Paul Newman's half Jewish,
Goldie Hawn's half too,
Put them together,
What a fine-looking Jew!
This is an article from the Dec. 13, 1999 issue
Adam Sandler's Chanukah Song is on the radio regularly in this
most wonderful time of the year. The next time Sandler updates
the tune, maybe he'd consider adding the following lyrics:
Shawn Green's not Irish.
He is in fact a Jew.
The best Judeo batsman
Since that awesome Rod Carew!
Jews have a long history with baseball. The children of Jewish
emigres, seeking to distance themselves from the old country,
embraced the national pastime in large numbers. In time, Jews
became owners. (Among the Jewish team owners today are Jerry
Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox and Fred Wilpon of the New
York Mets.) They became executives. (Donald Fehr, the head of
the players' union, and Bud Selig, the commissioner, have at
least one thing in common.) Jewish players are even in the Hall
of Fame. Carew. Hank Greenberg. And of course Sandy Koufax, a
staple of rabbinical sermons to this day for what he did on Oct.
6, 1965, when Yom Kippur and the first game of the World Series
shared calendar space: Koufax went to synagogue, not to the
mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Minnesota Twins.
Now there is Shawn David Green--a surname that was Greenberg
only two generations ago--one of perhaps eight Jewish players on
big league rosters. If Green had a dollar for every bar mitzvah
he was invited to over his first five years in the big leagues,
all with the Toronto Blue Jays, he'd be rich.
Come to think of it, he is rich. On Nov. 8--as part of a
four-man trade with the Blue Jays that sent slugging outfielder
Raul Mondesi to Toronto--the Dodgers signed Green, a 27-year-old
outfielder who bats lefthanded, to the fourth-largest contract
(total value) in baseball history, $84 million over six years.
Green has been a true every-day player in the majors for only
two years, last season and in '98, when he had 35 stolen bases
and 35 home runs. (After that season a headline in the New
Jersey Jewish News read TORONTO BLUE JAYS' SHAWN GREEN BECOMES
FIRST JEW IN 30-30 CLUB.) Green's '99 numbers were whopping: 190
hits for a .309 average, 42 home runs and 123 RBIs, a .588
slugging percentage, one error in 346 chances and 20 stolen
bases in 27 tries. Scouts speak of five-tool players. Green may
have a sixth. He can hit for average, hit for power, run, throw
and field. And he can think.
Green is a 1991 graduate of Tustin High in Orange County, about
40 miles south of Dodger Stadium. He ranked third in his class,
never made less than an A in four years there and was admitted
to Stanford. As classes were beginning during his freshman year,
he signed with the Blue Jays for a $725,000 bonus. For two years
he attended classes during the first semester and then played
for a Toronto minor league team.
He's a reader--one of the books that shaped him is Siddhartha,
the Herman Hesse novel set in India about a man's search for
holiness--and like a lot of readers, he's not a big talker.
Green's father, Ira, says his only son doesn't say anything
without thinking about it first, which makes something Shawn
said this fall particularly fascinating. In the throes of the
trade talks, he declared that he would sign a long-term deal
only with a ball club in a city that has a significant Jewish
population. For Shawn, this was a new one. Given that Green did
not have a bar mitzvah, that he does not attend synagogue, that
he is not learned in the customs of his religion, it was an
altogether unlikely prerequisite. Why the Jewishness of his
team's city became important to Green is not something he can
easily articulate. It has something to do with all the bar
mitzvah and seder invitations he has received since coming to
the bigs. It has something to do with his ongoing discovery of
what it means to be a Jew.
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner--not a Jew--had a
fantasy about bringing Green to New York City, which has almost
2 million Jews. But in the end, only the Dodgers had a chance.
Green wanted to go home. He wanted to play where his performance
could help turn his team into a contender. "My father and I
talked about going to the Yankees," Green says. "But if I go
there, and they continue to make the playoffs, what have I
really contributed?" Los Angeles had the necessary Jewish
population: nearly 600,000 in the metropolitan area. The Dodgers
could afford Green, and they needed to do something with
Mondesi, who was highly paid, hugely talented and deeply
miserable in L.A. Finally, the Dodgers had the legacy of Koufax.
The other day Green was in one of those brightly painted,
brightly lit Southern California cafes, eating huevos rancheros,
drinking freshly squeezed orange juice and reading. Nobody
bothered him. He often goes unrecognized, even in his own gym.
His manner could not be more unassuming. He was wearing
sneakers, shorts and a black, short-sleeved shirt. He's a
handsome guy, with dark hair, dark skin and a long (6'4"), lean
(200 pounds) body that is topped by a long, lean face. (Note to
matchmakers: He's not married, but he's all set, thanks.) He
actually looks like Koufax circa 1962. While eating his
breakfast, Green happened to be reading a piece on Koufax that
ran in SI in July:
He was an aristocrat in spikes, with a gentleman's carriage and
an assassin's arsenal--his fastball and curve. His last six
seasons are mythic: 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA. He threw 27 complete
games with a painfully arthritic arm in 1966 and then quit. He
slipped into a private life fundamentally no different from his
days as a beloved public icon: unfailingly true to his ideals.
He always put team before self, modesty before fame and God
before the World Series.
Green put down the Koufax tribute and thought to himself, That's
the way to lead a life. I hope I get to meet him.
