Former Yankee Ron Blomberg regales a Scotch Plains audience with tales of life as a Jewish Major League baseball player.
Photo by Elaine Durbach
November 6, 2008
After all the slick speeches of this political season, listening to Ron Blomberg was like an invigorating blast of ballpark breeze. The former Yankee, historically known as the first designated hitter — but more fondly dubbed the “Designated Hebrew” — isn’t one for fancy phrases.
“What you see with Ron is what you get,” said David Littman, who organized Blomberg’s appearance at an Oct. 26 event hosted by the men’s club of Congregation Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Scotch Plains. He and the temple’s Cantor Matthew Axelrod and other congregants had dined with Blomberg the night before and they all sounded like old pals.
The still strapping athlete got serious just once. “I hate to talk negative,” he said, “but baseball — and athletics — has become a business.”
He said even for youngsters it doesn’t have the joy it used to have and that parents are largely to blame. Very few kids will make it into the big time, “so let them play for fun, for the love of the game,” he pleaded, “and don’t get too worked up about it.”
As for the present-day Yankees, he said that for all the immense talent of the players, they lack the chemistry to forge a great team. “They need someone nasty to mix things up in the clubhouse,” he said. Those involved also need to come clean about steroid use and ask the public for forgiveness.
His parents, both jewelers in Atlanta, didn’t push him, but they did encourage him to do whatever he loved. “I wasn’t going to do well at anything involving book learning, but I was good at sports.”
He was offered 125 baseball and 110 football scholarships, but then came the offer in 1967, when he was just 17, to try out for the Yankees. For a Jewish kid from the South, accustomed to teammates who went from games to Ku Klux Klan gatherings, it was the chance of a lifetime.
“When I put on those pinstripes and stepped out onto that field, I knew I was a chosen person,” he said.
He had a couple of Jewish teammates, players like Mike Epstein and Art Shamsky, but he found he also had something special on his side: the Jewish population of New York, from Hymie Schwartz, his first taxi driver, to the garment factory bosses who showered him with suits, to the families who clamored to have him over for dinner, and the media commentators — many of them Jewish — who wanted to interview him.
That generated some resentment from teammates. There is still anti-Semitism, he said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people against us. No one likes us,” he said, “but we’re still lucky to be the Chosen People.”
In the summer of 2007, Blomberg was a team manager in the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League, along with fellow old-timers Shamsky and Ken Holtzman. (The IBL was put on hold after its first season for reasons still being debated by its critics and supporters.)
Being in Israel, he said, “was the greatest thing — just one notch below playing for the Yankees.” He loved everything except the food. He hated the falafel and hummus. “Oh, the food, man — it almost killed us,” he said, to roars of laughter. “I was desperate for some steak and potatoes and black-eyed peas.”
In Israel, they were obliged to have at least two Jewish players on each team, and Blomberg had two Orthodox Israelis on his team, the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox.
When they asked for time out to say Minha, he was taken aback. Then he saw the crowd joining them to daven behind the food concession. “It was the greatest rush of my life,” he said. “I was in the Holy Land, near King Solomon’s tomb. I knew I was protected.”
But when the team still lost the game, he demanded: “You said your prayers — so what happened?”
Blomberg’s kids haven’t followed in his footsteps. With audible pride, he mentioned that his son is an anesthesiologist, his daughter a speech therapist. They were born too late to be part of their father’s glory days, but his daughter loves coming to the Old Timers’ games, and his son was at one just a few years ago when Blomberg hit a home run.
At least 10 times, Blomberg declared he would take just one more question — and then caved to the eagerness of the audience and took another. “You guys are the heroes,” he insisted, dishing out the only politician-style line of the day — but coming from him, even that sounded heartfelt.