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Shel Wallman owns a bimonthly magazine devoted exclusively to Jewish athletes. "I know," sighs the publisher of the Jewish Sports Review, bracing for your inevitable jokes. "The world's thinnest book." It's certainly not the world's thickest magazine, though it does bring to mind the actual stage play Jewish Sports Heroes and Texas Intellectuals. True, Texas "intellectual" George W. Bush once owned a piece of the baseball Rangers, for whom "sports hero" Wayne Rosenthal pitched in the early '90s, but Rosenthal, by making the big leagues, is a statistical anomaly among Jewish ballplayers. "Bar mitzvah age," says agent Arn Tellem, "is when a Jewish boy learns he has a better chance of owning a professional sports team than of playing for one."
So how is it that we are now living in a Golden Age of Jewish Athletes? Tellem, who represents Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal, one of three Jewish players in last summer's All-Star Game, appears in an acclaimed new documentary about the greatest of all Jewish sports heroes, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. So moving is the film, which opened in New York City on Jan. 12, that it caused the reviewer for the JewishSports.com Web site to—and we quote—"kvell." The very fact that JewishSports.com exists is testament to the prominence of such current stars of David as the Los Angeles Dodgers' Shawn Green, IBO super middleweight boxing champion Dangerous Dana Rosenblatt and WCW wrestling god Goldberg. Once, Don Rickles was the only Jew firing hockey pucks at people; today, there are four Jewish players in the NHL.
Specialized, celebratory media are growing up around these athletes. At the SportsJews Web site (www.sportsjews.com), a recent story began, " Abe Pollin, Washington Wizards owner and all-around good guy, used his seichel and committed himself to selling part of his failing franchise to Michael Jordan this week." (Seichel is Yiddish for "common sense." The story's headline was MAZEL TOV, ABE!!!)
Alas, since Danny Schayes was waived by the Timberwolves early Stars of David this season, at which time the NBA became an all-goyish enterprise, basketball has been the one sport inducing shpilkes for Jewish sports fans. The JSR, desperately searching for a new star to satisfy its insatiable audience, has fixed its gaze on Doug Gottlieb, the Oklahoma State point guard who led the NCAA in assists last season (and is doing so again this year) and who, the magazine informed its 800 subscribers, "shaved his body hair" over the summer. Sadly, unless Gottlieb makes it to the NBA, the Jewish basketball archetype will remain more Ed Asner than Eldridge Recasner.
But so what? Listening to Mandy Patinkin sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in Yiddish on the Greenberg documentary soundtrack reminds you that baseball has historically been the paramount interest of Jewish sports fans—and "by far," says Wallman, the favorite sport of JSR readers. Beneath the headline BIG LEAGUE JEWS, the magazine recently identified 136 major league baseball players in history—from Cal Abrams to Eddie Zosky—who are or were members of the tribe. (Or, as in the case of Al Rosen, a member of the Tribe.)
The JSR, tireless in its service mission, likewise listed those big leaguers who it believes are frequently misidentified as Jewish, among them Rod Carew ("never converted although his children were raised Jewish") and Mike LaCoss ("born Marks, but took his stepfather's name and becomes irate when he is categorized as a Jew").
Of course, the magazine still hadn't exhausted the subject, and so the JSR went on to identify every Jewish player in the minor leagues and overseas. That is how we've come to learn of a most worthy successor to Greenberg as a slugging superhero of Judaism: He is Micah Franklin, a 26-year-old San Francisco native who hit 30 home runs last season, with 80 RBIs, while playing in Japan for—sometimes life is perfect this way—the Nippon Ham Fighters.
Mazel tov, Micah. And keep fighting ham.