Jews and baseball: That’s long been a thing. That “Great Jews in Sports” “pamphlet” they joke about in the movie “Airplane?” I had that book. There was that movie on the subject by sports writing great Ira Berkow. Throughout my career covering baseball — two decades worth at this point — I’ve long sought out Jewish players and talked to them about their background. I vividly remember standing behind the batting cage at Shea Stadium talking to Shawn Green about how he grew up calling his grandparents Bubbe and Zayde without totally understanding why.
But baseball and Israel? My favorite sport that I’ve been lucky enough to turn into a career, and the Jewish homeland, where I studied for a year before college? The national pastime with the nation my sister calls home (on Kibbutz Lotan)? No way, no how.
To be fair, there has been some baseball in Israel over the years, mostly brought over by Americans who moved there. There was an ill-fated attempt at a professional Israel Baseball League that lasted just one season in 2007, but the country wasn’t ready.
But now, maybe it is, which is unbelievable to say. I recently returned from a life-changing trip to Israel with professional baseball players. There were 10 in total — nine active and one retired — on the trip, along with significant others, children and friends. About two weeks’ worth was crammed into six days of touring. Historical sites, meeting dignitaries, floating in the Dead Sea, a lot of good food and even a little baseball-related activity. The players soaked up every bit of it.
They weren’t just ambassadors of the game, which was the most important objective, in many ways. They were ambassadors of American Jewry. Many of these players suited up for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifier, held in Brooklyn, N.Y., last fall. They all had spoken about how proud they were to play because they were Jewish. After this trip, though, the connection, the bond to Israel is exponentially stronger. All of them said they wanted to come back. (Seven of the 10 had never been before.)
They also spoke of the impact they could have on the growth in Israel of the sport they have loved so long. They made two baseball stops on this whirlwind tour. One was at the Baptist Village, where the only real baseball field stands. The players took some batting practice, and then they took questions from the crowd, mostly kids eager to hear every word.
Then there was a groundbreaking in Beit Shemesh for what will be the first full-fledged baseball facility in the country. There were a few hundred people, largely from the younger set, on hand to get autographs and pictures with these Jewish ballplayers. Many of them were American, or their parents were American, and having baseball was depicted as a way to help them ease into life in a new country and culture.
I was lucky enough to witness all of this firsthand. And I have Jewish sleepaway camp to thank. I went on the trip — organized by the Israel Baseball Association and Jeff Aeder, who is starting the Jewish Baseball Museum — to help making a documentary film about the trip and Team Israel, and maybe a little bit about these players exploring their Judaism and building a bond with the Jewish homeland. It’s called “Heading Home” and the professional filmmakers are from Ironbound Films. Ironbound’s CEO is Jeremy Newberger, with whom I went to Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake some 30 or so years ago. We’re embarking on a fundraising campaign to raise money so we can follow the team’s exploits in the World Baseball Classic in South Korea in March (coming to a Kickstarter near you).
Baseball in Israel is still very much in its infancy. There won’t be a coda to the film with an Israeli in the Major Leagues. Playing in international competition this March might help push it closer to toddlerhood, but there is still a long way to go. The touring players understood this wasn’t going to happen overnight, that it could take 15 to 20 years to take hold. Whether the end game was to produce professional-level players from the country was beside the point. Just growing the game, helping people — their people — learn to play it and love it, that would be the biggest dayenu for all of them.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. He lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife, Sara, and their two children.