Can two young Orthodox Jewish players juggle pro baseball and religion?


In the 14 June 1939 edition of the New York Post, Hy Turkin wrote a story on Morris Arnovich, the Philadelphia Phillies left fielder leading the National League with a .398 batting average. Morris was “chock full of hustle,” Turkin wrote, and a “sure bet” to make that season’s All-Star team. Then, in the fifth paragraph, Turkin made reference to Arnovich’s religion: “Jewish,” Turkin wrote, plainly. “Orthodox.”

Even if Arnovich, commonly referred to as the “Son of Israel” during his playing days, became less observant in his later years, as his family told the Guardian, he has long held a place in history as the most religious Jewish major leaguer.

That could change soon. In July, the Arizona Diamondbacks selected Jacob Steinmetz, a 6ft 5in right-handed pitcher from Woodmere, New York, No 77 overall in the MLB draft. In the process, Steinmetz became the first known Orthodox Jew to be taken in the MLB draft since its 1965 inception. In the 20th round, the Washington Nationals drafted catcher Elie Kligman, a product of Las Vegas and also an Orthodox Jew.

Steinmetz and Kligman’s selections were a reason for celebration in their community, but there is a reason for the lack of precedent. The Orthodox practice a strict observance of Jewish law, normally defined by regular Torah study, adherence to a kosher diet and observance of the Sabbath, which calls for practitioners to not perform any “work” from sundown Friday through sunset Saturday. The demanding routine often pushes them to the outskirts of an increasingly secular nation.

“To juggle school work, to juggle being an Orthodox Jew, and to put in the amount of time it takes to get to the next level, it’s something most people don’t have the desire to do, or the drive to do,” says Jason Meyer, Steinmetz’s coach at the Hebrew Academy of Five Towns & Rockaway. “Somehow Jacob and Elie made it work.”

Jewish observance and baseball have butted heads before, most notably in the case of Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Dodgers who famously refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur (his replacement, Don Drysdale, had an awful game and told his manager: “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too” as he was pulled from the field). Hank Greenberg, a Hall of Fame first baseman who played in the majors from 1930-47, also refused to play on Yom Kippur. What makes Steinmetz and Kligman different is their daily devotion to Jewish law (Koufax, Greenberg and other less observant Jewish players regularly competed on the Sabbath throughout their careers). Kligman, who is honoring his commitment to Wake Forest before turning pro, will not play on the Sabbath during the season, but as a catcher won’t be expected to play every day anyway. Steinmetz, who is from the more moderate Modern Orthodox branch, will play on the Sabbath but plans to walk to games rather than use transportation, to avoid violating Jewish law.

Steinmetz and Kligman’s careers will function not just as case studies on the collision of religion and sport, but on what happens when the foundational elements of a young person’s life come into conflict.

The players, and their families, believe they’re equipped to navigate the road ahead. Steinmetz and Kligman are fortified by their faith, as well as something Arnovitz didn’t have: A friend who understands.

“There’s only [two people] on the planet, currently, who can share the same thoughts and feelings about everything,” says Kligman’s father, Marc, “and that’s Jacob and Elie.”

Steinmetz and Kligman grew up on opposite sides of the country, unaware of the other’s existence. As they worked to accomplish what had not been done before, they relied on their families.

One summer 2018 evening, on a drive through the Arizona desert, Marc Kligman took a reading of his son’s heart.

Elie, a rising high school sophomore, had just turned heads yet again at a tournament. Marc knew college coaches were going to start calling to ask Elie about his game but also about his observance of the Sabbath. Marc, a longtime MLB player agent, had been tipped off that the ritual could hurt his son’s scholarship opportunities.

“Will you have the strength to keep Shabbos?” he asked. “People might say you shouldn’t do this.”

Elie, his father recalled, was resolute. The Sabbath is about honoring God, and as an observant Jew, that was his foremost responsibility. Baseball would come second. That won’t change at Wake Forest, or if he makes it to the major leagues.

