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
But fan support is never based solely on the stats, and it’s here that Braun’s public image becomes more of a factor. For the vast majority of his career, he has been a golden boy. As a high-school student at the academically rigorous Granada Hills High School, he earned stellar grades—good enough to be a lawyer or doctor!—but opted to play for the baseball powerhouse at the University of Miami, later joking that “the girls were the deal-closer on the recruiting trip.” Braun was chosen fifth overall in the 2005 MLB Draft, dominated the competition in just 199 minor-league games, and saw instant success upon his promotion to the majors. Even Braun’s style of play does not mark him out as a unique or self-consciously brazen figure. Although his batting stance features a slight aesthetic wrinkle of wiggling the bat for timing, Braun succeeds largely because of his strong grounding in the fundamentals of hitting, not a particularly aggressive approach or innate natural talent. Instead of transgressing the boundaries of the game, he helps to define them.
That image extends off the field, where Braun’s endeavors include designing special-edition shirts for bro-oriented brand Affliction, opening several Wisconsin restaurants that bear his name and image (including an Italian eatery), and the typical mix of endorsements and appearances. To top it off, his fiancée, Larisa Fraser, is a lingerie model. It’s a set of extracurriculars that conforms to a standard athlete’s life, the definition of a mainstream masculine dream. While past Jewish stars have often had to prove that they belong in the baseball establishment’s special club, Braun has never displayed any struggle to be part of that group. From the moment he became a highly touted prospect, he belonged.
In other words, there’s no indication that Braun’s choice not to emphasize his Jewishness represents a dereliction of duty. If anything, he’s being particularly true to himself and his particular life experiences. For that matter, it’s unclear exactly what benefit Braun would receive from appealing to Jewish fans more directly. Although it could give a more positive mainstream image to counter his role as a key suspect in the sport’s still-raging war on drugs, history indicates that status will always mean more to the Jews he inspires. Apart from the largely presumptuous desire to see a young Jew more fully connect with the experiences of his ancestors, it’s difficult to argue that Braun should embrace a culture he’s never taken to naturally.
None of these observations turns Braun into a gentile, obviously, and a motivated fan can certainly find many points of collective Jewish experiences within his professional life. This is most apparent in the ongoing suspicion surrounding Braun’s use of performance-enhancing drugs, an issue that will likely persist for as long as he makes a habit of knocking around opposing pitchers. Braun’s victory in the appeals process theoretically has cleared him of wrongdoing, but his involvement in the ongoing Biogenesis investigation and baseball culture’s tendency to demonize perceived evildoers demand that he will continue to be a target. (It does bear mention that the BBWAA did not punish Braun in last season’s MVP vote, handing him a second-place finish in a year when Milwaukee did not make the postseason.) Based on sports fans’ continued distrust of Bud Selig, it does not take a great number of imaginative leaps to consider Braun a classic Jewish character, the unassuming high-achiever persecuted—or hushed about behind closed doors—based on mostly circumstantial evidence.
On the other hand, this take requires a dependency on confirmation bias that does not wholly consider the facts of the case. By this rationale, fans would have to consider a wide range of players from Rafael Palmeiro to Jason Giambi as potential carriers of the Jewish experience, which is a ridiculous suggestion on its face. Like many baseball stars before him, Braun has been swept up in a wave of speculation that has touched virtually everyone short of Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki (both of whom still figure in various hypotheticals). His appeal victory stood as a watershed moment for a baseball world still struggling to understand the league’s relatively new testing system, and the most interesting fact about the Biogenesis scandal, apart from MLB’s overreaching, is that it suggests widespread, mostly effective cheating even after that system of oversight was implemented. Braun’s controversy is part of the larger story of a sport in a transitional era, not a tale of an outsider struggling to find his place. His featured role in this tumult renders him more symbolic of the current state of professional baseball.
It could be that Braun is only as Jewish as his heritage dictates. For fans hoping for both a reflection of themselves and reciprocation of that support from a Jewish player, this could be a disappointment. Yet, by another perspective, it constitutes progress. For one thing, Braun’s no-nonsense ownership of his Jewish identity (partial or not) is nothing to dismiss. Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau, ranked by Megdal and others as one of the best Jewish ballplayers ever, was raised Catholic after his parents’ separation and neglected to mention his mother’s Jewish upbringing in his 1993 autobiography. Simply acknowledging that aspect of his life means something, even if it only serves as shading in a detailed picture. Braun might not make his Jewishness the center of his identity, but he’s still able to communicate the same lessons about defying stereotypes that raised players like Hank Greenberg to legendary status. He has proven that not touting Jewish identity does not preclude someone from becoming an active example of the strength of that same identity.
Perhaps we should even learn to take Braun as a source of pride specifically because he doesn’t feel the need to make his Jewishness central to his public image. By this perspective, he represents the fulfillment of a particular, if not necessarily universal, dream of Jews in American life: He has been able to reach the heights of his profession within its accepted institutional framework without standing out as an atypical or unlikely star. At the same time, Braun has not had to resort to grotesque assimilation to reach his goals. He’s Jewish and proud of it but not defined by those particulars. The culture allows him to be much more than the sum of his family tree.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
On a kibbutz south of Tel Aviv, medical marijuana helps soothe the pain of cancer patients and Holocaust survivors