By CRAIG MUDER
Utica (N.Y.) Observer-Dispatch
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Membership in the National Baseball Hall of Fame is one of baseball's most exclusive honors.
But for players like Mike Epstein and Ken Holtzman, their Jewish heritage and ties to Major League Baseball mean as much as any plaque in Cooperstown.
Epstein and Holtzman were two of seven Jewish former major leaguers who gathered at the Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday for "A Celebration of Jews in Baseball."
Fans got to meet and greet former big leaguers like Elliott Maddox, Richie Scheinblum, Norm Sherry, Bob Tufts and Ron Blomberg - the latter made famous as the game's first designated hitter in 1973 with the New York Yankees.
The players were generally light-hearted throughout the afternoon, swapping stories and telling tales with their former teammates and adversaries. But each player seemed keenly aware of their minority status as a Jew in sports.
Of the more than 14,000 players to have ever played Major League Baseball, only 144 have been Jewish. There are 258 players in the Hall of Fame.
"It's been a glorious weekend for me," said Epstein, who was considered the standard-bearer for Jewish athletes for most of the nine seasons he played in the majors. "I consider myself fortunate to be a Jew, to be brought up as a Jew, and to figure out how to manipulate my practices with Hebrew school Tuesday afternoon, Thursday afternoon and Saturday mornings.
"I honestly believe being a Jewish player and crossing the white lines every day was one of the biggest thrills I ever had - because I was representing people I really cared about."
But it wasn't an easy road for Epstein or other Jewish ballplayers.
"A lot of people on my minor league teams were in the Ku Klux Klan," said Blomberg, who played 461 major league games - 400 with the Yankees. "A lot of times when I played baseball, there were cross burnings across the street from me. They didn't even understand what a Jew was. They thought we had horns."
But as society gained a better understanding of Judaism, many people - like Maddox - adopted the Jewish religion.
"I figured as far as being a minority, I was being a person persecuted anyway," said Maddox, an African American from East Orange, N.J. "I figured what the heck, throw one more thing on.
"It didn't matter. I felt comfortable within myself."
Hundreds of baseball fans - Jews and gentiles alike - listened to their heroes, collected autographs and generally soaked in the atmosphere Sunday. Few seemed to mind that baseball's most famous Jewish player - Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax - did not attend.
But Holtzman, who won more games (174 to Koufax's 165) and was part of more World Series winners (5 to 4) than Koufax, shared some memories about being on the same field with the Dodgers' blazing lefty.
"I faced Sandy in a game in 1966, and it turned out to be the last game he lost (in the regular season)," said Holtzman, another Jewish lefty who was compared to Koufax early in his career. "It remains to this day one of my biggest thrills in baseball.
"Being here today, you're proud to be Jewish and represent a group that historically hasn't been represented in great number in major league sports. But we all here made it to the major leagues, and I think we're all quite proud of it."
Active Jewish Major Leaguers
Brad Ausmus - Houston Astros
John Grabow - Pittsburgh Pirates
Shawn Green - Los Angeles Dodgers
Alan Levine - Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Mike Lieberthal - Philadelphia Phillies
Jason Marquis - St. Louis Cardinals
Gabe Kapler - Boston Red Sox
Scott Schoeneweis - Chicago White Sox
Kevin Youkilis - Red Sox
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