“It’s a holy day,” Elie said, simply.

For as accommodating as coaches have been, from youth league through high school – some pushed Friday night games up and Saturday afternoon games back to avoid Shabbat – Kligman has missed out on plenty more contests. And scholarship offers too.

But his sacrifice has also borne fruit. Last January, after Kligman was featured in a article, his first national exposure, Marc’s phone started to buzz with calls and texts from Jews across the country. Some of the older readers, Marc said, told stories about their playing days, and how they gave up the game because they felt they couldn’t balance it with their religious commitments. And he heard from parents whose children now considered Kligman a hero. Kligman developed a friendly rapport with a boy named David, whose grandfather was an old friend of Marc’s, and sent David a signed photo.Advertisement

“This thing has taken on a life of its own,” Marc says. “It’s really about telling your story to people, where they just don’t have to put God second. You can be who you want to be.”

As Kligman rose through the ranks, Steinmetz was burnishing his own resume on the other side of the country. Juggling his faith and athletic dreams never seemed out of reach. In April 2014, his father, Elliot, took over the men’s basketball team at Yeshiva University, leading the program to the Division III NCAA Tournament. As Elliot scribbled plays on the sideline with a yarmulke atop his head, he showed his son it’s possible for sport and religion to mix.

That example powered Steinmetz on a journey that reached new heights this spring. With the high school baseball season in doubt because of Covid-19, Steinmetz spent two months at the Elev8 Baseball Academy in Delray Beach, Florida. It was there, Elev8 executive director and head coach Todd Moser says, that Steinmetz put the finishing touches on his mechanics that bumped him to the third round of the draft. Professional scouts who came to games were impressed.

“He did enough in front of the right people here,” Moser says. “He’s a high character guy, and I think that has a lot to do with his faith.”

Steinmetz, much like Kligman, plans to continue to honor his faith during his professional playing career, which started on 13 September when he pitched 1.1 innings for the Diamondbacks Rookie-league affiliate. The 18-year-old will maintain a kosher diet, keep his head covered and, whenever possible, find a quiet place to pray.

That Steinmetz and Kligman’s rises have happened amid renewed antisemitism in the United States – the Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,024 antisemitic incidents in 2020, the third-highest rate since tracking began in 1979 – is not lost on their community. For Steinmetz and Kligman, continued success is their answer to hate.

“The best thing you can do to combat any hate or antisemitism, or any racial stuff, is just keep being a great example and doing what you believe is right,” Marc says. “I don’t think it has to do with standing on a soap box and screaming about it. I think it’s more about action.”

Steinmetz watched the MLB draft in a house surrounded by friends, who burst into cheers when his name was called. Kligman, meanwhile, was on a bus with Team Israel – he was a practice player for their Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics tuneup games – when manager Nate Fish announced over the loudspeaker he’d been selected.

“We all went crazy and started cheering him on,” says Ian Kinsler, a four-time MLB All-Star who obtained Israeli citizenship in March 2020. “He was blushing a little bit. He had a nice smile.”

Kinsler believes Steinmetz and Kligman’s stories deserve more attention, though he acknowledged that’ll be more likely to happen if they make the majors. The odds are not in their favor, even without considering how their religious responsibilities may bring obstacles: from 1981-2010 only 17.6% of players who were drafted and signed ever made the major leagues, according to Baseball America.

Steinmetz and Kligman remain undeterred, in part because they know they won’t be alone. In December, after Steinmetz returns from a trip to Israel, they’ll meet in person for the first time after months of texts and Zoom calls. They’ll attend a Yeshiva University men’s basketball game, and maybe sit down for Shabbat dinner.

“It’s nice,” Kligman says, “to have a guy on the same path as me.”

Before they part, Kligman hopes, they might even slip on their gloves and toss a ball back and forth, and not just for themselves, but for those who came before them that gave up the game, and for those who come after them that will play.