h1

Ron Blomberg

April 9, 2009

ron-blomberg-761

For me, this day is not really that different from any other day. Like a lot of days, I’m going to try to start it with a prayer of sorts, which basically means I’m going to pay attention to one of my old baseball cards. Then I’m going to go to work, put in my hours, and come home and eat and watch television.

***

I wonder where Ron Blomberg is on this day. When last I heard, back in 2007, he was managing in a fledging professional baseball league in Israel. The Designated Hebrew had made it to the promised land.

***

Some years on this day I worked a double-shift at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan. I usually pulled this shift with my Chinese co-worker, Ngai, but one time Ngai was unavailable and my brother had to come out of liquor-store-clerking retirement and the two of us minded the store while the owner, Morty, and the night manager, Dave, took Passover off. In a way, the two of us together made up one full (and fully nonobservant) Jew. It was usually pretty quiet on those days. We had a kosher wine display up front, near the counter. On the counter itself, on the opposite side of it from the cash register, there was a small television. If we were lucky, there’d be a baseball game on in the evening.

***

I wonder what Ron Blomberg did on Passover during his playing career. He was from the south, so I doubt he jetted all the way home to be with his family. I wonder if anyone opened their house to him, invited him over. There are a whole lot of Jews in New York, and many of them enjoy their baseball. Decades earlier, John McGraw had put those two things together and, seeing dollar signs, had longed to find a Jewish star for his New York Giants. He never found one. (The franchise did later employ two-time all-star Sid Gordon.) The biggest Jewish hitting star of them all, Hank Greenberg, was born in the Bronx, and was courted by that borough’s famous team, but he turned the Yankees down to attend college, later joining the Detroit Tigers. New York’s most famous baseball team didn’t have a Jewish player of note for the entirety of its existence until the coming of Ron Blomberg.  

***

Morty called me and my brother half-breeds. How can I explain this without giving the wrong impression? The store was something of a sanctuary, and part of that sanctuary was being able to hurl obscenity-laced ethnic slurs at one another. Many was the time I’d walk in to start my shift and hear, at the back of the store, a three-way verbal orgy of indecent cultural disparagement going on between Morty, his Italian friend Larry, and Ngai. Before I had time to take my coat off, Morty would look over the top of his reading glasses and fix me with what appeared to be a scornful glare, but which was actually the opposite of that. This would almost always be the first moment of the day that anyone had acknowledged my existence at all.

“Get downstairs and break up the boxes, half-breed,” Morty would say. Or maybe on any given day he wouldn’t call me half-breed but would instead use, with what appeared to be disgust bending down the corners of his mouth, boy or asshole or prick or schmuck. But you get the point, I hope: to be insulted in such a way was to be included. I wasn’t part of any other world at that time, but I was part of that one.

***

Ron Blomberg was the number 1 draft pick of the Yankees in 1967, the year I was bred by two different breeds. He peaked in 1973, when he hit .329 after gaining the distinction, on Opening Day, of being baseball’s first designated hitter, and he followed up with a .311 average in 1974, the same year I moved away from my Jewish father. Ron Blomberg began to decline after that and was done with baseball by 1978. By then I’d been living away from my father for years, and my extended family on his side had grown somewhat unfamiliar, even strange, to me, especially my loving grandma, who spoke with an accent and tried to feed me frightening homemade chicken soup (I preferred the blandness of food from cans) and seemed terrifyingly old. Jewishness itself became strange to me just as I was becoming old enough to understand that it existed.

***

I don’t think I understood how much it meant to me to be insulted at the liquor store as a half-breed until years after the store closed its doors. Not being one thing or another had always made me somehow ashamed of both sides. Or maybe ashamed isn’t quite the right word. Unworthy might be better. I wasn’t one thing and I wasn’t another, either. I was, it seemed to me, nothing. Morty, bless him, did not believe that anyone was nothing, however.

In later years, as I tried more deliberately to come to an understanding about all this, I found that my attempt to embrace my half-Jewishness was rebuffed on a certain official level. The apex of this came at the reception following the bris of the son of a friend of mine, when the rabbi made a beeline for me as an unfamiliar Jewish-looking face that he figured he might be able to bring into his dwindling congregation.

“Come, come, let’s have a toast,” he said, leading me away from the people I was talking to. He poured some wine in two plastic cups and handed one to me. His eyes were bright and piercing.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked. Having been accosted, and then quickly dismissed, by proselytizing Hasidim for years on the streets of New York, I knew that the ambiguity I felt about such a question would not at all be shared by the rabbi. There would be no discussion of the matter. I cut to the chase.

“My father is,” I said.

His eyes went flat. I could have told him I was a Zulu or a fire hydrant and it would have produced about the same effect. He recited some rules that I, a goy, should live by, then he gulped down his wine and walked away.

***

There was a baseball encyclopedia in the back of the store. When business was slow, which it almost always was, we’d sometimes pass the time by leafing through it. It was always easy to get Morty going by simply mentioning someone from the New York Giants or Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1930s and 1940s. (He didn’t seem to care about the Yankees.) Often he’d take the reigns without even being prompted. The subject of baseball would come up and he’d get in my face and stare at me as if he was about to challenge me to a fight.

“Ducky Wucky Medwick,” he snarled. “You know who that is?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Look it up!” he roared, ignoring me. “Ducky Wucky Medwick! Look it up!”

