Jews have a certain obsession with finding out if other people are Jewish. I once read a good explanation as to why this is so: unlike other minority groups (like blacks or Asians, for example), you can’t tell if someone is Jewish just by looking at them. Hence asking the question: I wonder if he or she is Jewish? As a baseball fan and a Jew, I was no doubt thrilled when I received as a Christmas gift (oh, the irony) the book “The Baseball Talmud,” with the tagline “The Definitive Position-by-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players” by Howard Megdal.
Of course, when it comes to baseball, the answer to that question is virtually always “no.” The book points out that as of July 25, 2008, of the 16,696 men who have played in the major leagues, “fewer than 160 of them were Jewish.” Why Megdal gave us the exact number of MLB players but couldn’t tell us the exact number of Jews is baffling.
It wasn’t the only thing baffling in this book, which ultimately left me disappointed. For one thing, Megdal relies on sabermetrics, which regular readers of this site know I hate.
As his tagline indicates, Megdal organized the book by position. I have no problem with that. But he listed every player at every position, giving each a short statistical biography. Do I care that some guy named Bill Starr who played in the 1930s was the 15th best Jewish catcher? By the way, he ranked just ahead of Bob Berman, the only fellow with that excellent surname to play in the majors.
What I think he should have done was give a more in-depth biography of just the top five at each position, giving us an idea of who that player was instead of just giving us his numbers. It would have been nice to know how it felt to be a Jew in the big leagues, whether they faced discrimination or the taunts of intolerant players and fans. Then he could have just listed the rest with their stats.
The other problem, which was not Megdal’s fault, is that Jews have not really made much of an impact on the game. At the beginning of the book, Megdal ranked the Top 10 Jewish players of all time. The list slides precipitously downhill after you get past the top two (Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax). I mean, former Met Shawn Green is number four, and he was an average ballplayer at best.
Maybe there just wasn’t a book here at all. Given the limited material, I think strong, emotional biographies of the players were needed to make the book interesting. Unfortunately, Megdal did not choose that route.