Ron BlombergApril 9, 2009
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.