Memoir recalls short-lived Israel Baseball League

Memoir recalls short-lived Israel Baseball League

By Burton Boxerman Special to the Jewish Light

In 2007, Larry Baras, a businessman from Boston, helped form the Israel Baseball League (IBL) for its first and only season.  The league consisted of six teams and 120 players from nine nations, including the United States, Dominican Republic, Canada, Australia, Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, the Ukraine, and Israel.  Approximately 40 percent of the League was Jewish.  The season lasted eight weeks, with 45 scheduled games.  Games were played six days a week, but not on the Jewish Sabbath. 

One of these 120 players was Aaron Pribble, a California high school teacher who previously played collegiate baseball at the University of Hawaii, as well as professional ball in the Western and Central Baseball Leagues, and also briefly in France.  He spent two months in Israel in 2007, pitching for one of the league’s six teams, the Tel Aviv Lightning.  Pribble, born to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, describes himself as a “redneck Jew-boy” who never had a bar mitzvah.  He kept a journal of his two months in Israel which became a memoir of his summer, resulting in his book, “Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League” (University of Nebraska Press, 272 pages, $24.95).

It became quickly evident that the IBL, which was poorly funded and managed, was in trouble.  Communication between players and management was poor, and the teams were playing on shabby fields, which contained dangerous obstructions and were hardly suitable for playing the game.   Sleeping quarters were cramped, and the camp lacked a batting cage and a weight room. Old softball and soccer fields were converted into baseball diamonds.  There was even a threatened strike when the players’ first paychecks arrived late because when they did arrive, the players received only half of what they were due.  The angry players and the League’s commissioner confronted one another on a hot basketball court, but they were able to resolve their conflict. 

The chapters on the actual baseball games tend, for the most part, to be interesting, especially since there was such a disparity of backgrounds and talent on the part of the players.  In fact, most of the players were able to joke and tease each other in their own language.  Several of the players, such as Pribble, had been affiliated with the minor leagues, while others had absolutely no professional experience of any kind.  The author mentioned that the managerial ranks included former big leaguers, Ron Blomberg and Art Shamsky, but he went no further in discussing how they fared in the League or their reaction to their jobs as managers.

The book is not entirely about baseball. In many of the chapters, Pribble, who admits that he hardly embraced his Jewish heritage while growing up, had the opportunity to study Israel’s culture, date a Yemenite Jew, take sight-seeing trips to Jerusalem and Masada, and wander into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, where he played catch in the streets with two small boys.

For the most part the book is enjoyable reading but it does leave the reader wanting the answers to some questions.  Pribble mentions that the League had numerous financial investors, but does not identify any of them.  He never clearly states the ultimate purpose for establishing the League, nor does he mention the possibility of re-establishing the League at some future date.  

Finally, it would have been interesting for the author to have discussed in more detail exactly what effect his participation in the League had on his feelings about his religion.  He mentions often his “struggles with his identity.”  How did his two-month stay in Israel help resolve this “struggle?” Did his summer spent in Israel “bring him closer to his roots?”

All in all, this is an interesting book about an attempt to bring an American sport into the tiny nation of Israel as told by one of the participants.