Younger players increasingly dominate Major League Baseball, and towards the top of the list of young stars is the power-hitting rookie centerfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Joc Pederson.
Pederson’s exploits, particularly earlier in the year, are notable for how rare they are for a rookie. But they are notable for another reason: Pederson is Jewish.
A stereotype of Jews—and of Jewish athletes in particular—has long been that their exploits are due to brains rather than brawn. If Pederson sustains his performance for any length of time, he could be the first respected, mainstream Jewish athlete in some time to be publicly recognized for his powerful athletic performance. This could change the image of Jews in sports, and perhaps even more broadly.
A common, larger cultural stereotype of Jews has long been that Jews are not particularly physically adept. In the late 19th century, a Hungarian intellectual named Max Nordau noted a pervasive stereotype that there was a “flabby Jewish body” and a need to correct this perception and make Jews seen as “vigorous and strong.” Related to this cultural stereotype is the assumption that Jews are not successful athletes. One scene from the movie Airplane, a comedy movie from 1980, illustrates this stereotype. A passenger asks for something “light” to read. The airline stewardess offers the passenger a leaflet called “Famous Jewish Sports Legends.”
In American professional athletics, even those Jews who do make it as successful professional athletes are often praised for their brains rather than their brawn. Take Kevin Youkilis, a successful major league baseball player for ten years (between 2004 and 2013), most notably for the Boston Red Sox. Youkilis was a big player, measuring in at 6 feet 1 inches and 227 pounds when he graduated from high school. Coaches often praised Youkilis for being “a really smart guy who had a great feel for what he had to do,” rather than for his obvious physical strength. Indeed, in the brilliant essay collection Jewish Jocks (with apologies to the book for the related title of this essay), the writer Jonathan Safran Foer says that “the quintessential Jewish jock” is all brains and no brawn.
Pederson’s professional trajectory could change that stereotype. He does not affiliate as Jewish as much as some baseball players from many generations ago, but still does talk about his Jewish background. Decades ago, both Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax missed baseball games because of the Jewish High Holidays. Pederson’s affiliation is not as intense, but still notable. Only one of his parents is Jewish, and he has labeled himself religiously “pretty much nothing.” Still, though, Pederson did play for Israel during the 2013 World Baseball Classic. And even a slight affiliation as Jewish will give him much attention because he plays for one of the most famous franchises in all of professional sports, the Dodgers, in a huge media market, Los Angeles.
Pederson’s baseball identity so far has been as a power hitter. He was selected to play in the All-Star game over the summer, due primarily to the fact that he was one of the league leaders in home runs earlier in the year. He hit some of the longest home runs of the early season. In the month of June, he hit more home runs of at least 450 feet than any other team in all of major league baseball. Even his fly balls that were not home runs are some of the longest fly balls in all of baseball.
This cultural space that Pederson could fill was occupied at previous points in sports—and Jewish—history. Hank Greenberg was one of baseball’s all-time power hitters during his professional years in the ’30s and ’40s. Sandy Koufax was one of baseball’s all-time power pitchers during his professional years in the ’50s and ’60s.
Since those times, other Jewish athletes have come somewhat close to doing what Pederson could do, but never quite broke through as Pederson might. There have been powerful Jewish athletes in the NFL or in the NBA who were never successful enough for anyone to have heard their names. Shawn Green was another Jewish power-hitting center fielder in the major leagues between 1993 and 2007. He was overshadowed, though, by the much higher power numbers put up by other players during that steroid era. And there is Ryan Braun, a great Jewish power hitter playing for the Milwaukee Brewers since 2007. Braun will likely never achieve a reputation as a legitimate power hitter, though, because of his suspension for lying about his use of performance enhancing drugs.
Many times in American history our society changes through lessons we learned from our professional sports. Jews have a long history in America—and in American sports—but outdated stereotypes of Jews persist wide and deep in American public life. If Pederson keeps up his performance on the field, he could change how Jews are viewed on and off the field for some time to come.
David Fontana is Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University School of Law.