ESPN's Jeff Passan opens up on his Hebrew school upbringing, interviewing Sandy Koufax and Jewish baseball history
March 17, 2023
(JTA) - For tuned-in baseball fans, Jeff Passan is everywhere. As ESPN's senior MLB insider, he frequently breaks some of the sport's biggest news and appears on several of the global sports network's television, radio and podcast programs.
After two decades of reporting, can anything make him nervous? There is one athlete who does: Jewish legend Sandy Koufax.
"Generally speaking, when I'm talking to people, I'll call them by their first name. He was Mr. Koufax," Passan told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the pitcher he once wrote a paper about for Hebrew school.
While a columnist for Yahoo! Sports, Passan spent about four years reporting his 2016 New York Times best-selling book "The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports," a deep-dive into pitching and the epidemic of what's known in the sport as Tommy John surgery, or ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction.
Join JTA's Jewish Sport Report online and in Miami on March 9 for Jews on First: A Celebration at the World Baseball Classic. The panel conversation will feature Jeff Passan alongside other Jewish baseball insiders.
Koufax, known for his on-the-field dominance and his refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur during the 1965 World Series, walked away from baseball at only 30 years old because of injury. So as Passan began work on his book, he knew he needed to talk to Koufax.
Koufax is famously private, and securing a rare interview wasn't easy - Passan enlisted fellow Jewish writer Jane Leavy, Koufax's biographer, who put in a good word for him. When the time came to talk, Passan said it was the most nervous he's ever been for an interview.
"I was in awe the whole time," Passan said in a phone interview from Arizona, where he's covering spring training.
Koufax's pitching prowess aside, Passan praised the principled stance the former Dodger took all those years ago.
"The way that he represented himself, the way he honored Judaism, and, when it was an incredibly difficult thing, stuck by what mattered to him, I think that's applicable across religions, across cultures, across backgrounds," Passan said. "If you feel passionate about who you are, and something is important to you, even when it's uncomfortable, you should stand by it. That's exactly what he did. I have an undying amount of respect for him for both doing that and just for the way that he has and continues to carry himself."
A Cleveland native, Passan fell in love with both baseball and writing at a young age. His father, Rich, worked at the Plain Dealer for 42 years, and Passan said he got his first byline at 14 years old. He would go on to cover sports at Syracuse University, the Fresno Bee, the Kansas City Star, Yahoo! Sports and, since 2019, at ESPN.
Passan, 42, grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, attending Hebrew school three times a week. He said he considers himself a "cultural Jew" - noting that his wife is Catholic and they are raising their kids without religion.
"I look at religion now as being a really important thing for lots of people, but the sort of thing that for me and my family, we'd like for our children to be a little more worldly until, or if, they decide to choose to go the religious route," he said.
Passan said he and his family celebrate Hanukkah - he's a big fan of latkes - and he fasts on Yom Kippur. And then there's Jewish geography.
"When I run into someone who's Jewish, even though I'm not particularly religious, and he or she may not be particularly religious, there's still a connection there because of how we were raised and the things that you learn growing up a Jew," he said. "If there's one thing that I look at with regret that my kids don't have, because we're not raising them Jewish, it's that."
That instant connection is present in the press box, too.
"We know who we are," Passan said. "There was one World Series where I think there were like seven or eight Jewish writers sitting in a row. And we said all we need is a few more and we got a minyan here."
Passan said he also feels that camaraderie with Jewish players - especially those who play for Team Israel during the World Baseball Classic, which is coming up next month.
"It's different than Team USA or the Dominican Republic or Venezuela," he said. "It's a cultural team. It's a team that's often based around your religion or the religion in your family, and I think that makes it a unique group of players who may not have that same connection or that same feel to Israel, but they have that shared experience of being Jewish and knowing what that entails."
The presence of Jewish talent in Major League Baseball - and on Team Israel, which features more big leaguers this year than ever before - is noticeably greater than it has been in years. The 2021 World Series, which featured four Jewish players, is a prime example.
"I think it's just another way to illustrate that we can be everything," Passan said. "If you are growing up and you want to be a rabbi, that's wonderful. If you're growing up and you want to get into media, that avenue is there for you. And if you're growing up and want to be a baseball player, there are no limitations. The history of Jewish baseball players, while not extensive, is nevertheless rich."
And what is it, exactly, about baseball that has endeared the sport to American Jews for so long? Passan has some theories.
First, he noted the historical significance New York has held in both baseball and American Judaism. For a period in the early-to-mid 20th century, New York was home to three MLB teams - the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.
"As Jews, we really gravitate toward things that have history and substance," Passan said. "Baseball being so big in the emergence of sporting culture in the United States, there's a gravitas to that, there's an import to that, that I think Jews really are attracted to."
The other aspect that has bonded Jews and baseball, Passan said, is its shared culture of family tradition.
"It's something that can be passed on from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters," he said. "Family is such a vital part of being Jewish. Just as we pass down customs and traditions, sports are among those customs and traditions and baseball is a generational sport."