stars on his bats.
This celebration of Jewish baseball players, the artwork, book, a DVD and the jewishbaseballplayer.com website are the result of a vision by Greg Harris, a 48-year-old Buffalo Grove personal injury attorney who got the idea while visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame with his son, Sam, and seeing a signed print featuring old Negro League players.
Harris commissioned the same artist, Ron Lewis, to paint a picture featuring Hall-of-Famers Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg and other prominent Jewish ballplayers before a crowd featuring luminaries such as Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Cubs executive Theo Epstein and Marvin Miller, the legendary boss who made the players union what it is today. Then Harris set out to get them to autograph 500 prints of the picture.
"Our strategy was to get Koufax to agree first and then everyone else will want to be a part of it," Harris remembers. But getting in touch with the reclusive Koufax wasn't easy.
"We couldn't even get a 'no' from him," recalls Harris, who opted for an alternative strategy that worked. "We got all the other players first and then used the Jewish guilt to get Koufax to be part of it."
Baumgarten, 58, a left-handed pitcher who won 13 games for the White Sox as a rookie in 1979, was one of three Jewish players on that South Side squad. He was joined by Blomberg and Steve Stone, who won the 1980 Cy Young Award with the Baltimore Orioles, pitched for the Cubs, broadcast for the Cubs and now is part of the TV crew broadcasting Sox games.
Shamsky, 71, was a .300 hitter for the New York Mets during their miracle championship season of 1969 and once hit home runs in four consecutive at-bats. Injuries cut short his career, and he retired in 1972 after a brief stint with the Cubs.
As for the error mentioned at the start of this column, it can best be summarized by the Yiddish word "shanda," which is directed at someone who brings public shame upon himself. Portrayed in the painting next to Koufax, disgraced slugger Ryan Braun is a shanda. Once the poster boy for Jewish ballplayers, the 2011 MVP and Milwaukee Brewers left fielder was suspended for the rest of the year in July for violating the league's code against using performance-enhancing drugs. Union executive director Michael Weiner, whose likeness and autograph also appear on the Jewish artwork, has been a leader in pushing to get those drugs out of baseball.
While a few members of the crowd joke about Braun now having the time to do more charity work, the Jewish superstar "was a role model to a lot of Jews" until he "unfortunately got caught up in the nonsense," says Blomberg. While he supports the ban, Blomberg suggests the vilified Braun still has a chance to redeem himself and rebuild his character.
The top video on jewishbaseballplayer.com is the one showing Braun autographing prints of the painting of Jewish players.
"Being Jewish is something that I've always been really proud of," Braun says. "And, hopefully, I can be an inspiration and a role model to young Jewish kids out there to believe that they can make it to the Major Leagues just like I have."
Well, maybe not exactly the way Braun did it. But if a young Jewish kid, or a baseball player of any faith, is looking for role models, the "Jews in Baseball" painting provides plenty of people worth emulating.