The author: Larry Ruttman
The vital stats: University of Nebraska Press, 500 pages, $34.95
The pitch: Gabe Kapler, the former Taft High of Woodland Hills standout who last played in spring training with the Dodgers a few years ago, has one tattoo on on his right calf with the post-Holocast phrase “Never Again,” and another depicting the Star of David on his left calf with “Strong Willied, Strong Minded” in Hebrew.
Jews, we’re also told, aren’t supposed to have tattoos.
Kapler explains his mother’s roots as director of a Jewish Adat Ari El Day School in North Hollywood, and feeling he is “a Jew ethnically” much more than religiously. His wife, Lisa, whom he met at Taft, was raised Catholic and he calls his family not religious, but “we’re very spiritual.”
Before this turns into a SNL gameshow — Who’s Jewish? Who’s Almost? Who Knew! — or a Adam Sandler novelty song, the project Ruttman pulls together here can be both enlightening and confusing at the same time. With Kapler as an example.
We do embrace the fact that someone took the time, effort and decency to turn this dea into a project that reminds us of what Steven Speilberg did in creating the Shoah Foundation Institute, to preserve the voices of Holocost survivors following the wave of emotions after he did “Shindler’s List.”
By preserving the Jewish baseball experience through the voices of those who were there — starting in the 1930s with Hank Greenberg (doing so with interviews with family and those who covered him) through present day with Darren Harrison-Parris, a big-league owner in the making at with the Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League, and not overlooking current commissioner Bud Selig, who wrote the forward — Ruttman’s list of candidates takes another step in having a better understanding of how religion plays a part in playing, organizing and succeeding in any baseball-related profession.
Or, it leads to more head scratching.
“I’m Jewish, absolutely,” Harrison-Parris says (after clarifying that ‘Harrison’ was actually ‘Hershowitz’ before his grandfather felt the need to change it for fear of being blackballed). “I embrace it. You know why? Because we have a good reputation for being bright, entrepreneurial, hardworking and successful.”
This from someone who also admits, growing up in Catholic-rich Boston, he was nonpracticing and “even now, I don’t go to temple. I am not observant.”
The SoCal ties worth going to first are, by no surprise a chapter on Sandy Koufax – “Pitcher Nonpareil and Perfect Gentleman” as Ruttman uses to describe him in the chapter heading. It’s complete with a photo of Koufax with Don Drysdale and Tommy Davis in top hat and tails from an appearance on the Bob Hope show.
Also not surprisingly, Koufax declined Ruttman’s interview request, saying “I have gotten to the age at which I decided not to do anything that I don’t want to do.” Ruttman’s response: “How can I not respect your point of view when I apply that rule of not doing what I don’t want to do to myself?”
Ruttman still manages to squeeze out 10 giants pages on the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame, knowing a book on Jewish baseball history would have a huge hole without him. Ruttman takes the Jane Leavy route and writes around it, interviewing others about Koufax like Norm Sherry and including a snippet from an interview he did with Marvin Miller.
Brad Ausmus, the catcher who retired with the Dodgers two seasons ago (mother is Jewish, father is Protestant, married to a Catholic), also made the lineup after managing the Israeli team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Ross Newhan, the former L.A. Times baseball writer, along with his son, David, who played in the big leagues until trying to make a comeback in San Diego in 2011, also get the attention for their unique situation.
We also learn that David calls himself a “Messianic Jew — I believe Christ is my Messiah and savior … I am probably not considered a Jew by Jews.”
Notably missing from this book: Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun (Granada Hills High), or former Dodger Shawn Green. Both would seem to be extremely accessible. Ruttman never explains the omission (even as he remarks in passing by calling Kapler as a “Hebrew Hammer,” a nickname more associated with Braun).
Curiously included are Jeffrey Maier, the infamous fan who interfered with a ball in play during the ALCS; baseball economist Andrew Zimbalist, former Yankees public relations director Marty Appel, and Howard Goldstein, a memorabilia collector.
In taking this journey and deciding to have it published in coffee-table sized book that doesn’t really lend itself to such extremes considering the cheezy quality of the black and white photos and avoiding the use of high-stock pages, Ruttman says her personally “discovered much I never knew about Judiasm and its history and values, renewed my connections with my own heritage and reinvented myself, or at least my thoughts about myself, as a Jew, although that would never be discernible to a casual or even an interested observer … I think I was always aware of the parallel between American freedom and Judiasm’s big tent … but my appreciation and pride in that has been acutely sharpened.”
Ours as well. We just could have got there quicker if there had been an investment in an editor to tighten up the material and a reduction in the bulkiness of this, which is as deceptively satisfying as an overpriced deli sandwich.