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Ryan Braun is a Major League Baseball Star. So, Why Haven’t Jews Embraced Him?

Why MLB’s most productive Jewish player deserves fans—despite missing out on the All-Star Game and facing suspension

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Ryan Braun. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
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In an American sports landscape where figures of personal identification can be difficult to detect, baseball has typically afforded Jewish fans with at least one star per generation. From Hank Greenberg to Sandy Koufax to Shawn Green, Jewish stars have had major impact on and within America’s pastime, both as legitimately great players and as willing symbols of the tribe’s capacity to transcend stereotypes and thrive on an eminently physical playing field.

This current era is no different. Although several players have found their way into starting lineups and rotations—New York Mets first-baseman Ike Davis, the Great Hope of the Upper East Side, sadly has struggled to hold onto a job—there is no question which player serves as the sport’s leading Jewish light. Milwaukee Brewers left-fielder Ryan Braun, the 2011 NL MVP, 2012 MVP runner-up, and a five-time All Star who missed out on a selection to tonight’s Midsummer Classic due primarily to a thumb injury that kept him out from June 10 to last week, can stake a claim to being one of the top players in the sport.

Yet Braun has not become an icon for Jewish baseball fans in the same way as past stars. Unlike Greenberg, Koufax, and Green, all of whom received heavy cultural and mainstream-media attention for their status as high-profile Jews, Braun has typically discussed his heritage only when prompted. His heritage is a note in his biography, not a primary fact of his career. His Jewishness has never been a major topic of discussion in a Sports Illustrated profile, as it was for Green in 1999. Instead, it gets attention on the blogs of rabbis.

It could be that Braun has not achieved this lofty status among Jews because he’s a controversial figure. Last week, ESPN revealed that Major League Baseball is likely to suspend Braun and other players with connections to the Miami-based Biogenesis of America clinic. While baseball fans are free to argue over whether this evidence damns Braun and other involved players—suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs have only ever been handed out for failed tests—Braun has quickly become one of the usual suspects in MLB’s fight against PEDs. In December 2011, shortly after Braun became the first Jewish MVP since Sandy Koufax in 1963, ESPN learned that a supposedly confidential test from October 2011 indicated an elevated level of testosterone, which would have forced Braun to observe a 50-game suspension to start the 2012 season and possibly compelled the Baseball Writers Association of America to strip him of his trophy. Although Braun was eventually cleared—on what MLB called a technicality, although proper chain of custody is essential to any functional testing system—a cloud of suspicion has followed him ever since. For those who believe that the Greatest Jewish Ballplayer must be a squeaky-clean role model for those not yet bar mitzvahed, Braun doesn’t seem like the best candidate for the job.

Of course, as this diehard San Francisco Giants fan can attest, association with performance-enhancing drugs is often not enough to convince true believers that their hero does not deserve their adulation. Rather, for Braun, I’m here to argue that the issue is a different one: Simply put, he has opted not to make his Jewish heritage a major part of his public image.

The son of an Israeli-born father (himself the son of a Holocaust survivor) and Catholic mother, the Los Angeles native did not attend synagogue as a child, did not have a bar mitzvah, and did not celebrate any Jewish holidays. While Braun has never rejected his family’s history and says he wants to inspire Jewish baseball fans, his most prominent public appearance in the community involved acting as a special guest of President George W. Bush at the White House Hanukkah party in 2008. It’s likely that he hasn’t become a hero to Jewish baseball fans because he doesn’t especially want the job.

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This ostensible cultural neutrality, though not outright goyische-ness, makes Braun something of a rarity among the greatest Jewish players in history. Detroit Tigers first-baseman Hank Greenberg, the first “Hebrew Hammer,” dealt with anti-Semitic slurs throughout his career and made a point of not playing on Yom Kippur despite not being a particularly observant Jew. In 1965, Los Angeles Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 of the World Series because it fell on the Day of Atonement. (He did pitch Game 2, which he lost, and bounced back to win series MVP after throwing shutouts in Games 5 and 7.)

Naturally, the two most famous Jewish athletes ever—players from very different eras, at that—might not be the best comparison for the Hebrew Hammer of 2013. However, recent examples suggest that Braun is still a bit of an outlier. When outfielder Shawn Green (like Braun, a Southern Californian without a particularly strong background in the faith or culture) began to rise to stardom with the Toronto Blue Jays in the late 1990s, attention from fans inspired him to become more active in Jewish charities. A move to the Los Angeles Dodgers sped up that process, and Green eventually opted not to play on Yom Kippur and came out of retirement in 2012 to play and coach for Team Israel in a World Baseball Classic qualifier. Even Gabe Kapler, the 1998 Minor League Player of the Year but a journeyman in the majors, caught on with fans for his incredibly muscular build. Or take Sam Fuld, a Stanford economics major, diabetic, and frankly pretty bad outfielder who nevertheless nabbed a profile in The New Yorker after a few excellent weeks for the Tampa Bay Rays at the start of the 2011 season. Simply put, the historical record suggests that a Jewish player will become an icon if he provides the tribe with a reason to embrace him.

A Jewish player will become an icon if he provides the tribe with a reason to embrace him

One could argue that Braun should have already reached that Sinai-high level of regard if only for his production. Since becoming the first Jewish player to win Rookie of the Year in 2007, Braun has put up numbers that place him not only on track to Cooperstown, but to become one of the best hitters of his generation. While Braun’s traditional numbers are stellar—a .313 batting average and 211 home runs, as of Sunday—the sabermetric stats make him look even better. Braun led the National League in OPS in both 2011 and 2012, ranked in the top 10 of the league in Win Probability Added in every season from 2008 to 2012, and even became one of the most capable defensive left-fielders (according to several advanced yet volatile defensive stats, at least) after early struggles in his career as a third-baseman. By Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a context-neutral formula that effectively measures a player’s impact on a team’s record, Braun has amassed 35.4 WAR in his six-plus seasons with the Brewers. By contrast, Green notched 34.5 WAR for his 15-year career. “Braun’s second half of his career will dictate whether he’s in the Green/Al Rosen category, two players slowed by injuries,” said Howard Megdal, author of the 2009 book The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-By-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players, over email, “or if he can make a case for inclusion in the Greenberg/Koufax/Lou Boudreau pantheon. By being slightly better than Green to date, Braun has set himself up to really put some distance between himself and Green in his 30s.”

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Ryan Braun is a Major League Baseball Star. So, Why Haven’t Jews Embraced Him?

Why MLB’s most productive Jewish player deserves fans—despite missing out on the All-Star Game and facing suspension