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.
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 Yorkerafter 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.”
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.
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Eric Freeman is a daily contributor to Yahoo!’s Ball Don’t Lie NBA blog and a co-founder of The Classical. His Twitter feed is @freemaneric.
Eric Freeman is a daily contributor to Yahoo!’s Ball Don’t Lie NBA blog and a co-founder of The Classical. His Twitter feed is @freemaneric.