***

If you look up the matter in that other influential tome, the Torah, I guess I’m not a Jew at all, the designation being one that is bestowed matrilineally. But I have come to reject that definition and instead embrace the one advocated by my old boss Morty. I’m a half-breed. I’m a walking contradiction. Fittingly, I’ll now end by contradicting the statement I made to start this day’s prayer. This day, it turns out, is a little different than other days. I mean it kind of isn’t but it kind of is. I hope you have a happy one wherever and whoever and whatever you are.

11 comments

  1. After his playing days were over, Blomberg…kept playing. He became a fast-pitch softball legend here in Atlanta in the ’80s — he was a pitcher, if I’m not mistaken. Sounds a bit unfair, but it’s my belief that he was doing it just to keep his profile up in service of his many charitable endeavors. He’s got a sterling rep in these parts.


  2. I found myself rooting from afar for Art Shamsky’s Modi’in Miracle back during that one glorious season of baseball kosher-style. Bottom line: Shamsky = Met. Blomberg = Yankee. Old allegiances cross oceans and die hard.

    It seems the whole inclusion-by-denigration scenario is one of the great traditions in this glorious melting pot we inhabit. I know I’ve found a strange, warm acceptance by participating in its rites-by-insult many a time through the years. And it seems to be a staple of clubhouses in all sports.
    A strange badge of solidarity, but an honest one. Clint Eastwood’s ‘Grand Torino’ included a variation on the theme, which seems to cross ethnicities, religions, and creeds – bringing us together by mocking the very differences that seperate us. If the mud-slingers are all on the same page, so to speak, it’s a remarkably pretense-free way of “fitting in.”

    And remember that by the standards of Reform Judaism, the largest “affiliated” denomination in America, you are as Jewish as anyone else with Jewish roots, and as Hebrew as you wanna be… Ditto for the millions of us who are unaffiliated. By the stringent doctrineering computations of the Orthodox, the whole religion thing sometimes seems like a club that nobody can pass muster in. Happy Passover.


  3. we jews are always looking for local jewish athletes to root for, much the way adam sandler seeks out jewish celebrities and half-breeds to sing about. just last night at the seder, one of my cousins wanted to know if new met sean green was jewish, as was previous met shawn green. shawn’s old jewish teammate, david newhan, was born jewish and was bar mitzvah’ed but is now a messianic jew for jesus.

    i’ve never been a yankee fan, but i’ve always been a ron blomberg fan.


  4. It always bothered me about these ’76 Yankee cards that the colors (lime green and sea-blue, I guess they are) didn’t match the Yankee colors. I was always fascinated by the ’76 series (my first) and the colors on the cards were supposed to match up with the team colors (the A’s were green and yellow, for example), but the Yankees did not.

    This has been on my mind for years. Who knew there’d ever be a forum where I could bring it up?


  5. Ron Blomberg was my favorite player when I was a kid. I asked for and received a Ron Blomberg uniform for Christmas in 1972. I remember rooting for him to be the very first DH. I was watching the game on Channel 11 and there was another game that started at the same time. The Yankee announcers (Rizzuto, White, Messer) kept checking to make sure a DH in the other game didn’t come up to bat before Blomberg. I also remember wearing my uniform to the stadium for a game in 1973.

    In this photo it looks like he woke up, rolled out of bed, smoked a joint and ran to the stadium. He looks stoned, red-faced and winded.


  6. sansho1:
    That’s a nice bit of info.

    ramblinpete:
    Well put, ramblin. By the way, do you know what happened to the Israeli Baseball League anyway? How come it’s not still kicking?

    seaver41:
    This is quite the golden era for Jews in baseball (see the interesting blog of the same name: http://jewsinbaseball.blogspot.com/ ).

    thunderfan24:
    I think it might have been Orlando Cepeda of the Red Sox who was neck in neck with Blomberg for who was going to get that first DH at bat.


  7. Josh,
    The Yankees played the Red Sox that game and Orlando Cepeda was indeed the DH for Boston. Blomberg batted 6th and needed the Yanks to get some base runners in the first inning in order to insure he batted first as a DH, which is of course what happened. I think that there was another game in the AL that started at the same time and there was a neck and neck battle to see in which game a DH would come up first.


  8. Ah, thanks for straightening me out on that. I knew Cepeda was involved somehow.

    Here’s the box score of that game:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS197304060.shtml

    At the top are links to all the other games played that day, but start time doesn’t seem to be available on all of them, so I don’t know if you could figure out who that other almost-first-DH could be.

    Also, since Blomberg drew a walk, I wonder who the first DH to record an official at-bat was. Maybe Cepeda or maybe the other guy that Rizzuto et al were checking on.

    Cepeda, by the way, was the Designated Misser that day. He went 0 for 6 while his teammates were banging out 20 hits and scoring 15 runs.


  9. There were only 3 other AL games that day, two of which were on the west coast. It had to be the Brewers-Orioles Game. Ollie Brown was the DH for the visting Brewers and batted 6th. Terry Crowley was the DH for The Orioles and batted 8th.

    Ollie Brown, Oscar Brown and Bob Oliver were always intertwined in my mind.


  10. That picture makes me think he liked his hooch.


  11. During the 1972 season, the Yankees’ weekly recaps / features that appeared in the Sporting News were written by a man named Jim Ogle, who was the Yankee beat writer for the New Jersey Star Ledger, and for many years thereafter ran the Yankee alumni association. In one of his weekly SN articles, Ogle referred to Blomberg as, I quote, “a strange young man”. I understand that Blomberg is trying to start a career as a sports talk show host, with an eye on auditioning for WFAN in New York. Good luck to him.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers

%d bloggers like this: