‘Designated Hebrew’ Ron Blomberg reflects on years with the Yankees
BaseballRon Blomberg

‘Designated Hebrew’ Ron Blomberg reflects on years with the Yankees

Former Yankee recalls historic at-bat, representing the Jewish people and continued efforts to get Thurman Munson into Baseball Hall of Fame

Ron Blomberg talks baseball. Screenshot by Adam Reinherz
Ron Blomberg talks baseball. Screenshot by Adam Reinherz

Retired baseball player Ron Blomberg has a theory as to why he gets invited to speak at so many different organizations.

“April 6, 1973, I screwed up the game pretty good,” Blomberg told an online audience on Jan. 12 during an event organized by about a dozen congregations nationwide, including Temple Sinai. “And that's why I get invited to a lot of organizations — because I screwed up the game.”

The hour-long conversation, moderated by Pittsburgh’s Jonathan Mayo, had Blomberg opening up about his time with the New York Yankees, what it was like representing the Jewish people and his continued efforts to get fellow Yankee Thurman Munson inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Blomberg’s professional baseball career began when he was selected first overall by the Yankees in the 1967 draft. During eight seasons — seven with the Yankees, one with the Chicago White Sox — he compiled a .293 batting average, with 52 home runs and 224 RBIs. His on-base percentage was .360 and slugging average was .473. Yet despite amassing a long professional career, Blomberg is often recognized for one particular at-bat in 1973.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to Blomberg’s April 6 first-inning appearance against the Boston Red Sox, pitchers — like other players — played the field and also hit. Blomberg, however, came to the plate as a designated hitter, someone substituting a pitcher’s plate appearance and giving the team a better chance of offensive success.

The strategic move was later adopted by nearly all amateur, college and professional leagues except the National League. Despite its widespread use, however, the role of the designated hitter continues to be both celebrated and chastised.

“Fifty percent of the people love it. Fifty percent of the people hate it,” Blomberg said.

Writer Francis Isberto in Bleacher Report commended the role of designated hitter, writing, “The beauty of the DH is it creates long productive careers for players who are getting up in age, who have a history of injuries, and who are weak fielders.”

Writer Matt Savopoulos in the same publication denigrated the advent of the designated hitter, asking, “Why do we continue to employ a rule that taints the pastime of the nation with an unethical cheat of the principles of the game? Out with the designated hitter — let the pitchers hit!”

Blomberg has taken the criticism in stride.

“If I wasn't the DH, I couldn't write a book [called] the ‘Designated Hebrew,” he said.

Published in 2012, “Designated Hebrew: The Ron Blomberg Story” recalls the historic at-bat and Blomberg’s time in baseball. It’s the first of two reflective works he’s penned; last year he and Dan Epstein co-authored “The Captain & Me: On and Off the Field with Thurman Munson.”

Blomberg said “The Captain & Me” is intended to help the late Munson, who died while piloting a plane in 1979, be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Munson played for the Yankees between 1969 and 1979. During those 11 seasons, he was a seven-time All-Star and hit .292 with 113 home runs and 701 RBIs. He won three Gold Gloves, was named the American League Rookie of the Year, American League Most Valuable Player and served as the Yankees’ first team captain since Lou Gehrig. Munson helped the Yankees reach three consecutive World Series between 1976 and 1978, with the Yankees winning in ’77 and ’78.

During the Jan. 12 event, Mayo, an MLB.com writer, asked Blomberg about the players’ unique friendship, noting that while Blomberg is “pretty gregarious …Thurman was kind of a little more curmudgeonly, wasn't he?”

Blomberg said it was less an “odd couple” pairing than people would think.

“He loved to fish. I love to fish. He loved to eat. I love to eat,” Blomberg said.

After recounting dozens of meals shared, Blomberg said he introduced Munson, a tough Midwesterner, to bagels, pastrami, corned beef and stuffed cabbage.

Several years after broadening his teammate’s diet, Munson returned the favor.

“He said, ‘I'm gonna take you to a restaurant, and you will love it,’” Blomberg said. “I said, ‘Oh, this is great.’ He took me to the White Castle.”

“1979 Topps Thurman Munson.” by rchdj10 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Blomberg thanked the nearly 200 attendees and the participating congregations for partnering on the event.

“I love y'all to death,” Blomberg said. “If there’s anything I can do for you to make you smile and make you happy, I'm here for you.”

That sentiment is among several reasons why Blomberg is a beloved figure in the world of Jewish sports, Temple Sinai member Todd Miller said. “Blomberg is very active in Jewish charities today, but as a player he was a mensch and persevered with dignity through an injury-plagued career.”

Miller said Blomberg served as an “excellent representative of the Jewish community to a player like Thurman Munson.”

Blomberg realized he wasn’t only representing Judaism to his teammates, but to New York at large, when he arrived as a teenager at Yankee Stadium. A message on the scoreboard read, “Welcome Ron Blomberg: the first Jewish New York Yankee.”

There was something special about going to games and “walking past all these ladies and grandfathers reading the Jewish papers,” Blomberg recalled.

During his playing days, he lived in Riverdale among a large Jewish community and spent the winter months attending weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs throughout the area.

“I felt like I was on the shrine,” he said. “I felt like the people gravitated to me. It was so much fun to be able to give back to the people, and thank God I did it. Thank God that I got to do what I wanted to do.”

Blomberg credited his “nice Jewish mom and dad” with raising him well but lamented that social media and economics have changed baseball and its players.

“The guys nowadays, they come in their Rolls Royces and their Lamborghinis and Aston Martins, they got their security guards, and they got all the people around them,” he said “They can't move. What we had on our team was we went out to dinner with one another, we did things with one another. We're so close-knit. It was so much fun.”

Blomberg said he’s heard from today’s athletes that they worry every fan interaction could somehow be misconstrued online. Because of large social media followings and financial implications, things are different now, he said.

Blomberg and his teammates “did not make a lot of money, but what we did do was we had the greatest team, we had the greatest friendship,” he said. “We were brothers on this team.”

It’s among the reasons why Blomberg feels so strongly about getting Munson enshrined among baseball’s greats in Cooperstown, New York. “Thurman was a wonderful, wonderful person,” Blomberg said. “His family's wonderful. Thurman was my brother, and I'm gonna do everything I possibly can to get him into the Hall of Fame.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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