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Baseball’s Foul Past Returns

Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young’s recent anti-Semitic tirade was a throwback to an era when bigotry was the norm in Major League Baseball

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Detroit Tigers left fielder Delmon Young, left, exits Manhattan criminal court after posting bail on Friday, April 27, 2012, in New York. Young was arrested Friday on a hate crime harassment charge after police said he got into a fight with a group of men and yelled anti-Semitic epithets. (Louis Lanzano/AP)
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These days, professional sports faux pas generally have to do with fire extinguishers and steroids, so Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young’s recent anti-Semitic tirade shocked even fans used to athletes behaving badly. Just to recap: Last week, Manhattan police said Young was drunk, yelled anti-Semitic slurs (“F—king Jews!”), and attacked a group of tourists outside a Midtown Manhattan hotel in the wee hours of the morning. For his actions, Young received a seven-day suspension from Major League Baseball. (He has apologized, of course, saying in a statement: “I take this matter very seriously and assure everyone that I will do everything I can to improve myself as a person and player.”)

Young’s outburst came as a shock to our 21st-century sensitivities, but Jewish Major Leaguers who played in the early and mid-20th century would not have found Young’s actions out of the ordinary. These players confronted anti-Semitism in bars, from the stands, and from opposing players—and they remember the incidents well.

A Washington Senators pitcher who was getting ribbed for a poor inning during spring training in 1918 responded by blaming his Jewish catcher: “What do you expect when you have this [expletive] Jew, behind the plate?” The Jewish catcher, Bob Berman, remembered his response to the pitcher’s insult: “I put my glove down, took my mask off, my chest protector off, took my shin guards off and I said, ‘Pardon me? What did you say? I didn’t hear you.’ ” The pitcher repeated himself, prompting Berman to lay him out. Berman remembered:

He says, “I didn’t mean it.” I said, “No, he’s gonna apologize. Otherwise, I’m going to beat the living life outta him. Nobody can do what he did to me. I don’t care who he is.” And he was made to apologize. And Walter Johnson [the legendary pitcher] was the one who interfered, nicely. He said, “Thataboy.” And from then on, the word went out, “Leave that kid alone. He’s got the guts to fight, and he’ll fight.”

Prejudice was commonplace and ethnic and religious slurs were uttered regularly in the decades that followed. As Harry Danning, an All-Star catcher who played for the New York Giants in the 1930s and 1940s, described it:

They used to have bench jockeys and they’d call you all kind of names, but usually not to your face. The Italians were “Dagos.” The Jews were “kikes.” In those days, I had a pretty good-sized nose. They used to holler when I was at bat, “Pitch under his nose, he can’t see the ball.” Or they’d say, “Is that your nose, or is that a banana?” And this last one I liked: “He’s the only guy who can smoke a cigar while he’s standing in the shower and not get the cigar wet.” Ha. You gotta laugh. You know they didn’t mean anything by it. That’s just what a bench jockey did. They tried to get your goat.

Not letting every ethnic jab get under your skin was crucial. Mickey Rutner, who had a short stint playing for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1947, generally ignored the hecklers; his co-religionist Cal Abrams, not so much. As Rutner’s wife told me: “Some guys had, you know, rabbit ears and it really bothered them. Like Cal, he heard everything and he reacted to everything. It would eat his gut up, but Mick, he was good at that. Mick would just spit and say, ‘Screw them.’ ”

Al Rosen, 1953’s American League Most Valuable Player and one of the greatest Jewish ballplayers of all time, wasn’t known for laughing off these incidents. An amateur boxer in his youth and a star for the Cleveland Indians, Rosen wasn’t shy about using his fists, and other players knew it. Saul Rogovin, one of Rosen’s contemporaries, remembered one incident involving Rosen when he was on the opposing bench:

So, he grounded out one night, and as he trotted back in front of our dugout somebody yelled, “Well, we got you that time, you ‘Jew bastard,’ ” or something like that, and Al … walked over to our dugout and he said, “That son of a bitch that called me a ‘Jew bastard,’ would he care to say that again?” you know, and everybody was just sitting there, you know. And I had mixed feelings. I felt very funny because here I am, I’m an opposing player and also I’m a Jew, you know. [laughs]

