Alex Bregman is having a monster season on what seems right now like the best team in baseball. Without Bregman’s slugging, and his ability to fill in at multiple infield positions, it seems clear that the Houston Astros would not be on top of the American League, with a lock on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and the World Series, if they get there. The most valuable player on the American League’s best team should have a lock on the AL MVP award—especially when his leading competitor has missed nearly the entire month of September on a team with a losing record that came nowhere near the playoffs, right?
Nope. Not when your competition is Mike Trout, who has quietly dominated the sport of baseball in a way that guarantees him a spot in the inner circle at Cooperstown, right next to Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, and maybe even Babe Ruth.
Luckily for the 25-old Astros infielder, who has 40 home runs and an OPS slightly over 1, Bregman may be on his way to accomplishing something far greater than a mere AL MVP award. Baseball is a 160-odd years old game that might prove a passing fad. The Jews have been around for several millennia, and are God’s Chosen People. To have maybe the greatest season of any Jewish slugger in history is a special, near-metaphysical kind of accomplishment.
But is Bregman’s 2019 season really the greatest? Almost certainly yes: Athletes keep getting better; the pitching and defense are faster and craftier than they’ve ever been, and a home run in 2019 takes more strength and skill and coordination than one hit in, say, 1938. We can’t leave it at that, though. There’s been an awful lot of baseball played over the last century and a half, and Jewish hitters have contributed some of the sport’s more notable campaigns. Here are seven other contenders for the Greatest Season by a Jewish Slugger.
Ryan Braun, 2012: The numbers—which are still valid and still in the record books, because unlike the Olympics or the NCAA, Major League Baseball doesn’t vacate on-field accomplishments under nearly any circumstances—tell one story. Braun followed up his lone MVP season in 2011 with an even gaudier campaign, smacking 41 dingers and leading the NL in both OPS and total bases. The Boltin’ Brewer was one of the game’s loftiest and most marketable stars despite playing on a just better-than-mediocre club, and he still had a few years left in his athletic prime. Jewish sports fans had a bonafide superstar all their own, someone they could look to with unabashed and uncomplicated pride.
Anyway, the next season Braun tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, turning him into the most-recent and hopefully last-ever human embodiment of baseball’s steroidal hobgoblin. Bruan is still on the Brewers and had a clean all-star campaign in 2015, but fans can at least be thankful that he doesn’t have a Bonds or Clemens-like Hall of Fame case that will haunt the entire sport for decades to come, and create a shandah for the goyim.
Shawn Green, 2001: What a time warp to be reminded that there was a period in this author’s baseball fandom when 49 home runs was only good for 6th in the MVP voting. The very physics—and yes, morals—of baseball were horribly warped in the early 2000s, but Sean Green was one of the best of the good guys. There was never a whiff of PED suspicion around the Dodgers slugger, who also tallied 125 RBI that year.
More important than anything Green did on the field in 2001 was his decision to sit out on Yom Kippur with the Dodgers still in the playoff hunt, a now-iconic example of an athlete signaling to his fellow Jews that there are things more important than our earthly accomplishments, even when they involve homering off of Tom Glavine, Kerry Wood, and Mike Hampton.
Al Rosen, 1953: A mindblowing astonishment of a campaign from a player whose career was lost to chronic back problems just three years later. Then again, in the larger cosmic sense, maybe it’s worth sacrificing a few forgettable campaigns on the back end if you can completely master the game the way Rosen did for the Cleveland Indians in ‘53, when he had 145 RBI and led the American League in every meaningful statistical category and fell a single measly percentage point in batting average short of winning the Triple Crown. In the 2001 edition of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, which the author received as a Bar Mitzvah present and still owns, James names Rosen’s 1953 season the best-ever by a third-baseman.
Hank Greenberg, 1937: The last time I tried doing this sort of thing, an astute reader—a congregant at the excellent Fire Island Minyan, in Seaview—pointed out that while it might be true that the ball players of the 1930s were athletically inferior to their modern-day descendents, Greenberg faced anti-Semitism of a kind that Braun, Green, and Bregman would have difficulty even imagining, and probably had slurs hurled at him just about every time he stepped onto a baseball diamond. Indeed, the Tigers first-baseman ruled over the game in a time when the Jews didn’t have it so easy. That 1937 season looks like a string of typos: 184 RBI; an OPS of 1.1, a slugging percentage in the upper 600s. To Jewish fans, that campaign must have had a meaning we can scarcely grasp in our own day and age.
Hank Greenberg 1938: And then, he did it again! This was another baseball monument, perhaps greater than the one that preceded it: Greenberg clubbed 58 home runs, a near-fictitious number in that day and age, which explains why he also led the American League in walks.
Lou Boudreau, 1948: In perhaps the most important Jewish event of an otherwise forgettable year, the Indians Hall of Fame short-stop captured 199 hits and hit .355 on the way to his only MVP award. Boudreau was the best player on the first World Series-winning Indians squad in 28 years, ending a long and painful title drought for Cleveland baseball fans, while also commencing a much longer and even more painful title drought for Cleveland baseball fans.
Lipman Pike, 1875: James’s Historical Baseball Abstract includes this extremely 1870s anecdote about the first Jewish baseball star. James named Pike the fastest player of the decade (for the curious, Best Outfield Arm went to Jim Hatfield, who “threw a baseball 400 feet, 7 1/2 inches on OCtober 15th, 1872, a record that was not matched for many years.”) The rest of Pike’s citation, the details of which James attributed to a 1979 article in Baseball Research Journal, reads as follows:
“On August 27, 1873, Pike, a sprinter, beat a racehorse (a trotter) in a 100-yard dash to win a bet. The trotter was allowed to start 25 yards behind the line, and Pike took off when the horse reached him. They held even for most of the race, and when Pike began to pull ahead late in the race the horse broke into a run. But Pike still beat it by four yards.”
The Joltin’ Judean—which is, alas, a nickname I only now made up, 140-odd years too late—soon topped his triumph over nature with a season-long dominance of his fellow man. In 1875, Pike got career highs in hits, stolen bases, and OPS+ (203!), while boasting a .346 batting average for the St Louis Brown Stockings. Moreover, he seems to have played in all 70 of his team’s games, showing season-long consistency in a time when the sport was becoming professionalized and teams began competing in scores of contests each year.
Pike, a native Brooklynite, was a Tammany Hall political operative in his post-baseball life, and by the time he died of heart disease in 1893, in his late 40s, the heights of his playing career already seemed to belong to an entirely different era. “Many wealthy Hebrews and men high in political and old time baseball circles attended the funeral service,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported.
So, Alex Bregman, Hank Greenberg, or Lipman Pike?
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.