By Clemente Lisi, Special to The Sports Rabbi
(REVIEW) Fans anxiously wait for the baseball season to start after the coronavirus pandemic delayed Opening Day back in March. In the meantime, Major League Baseball fans have resorted to several alternatives, including passing the time buying up baseball cards and memorabilia at a rapid rate and watching documentaries about their favorite teams and players.
Here’s another great option for fans starved for content while they await for the start of the season come July: Rod Carew’s new book.
The former baseball great’s 324-page memoir delves into his illustrious career and, most notably, his faith. In the memoir, “One Tough Out: Fighting Off Life’s Curveballs,” Carew looks back on his 19-year playing career with the Minnesota Twins and California Angels, the abuse and racism he endured in the Deep South and his many years of success on the diamond.
What Carew has done is put together an all-star book to tell his story of sacrifice and hard work. But, above all, he discusses his complicated faith and the intersection of Judaism and Christianity, two religions near to his spiritual awakening. While we can all look at old highlights to see what Carew did on the field, this book gives readers a window into his post-baseball career and how his decisions and beliefs made him the player he was and man that he is.
Once out of the spotlight and no longer a daily feature in your local newspaper’s box score, Carew continued to fight like he did each time he swung the bat or circled the bases. Only this time, Carew writes, he had to deal with a series of struggles and health issues, like undergoing a heart transplant in 2016 after he received one from a former NFL player whom he’d met years earlier: Konrad Reuland, who died of a brain aneurysm at age 29.
At the same time, Carew’s tome, published by Triumph Books, is refreshing because it doesn’t shy away from his faith and personal relationship with God. In reality, Carew and religion have always had a strange connection. While baseball fans remember Carew for being a hitting machine for much of the 1970s and ’80s, people not interested in baseball may not be so familiar with him. And those fans who think Carew is the best Jewish baseball player since former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax will get an education in faith from Carew himself in this book.
Carew famously came into pop culture consciousness in 1994 — nearly a decade after he had retired — when comedian Adam Sandler sang “The Hanukkah Song” on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
In it, Sandler sang the following lyrics:
Put on your yarmulke
It’s time for Hanukkah
The owner of the Seattle Supersonic-ahs
O.J. Simpson: not a Jew
But guess who is?: Hall-of-famer Rod Carew (he converted)
The line about Carew’s conversion stood out to the ballplayer himself. Is Carew not really Jewish? It turns out, as Carew writes in the book, it’s much more complicated than that. Indeed, Carew never formally converted to Judaism — even though he wore a Chai (Hebrew letters representing the word “Life”) necklace as a player after it was given to him by his father-in-law as a present.
His first wife, Marilynn Levy, was Jewish, and his family were members of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California. Carew and Levy divorced after 26 years of marriage and he later re-married. His three daughters with Levy were raised Jewish. When one daughter, Michelle, died of leukemia at age 18, services were held at Beth Sholom, and she was buried at the United Hebrew Brotherhood Cemetery in Richfield, Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis.
“This is a good time to set the record straight. I never converted,” Carew writes. “I embraced Judaism. I appreciated the heritage and traditions. I gladly attended Seders, bar and bat mitzvahs and other Jewish events.”
On the field, Carew was sensational. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, the former second baseman, now 74, was named American League Rookie of the Year in 1967 and went on to amass a .328 lifetime average. He is a member of the 3,000 hit club, to go along with seven batting titles and 18 All-Star Game selections. In recognition of his wonderful career, Carew’s No. 29 was retired by both the Twins and the Angels. In the process, he overcame a cancerous growth in his mouth — from years of chewing tobacco — and a massive heart attack. In December 2016, Carew underwent a successful heart transplant.
“One Tough Out” is actually Carew’s fourth book. He wrote his autobiography, called “Carew,” with New York Times sports writer Ira Berkow in 1979. His other two books focus on the mechanics of hitting. But in his latest book, Carew’s faith is sprinkled throughout. He recounts that as a black man, born in Panama and raised in New York City, he understood some of the struggles Jewish people have encountered over the centuries. Nonetheless, Carew, who never became a U.S. citizen and was raised by Episcopalians, notes: “When I looked in the mirror, I saw a Christian who was Panamanian. Still do.”
“I believe a prayer to God is a prayer to God, regardless of whether it’s said while wearing a yarmulke in a synagogue or bare-headed in a church, regardless of whether that conversation occurs while reading the Old Testament of the New Testament,” he added.
For a book largely marketed to sports fans, it is heavy on theology and what Carew calls “my one-on-one relationship” with God. Although he has an ecumenical approach to faith — something not so foreign to millions of Americans who are married to partners of different religious traditions — Carew’s experiences are relatable to people of all faith traditions.
As for that Sandler song, Carew said he met the actor years later and informed him that he hadn’t converted. Sandler, in turn, never did change the lyrics.
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.