The muscular Judaism that Rosen in particular embodied went a long way toward making American Jews feel at home—and made non-Jewish Americans feel more comfortable with American Jews. Jewish players like Rosen, and Hank Greenberg before him, challenged preconceived notions, similar to what happened when Jackie Robinson and other black players were allowed to play. “Jewish ballplayers, by dint of their sheer physical strength and their willingness to challenge anti-Semites with their fists, also helped shape a changing American Jewish identity,” wrote Peter Levine in Ellis Island to Ebbets Field, his landmark history of American Jews and sports. “They became proud symbols of Jewish survival in a world that daily seemed to threaten Jewish existence.”

By the 1960s and 1970s, the climate had started to change. Future Major Leaguer Ron Blomberg—who holds the distinction of being the first designated hitter ever—remembers teenage teammates in 1960s Atlanta who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. But later, as a minor leaguer in the New York Yankees system, he remembers merely a handful of anti-Semitic letters with swastikas and recalls “the occasional loud-mouthed fan”—and nothing more.

A player who made the Major Leagues much more recently, if only briefly, is testament to how much things have changed. Adam Greenberg, who played for the Chicago Cubs in 2005 and was hit in the head in his only Major League at-bat, recalls teammates on his University of North Carolina team who had never met a Jew before. More than anything else, they were curious, asking Greenberg questions that challenged his own knowledge of Judaism. “So, that was fun, and I always enjoyed that,” Greenberg told me in 2010. “It challenges me too, if I don’t know, I better start knowing.”


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michaelkrauss says:

And this episode makes it the “norm” again?????????? Come on indicting all of baseball for the “sins” of one player is an outrage. And YOU know that. 

Adam Greenberg’s statement, “If I don’t know, I’d better start knowing,” hints at one of the greatest opportunities for all Jews to gain real strength in the face of anti-Semitism.  Knowing who we are, our history, our biblical legacy, and our place in the world as God’s Chosen Nation, and as “A light unto the nations” should give every Jew a sense of pride, purpose, and courage.  We must empower ourselves with that knowledge, emulate God, follow his commandments, and take care of one another.

molarman says:

Ignorant drunkard.  You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
There is an old Jewish expression that translated states:  “The true feeling of a drunkard always shows up on his tongue.”  He may apologize when sober, but we know what he really thinks.

 what I find amazing is not what a silly  baseball said . Because we know all African-Americans love us. That’s why we can vote for president who goes to a black nazi church
for 22 years.that teaches hate whites Jews Israelis America Because  Obama loves us

     That is an idiotic statement that has nothing to do with the article. 

      Really? All you SHJ can’t even STFU about a statement that is 10000000000000000000% true? Jews voted for a president that could give a rats azz about the Jewish struggle in the Mid East. Well, no big deal…… I heard that Hitler doesn’t know ANYTHING about the ghettos…….you poor, poor, pathetic SOB’s…….. What, that lesson wasn’t ENOUGH? Time erases pain……..and lessons learned.

    brynababy says:

    This is as stupid, ugly and racist as what  Delmon Young said!! Disgusting!

    Please keep your hateful, racist bs to yourself. If you don’t like Obama, vote for someone else in November and quit your erroneous bitching.

David Levine says:

 “I take this matter very seriously and assure everyone that I will do everything I can to improve myself as a person and player.”

And, what is he doing?

Baseball, the truly American sport,  supports the making of champions.  As Jews, we can be victims, survivors or champions.  These players are intent on being champions, regardless of the theme, and I applaud them for standing up against the anti-Semitism they experience.  We must teach our children to not suffer the arrows of ignorance, regardless of its origin.  All of us are meant to be examples of champions.

It’s amazing that a person of color could be so anti-Semitic.  Twenty bowls of chicken soup with Matzo balls for the next week until he gets it in his gut that he can’t be a bigot.

