Who's the greatest Jewish Yankee of them all?

Al Bello

In The New York Times, Richard Sandomir's got a nice piece about the Jewish heritage of Kevin Youkilis, the Yankees' new third baseman:

The Youkilis family story is as traditionally Jewish as you can get — filled with name changes and tales of persecution in Eastern Europe — and now that the hard-nosed 33-year-old veteran with the unusual batting stance has signed with the Yankees, his background should especially resonate in the New York market, where many fans are Jewish and have immigrant roots similar to Youkilis’s.

The Youkilis family was not originally named Youkilis. Far from it, although exactly what occurred on the other side of the Atlantic more than a hundred years ago is more spoken lore than documented fact.

It's a good story. You should read the whole thing.

But I got to wondering where Youkilis might rank among the Yankees' all-time Jewish greats. Five years ago, I actually did a fair amount of research on this subject, for my last book.*

* Only 10 left in stock!

There isn't a great deal of competition. While the New York Giants sported a number of Jewish players over the years, the best of them Andy Cohen and Sid Gordon, the Yankees did not. Before Ron Blomberg debuted with the franchise in 1969, there had been only four Jewish Yankees: infielder Phil Cooney (one game in 1905), Guy Zinn (1911-1912), outfielder Jimmie Reese (1930-1931) and pitcher Herb "Lefty" Karpel (two games in 1946).*

* Cooney was born Philip Cohen; Reese was born James Soloman.

It's pretty clear that the Yankees made no effort at all to appeal to New York's Jewish baseball fans. I don't believe the Dodgers did, either. It was only the Giants, which longtime manager John McCraw made no bones about.

Anyway, I believe there weren't any Jewish Yankees between Karpel in '46 and Blomberg in '69. For a brief moment in 1976, though, there were three: Blomberg, pitcher Ken Holtzman, and outfielder Elliott Maddox.

But Maddox gets us into some questionable territory. Maddox was a convert. Does he count? According to one interpretation, you're technically Jewish only if your mother was Jewish. Which leaves Ian Kinsler and Ryan Braun, with Jewish fathers but not mothers, out. It would leave Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau in, because his mother was Jewish, even though he was raised a Christian by his adoptive parents.

Fortunately for the sake of this essay, I don't believe there have been any notable Jewish Yankees since Holtzman and Maddox, questionable or otherwise. At this point, Blomberg is easily the greatest Jewish Yankee. Famous for being the first Designated Hitter (in 1973), Blomberg was one hell of a hitter. At least against right-handed pitching. In his career, he posted a .304/.367/.500 line against righties, which in those days was really good; Blomberg -- pronounced BLOOM-berg, by the way -- retired with a 140 OPS+ for his career.

His career wasn't very long, though, only 461 games spread over eight seasons and 10 years. First he struggled with chronic hamstring injuries. And then in the Yankees' last game in 1974, Blomberg hit a long home run in the first inning and tore something in his shoulder. Nobody knew how to fix it, and his career was essentially over.

How good was Blomberg, though? Among all the major-league hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances from 1971 through '74, Blomberg's OPS+ ranked fifth, between Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Willie McCovey.

Again, that does overstate the case because Blomberg was basically a platoon player. But if he'd been healthy, he would have piled up some good numbers. He's probably the third or fourth most talented Jewish hitter of all time, behind Hank Greenberg and Al Rosen for sure, and in the mix with Kevin Youkilis.

Which is why I don't think Youkilis will take over from Blomberg as the Greatest Jewish Yankee. Not unless he hangs around for at least three seasons and plays exceptionally well. Which seems unlikely.

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