He'll probably meet Koufax next spring in Vero Beach, Fla., when
Green shows up for his first spring training at Dodgertown. A
major bust last year when they went 77-85 and finished third in
the National League West, the Dodgers could be very good in
2000, although they are still a weak team defensively,
particularly in the infield and at catcher. But some big pieces
are in place. They have a smart and accomplished manager in
Davey Johnson. They have a potentially stellar rotation led by
righthanders Kevin Brown and Ismael Valdes. They have a heart of
the order that could be the most potent in baseball: Gary
Sheffield, playing left and batting third; Green, playing right
and batting fourth; Eric Karros, playing first and batting
fifth. However, for that threesome to produce the enormous
collective numbers expected of them, each needs to become a more
Green by no means regards himself as a complete player. He's a
perfectionist; he'll likely never be wholly satisfied, in
anything. "Trying to get better at something, that's what makes
it all interesting," he says. For the 2000 season, Green wants
to cut down on his strikeouts, to less than 100. (He had 142 in
'98 and 117 last season.) He wants to increase his walks to at
least 75. (He had 50 in '98 and 66 last season.) He feels he
needs to walk more and strike out less in the final innings of
games. (Green batted .328 in the first six innings of games last
year and .268 from the seventh inning on.) He wants to increase
his batting average by at least 20 points. That's just the start
of his To Do list.
He learned the game from his father, a serious student of the
baseball swing. Ira Green's father, a welder who shortened the
family name for "business reasons," died when his only child was
two. Ira was raised by his mother, Betty, in the Julia Lathrop
Housing Project in Chicago, where he and his mother were among a
handful of Jews, and playing sports helped him stay out of
trouble. He was a forward on the basketball team at DePaul, from
which he graduated in 1966, married a fellow Chicagoan, Judy
Schneider, and began his working life. First he was a gym
teacher and coach, later a medical supplies salesman and finally
the owner of a sprawling indoor batting facility, the Baseball
Academy, near Tustin, where the family moved in 1985.
There's a clip from that year, appearing in The Orange County
Register, posted on a bulletin board at the Baseball Academy,
about a Little Leaguer batting .717, his big league dreams, his
committed parents. "The Greens concede they have been absorbed
in a project that will most likely end in failure," the story
states. Then there's a final quote from Judy: "If Shawn doesn't
make the majors, he'll just become a doctor."
"When we started working with Shawn, we used Charlie Lau's books
and tapes, emphasizing that the most important thing in hitting
is watching the ball," Ira said the other day, sitting in a worn
chair at the Baseball Academy. "Then in high school we made a
shift, keeping his weight balanced, left and right, through the
swing, in the Ted Williams tradition."
When Shawn met Williams in July, during the All-Star Game at
Boston's Fenway Park, it was one of the thrills of Green's life.
Williams was in a wheelchair, in the runway leading from the
dugout to the clubhouse, on his way out. Green said to somebody
in the Williams entourage, "Can I please meet him?" The two
lefthanded batters talked hitting for five minutes. More
accurately, Green listened to Williams talk hitting for five
The other night Judy was in her roomy, sparkling new house in
Tustin, which Shawn recently bought for his parents. She was
talking about her son's contract. "I think our society is out of
whack," she said. "When you think about what policemen,
schoolteachers, firemen and paramedics do and what they are
making, it's crazy what we pay our athletes and entertainers.
But I know the money won't change Shawn. I know he'll do the
right thing with it."
Green has already committed $1.5 million to the Dodgers' Dream
Foundation, which builds and refurbishes baseball diamonds in
rundown city neighborhoods. He plans to set up a charitable
foundation with the purpose of giving away much more. He'd like
to hire his only sibling, his sister, Lisa, 28, to run the
foundation, to sort through the requests. He's particularly
interested in Jewish philanthropies.
"Growing up, we knew we were Jewish, but we didn't do anything
with it," says Green. "I've learned more about my religion in
the five years I've been in the majors than in the 21 years
before that. The Jewish communities in Toronto and New York and
other places made me feel very welcome. It was a great feeling
to know that so many kids were looking up to me just because I
was Jewish." Since making the majors, Green has never had a game
on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. He says
he would likely not play baseball on Yom Kippur in the future
(it falls on Oct. 8-9 next season), not for religious reasons,
but to make a statement.
Over the years many alltime, all-Jewish lineup cards have been
written by Jewish baseball fans with too much time on their
hands. Historically, they have looked something like this:
Rod Carew, 2B, Hall of Famer
Buddy Myer, SS, career .303 hitter
Al Rosen, 3B, had 145 RBIs in '53
Hank Greenberg, 1B, Hall of Famer
Sid Gordon, RF, 202 career homers
Benny Kauff, LF, lifetime .311 hitter
Elliott Maddox, CF, career .989 fielder
Moe Berg, C, spoke 12 languages, hit in none
Sandy Koufax, P, ranked up there with Moses.
Poor Sid Gordon. His spot is starting to look iffy. If Green
keeps up his good work, he could be batting fifth and playing
right in the alltime, all-Jewish lineup. All he has to do is
keep doing what he's been doing. Shawn Green has all the stuff
to become a hero to his people. He has all the stuff to become a
Green and Gold
In 1999 Shawn Green became the 13th player in big league history
to hit 40 or more home runs and steal 20 or more bases in a
single season. Add a Gold Glove, and the club gets even more
exclusive. Below are the players in the 40-20-Gold club. (Gold
Gloves were first awarded in 1957.) --David Sabino
PLAYER TEAM YEAR HR SB POSITION
Shawn Green Blue Jays 1999 42 20 Rightfield
Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners 1999 48 24 Centerfield
Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners 1998 56 20 Centerfield
Barry Bonds Giants 1997 40 37 Leftfield
Larry Walker Rockies 1997 49 33 Rightfield
Barry Bonds Giants 1996 42 40 Leftfield
Barry Bonds Giants 1993 46 29 Leftfield
Ryne Sandberg Cubs 1990 40 25 Second base