day 41: the convert

Today is 41 days, which is six days and five weeks of the omer: yesod she’b’yesod.

The credit for today’s pick goes to Rabbi Justin David, whom you’ll get to hear from as a guest writer in a couple of days on Day 43 in an incredibly moving post. Stay tuned!

I was at a loss for the title of this post, because third baseman/outfielder Elliott Maddox doesn’t seem to have had a nickname as a player (although the book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning reports that Yankees manager Billy Martin apparently regularly referred to him by a racial slur). But I suppose no nickname is better than “Hebrew Hammer,” which at one point seemed to be a generic moniker for a Jewish baseball player.

This convert would never want to reduce a fellow Jew-by-choice to just one thing, but certainly this fact makes me especially excited about Maddox. (Sandler should have used this guy in his Chanukah song!) I didn’t know Maddox before this project, and I think it’s safe to say “I liked him immediately.”

Maddox grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in N.J., took Judaics classes at the University of Michigan (where he went to engage in leftist politics instead of signing with the Astros), converted in 1975, and had a bar mitzvah in 2010 at a New Jersey baseball camp that former Yankees teammate Ron Blomberg owned. He said of the occasion:

I want the campers here to see that you’re never too old to fulfill a dream. There are meaningful things that I wanted to do in my life but never had the chance. I was a pre-med student in college but I never pursued a medical degree. I thought about entering politics but never did so. With this bar mitzvah I was able to do one of the meaningful things that I didn’t get done earlier in my life. This was an opportunity for me to carry on the tradition that has passed through generations of Jewish history, and I’m a proud participant in that chain.

Like Jackie Robinson, Maddox didn’t mince words about race (or religion). Because of his race, some of his teammates didn’t consider that he might be Jewish and would say negative things about other Jewish players in front of him. Once they realized their mistake, the comments in front of him would stop. But Maddox would tell them, “You don’t have to be quiet now because I know what you must be saying about the black players.”

Elliott_Maddox_1977As a member of the Washington Senators, he (and several others) clashed with fiery manager Ted Williams — conflict that began as soon as the trade was announced. Maddox didn’t want to leave Michigan. “The ’70s was a great time,” Maddox explained. “There was total unrest and anarchy in the country. It was beautiful. In college, we would demonstrate every day. If there wasn’t anything to demonstrate about, we’d demonstrate about it being boring.”

Maddox was unimpressed with his manager’s hitting lectures, pointing out that Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Mays all batted differently than the way Williams was proclaiming as gospel. And so Maddox gave it straight to one of the best hitters the game has ever seen: “Your theories only work if you’re 6-foot-4, left-handed, with great eyesight and Superman-like reflexes, and probably only if you’re white.”

Maddox was the leadoff hitter for the Senators in 1971, the last year they played at RFK Stadium before moving to Texas, and he drove in the last run the club would score there. In 11 years — with five teams — in the majors, Maddox hit .261 with 742 hits and 234 RBI. The second half of his career was hampered by injury: in 1975, he hurt his knee after slipping on the rain soaked field of Shea Stadium, and he never quite recovered. His famous lawsuit (Maddox v. City of New York) because of that injury was initially found in his favor but overturned by an appeals court. After his retirement in 1980, Maddox became an investment banker in Manhattan and now lives part-time in Israel.

Yesod is associated with Joseph, the tzaddik, and is also translated as “foundation” and, according to Rabbi Art Green, represents “a balanced self after another round of testing, the one who knows where to strive and where to accept limits.”

With all due respect to Art, I think that sometimes instigation is as essential to foundation as is inner peace. Foundations at times need to be shaken. So let’s count day 41 in honor of this righteous troublemaker.

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