I am amazed that Delmon Young could be hateful and anti semitic when African Americans have also been subjected to racial slurs etc. It is pure stupidity! There will always be People Like Mel Gibson who hate Jews and all the words I have heard used in my lifetime like, “Spic, Nig-er, Kike, Mi’c and others should be banned.

    As disgusting as Delmon Young’s anti-semitic tirade was, it’s not at all surprising. Just because somebody’s a member of a historically oppressed group ( An African-American), doesn’t mean that they’re immune to being an a**hole and expressing their prejudices. It is pure stupidity, but (not that there’s any excuse for it.), unfortunately, NOBODY, who or whatever they are, is immune to having such nasty attitudes, especially because they’re so prevalent in our society and throughout the world at large.

If Young had gone off on gays or blacks to half the degree that he went off on the Jews he’d be roasting over a slow fire now while MLB execs congratulated themselves…

Bosoxerdod says:

We have Delmon Young’s vile comments on one hand, and hockey “fans” tweeting similar epithets against a black hockey player following a playoff game in Boston on the other.  Truly sad, that professional sports elicits the worst qualities.  Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Should you be so inclined, check out the role that one just man named Izzy Muchnick had in the Jackie Robinson story at

You forgot Moe Berg, born in Newark, played college ball at Princeton,  then the Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox. His Sox manager once said, “He can read seven newspapers but he can’t hit a damn.”  Moe went on to work for the OSS (predecessor to the CIA). He made a significant contribution to the war effort. “The Catcher Was a Spy” is a book about his life.

emunadate says:

I would have preferred him to say  “I take this matter very seriously and assure everyone that I will do everything I can to correct the situation by learning what Jews suffered at the hands of bigots in WW2 so that I can improve myself as a person and player.”)

ms_sophi says:

Delmon Young ‘s been in trouble before. He threw a bat at an umpire. Maybe he’s not as representative as you think.

We all say stupid things from time to time. Being stupid isn’t necessarily criminal.While I haven’t seen the charges, I do not believe DY’s anti-semitic rant should support or be the basis for a criminal charge!

P.S. When Delmon Young was in A ball, he hit one of the longest home runs I have ever seen, straight to center like a cruise missile and then up and over the batter’s eye!

    Yeah..he hits the ball a long way………..add a dollar to that and you STILL can’t buy a meal for HIS kids that have never met him. ( thank god). Your dealing with a waste of oxygen here……god loves him……..and THAT’S only cause he’s GOD.

matthewsailhardy says:

Interesting that you could write a story about Jewish ballplayers and omit Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers in major league history.  Or Sid the Yid Gordon of the New York Giants.   and Boston Braves. I think Ned Garver of the St. Louis Browns was Jewish also.  I remember him because he was a 20-game winter with a horrible team. I remember his pitching a 2-0 shutout the day after his hapless team was beaten 29-4 by the Boston Red Sox.

What he did was wrong but is it any worse than Zionists murdering people because they’re non Jews?

I would caution people here from jumping straight to judgement, and extrapolating from a drunken outburst too much about this man. I have had the distinct pleasure of spending a little bit of time with this man, am myself Jewish and gay, and although obviously I can’t, likewise, extrapolate from my few hours of conversation the entirety of his thought and sentiment, I can say, considering the context of the conversation and its tone, this is a man who seems to genuinely value diversity, who can be kind and gentle, who may have lost control of himself while probably very drunk, and who is very certainly not closed to discussion, learning, and conversation. I think in handling this situation, and others like it, we have to condemn wholesale or snap judgement in general. People who judge based on things like religion, race, sexual orientation, or gender do so without a genuine interest in exploring circumstances thoroughly and getting at the truth, whatever it is. If we allow ourselves to approach people who snap-judge others in this way, we prevent them an open path to realizing the folly of their beliefs by interaction and learning. We succumb to their very same folly. Indeed, who here has not said something they have later regretted, and that they really didn’t believe?


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Baseball’s Foul Past Returns

Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young’s recent anti-Semitic tirade was a throwback to an era when bigotry was the norm in Major League Baseball

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