“What happens when you combine a Greek omelet-sounding name with a bagel and lox?” a friend of mine asked me the other day.
“You have Kevin Youkilis playing baseball in New York City.”
Youkilis, having inked a one-year, $12M contract – pending his physical – with the New York Yankees can now add his signature to the Tuna Melt, the New York Pizza Slice, and the holed Bagel.
Before he’s even picked up a piece of lumber for the Bronx Bombers, the new third baseman for the Yanks has bettered the list of Jews who’ve donned a baseball uniform in New York City.
No more do Jewish fans have to hang their collective hat on the heads of schlemiels, schlimazels, and an assortment of unlucky athletes since the first Jewish baseball player (Lipman Pike) donned a uniform for a professional Metro-area squad.
Prior to the unofficial announcement of Youkilis’ signing up to occupy the Hot Corner at Yankee Stadium, as the incumbent Alex Rodriguez will likely miss most of the 2013 baseball season due to injury, the list of Jewish Big Apple players numbered in the 40-range; most of them having short, lackluster careers.
Were there to be a starting lineup for the All-Time New York baseball Jew-crew, Youkilis certainly bumps most players off the list, shooting directly into the Top Five.
The most famous Jews to play ball in the Big Apple were Sandy Koufax (even though his best years were after the Dodgers moved West from Brooklyn), and more recently, Shawn Green and Ike Davis of the Mets.
Notable mentions include Ron Blomberg, most famous for being the first designated hitter in the history of the sport, and Art Shamsky, whose best season came with the Miracle Mets in 1969, when he batted over .300.
The Youkilis family story is as traditional as his surname is untraditional, full of name changes and persecution in the Old Country.
The arrival of the hard-nosed veteran with the unusual batting stance should especially resonate in the Five Borough’s market, where many baseball fans are Jewish and have immigrant roots.
The original name for the Youkilis family was, in fact, Weiner, and Kevin’s roots originate in Romania.
Fearing torment, and possible death, at the hands of the Cossack hordes that ravaged the Jewish populations in cities from the Danube to the Dnieper, Youkilis’ great-great grandfather fled to Greece.
As Kevin’s father, Mike, told New York Times reporter, Richard Sandomir, “there was a family friend in Greece with a name similar to ‘Youkilis.’ When this ancestor eventually went back home, he decided to keep the Greek name, and it stuck.”
Good thing for Kevin, for if his last name would still be “Weiner” and not “Youkilis,” imagine what the Boston faithful would call Kevin. It wouldn’t be “Yooouuk!”
One alluring aspect with Jewish ballplayers is if their mother is Jewish. This, by traditional Jewish law, makes them Jewish, not if he is observant or not.
On that scorecard, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder, Ryan Braun is not considered Jewish by many, even though he identifies with the Hebrew heritage, as his mother is Catholic.
Then there is Ralph Branca. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitcher who gave up the famous home run to Bobby Thompson is considered Jewish because his mother was Jewish.
Regarding Youkilis, there’s a bit of haziness and uncertainty, as his mother, Carolyn, wasn’t raised Jewish and converted after marrying Kevin’s father.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Youkilis has always handled well the attention he’s received over the years for being a proud Jew. Be that during the years he spent in Boston’s Fenway Park or the half-season last year he spent on the South Side of Chicago playing for the White Sox.
Youkilis has always “been into” his Jewish heritage and has worn his “Jewishness” proudly.
Had Team Israel qualified for the World Baseball Classic in March, 2013, Jews would have cheered Kevin on, as he alluded, prior to the Holy Land Landsmen getting knocked out of the tournament’s qualifying round, to his likely participation.
Perhaps with Youkilis now lacing up his cleats for the Yankees, we may have many more reasons to root for him.