Several players involved in the classic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry have gone to the ‘other side.’ Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, and more recently, Johnny Damon have all made such a transition. And now, with injury-prone Alex Rodriguez set to undergo hip surgery this offseason, the Yankees have once again looked toward a former Red Sox enemy to fill the gap.
The Greek God of Walks, Kevin Youkilis, was drafted by the Red Sox in 2001, earning his nickname by attaining one of the highest walk rates in all of professional baseball. Youkilis plays the game hard, and has been the centerpiece of several on-field feuds—he charged the mound against the Tigers’ Rick Porcello in 2009, and has had multiple run-ins with Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain. “Yooouk” is his classic cheer—when he steps into the batter’s box, fans start “Youking” to show their support.
These plays on his last name—Youk, the Greek God—are the partial result of a name change. His background, however, is not Greek. Several stories on the family’s defined background have circulated, yet the Youkilises have agreed on one: in the 1800s, a young, Jewish man with the last name “Weiner” fled to Greece from what is now Romania to avoid religious persecution. He later returned to Greece under the Greek name Youkilis, but kept his Jewish heritage alive. As a result, over a hundred years later, a 13-year-old Kevin Youkilis had his bar mitzvah at Adath Israel Congregation in Cincinnati.
Jewish players have traditionally comprised a small fraction of Major League ballplayers. Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax are the most notable; many of these players, however, have had short careers (several, such as Harry Chozen and Ed Corey, only played in one game). Contrastingly, it is in recent memory—with the likes of Shawn Green, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, and, of course, Kevin Youkilis—that more Jewish players have become stars. The four most current New York Major League teams—the Mets, Yankees, and formerly the Dodgers and Giants—have had a fair a fair share of Jewish Major Leaguers. Art Shamsky played for the 1969 World Champion Mets; Ken Holtzman and Ron Blomberg both played for the Yankees in the 1970s; and Koufax and Andy Cohen each played for the Dodgers and Giants, respectively.
Even the Red Sox have had a hefty share of the Jewish players: together with Youkilis, the team has featured players such as Moe Berg, Gabe Kapler, and currently catcher Ryan Lavarnway.
Youkilis has been widely perceived to be on the decline over the past few years, seeing his peak between 2006 and 2009 wash away through injuries. Even his trademark OBP (On Base Percentage) fell to a career low .336, and he played uncharacteristically poor defense.
The Yankees, however, are taking a safe gamble on the former all star. Signed to a one year, $12 million dollar contract, Youkilis will see everyday playing time until Rodriguez returns from surgery likely in July. Chamberlain recently reached out to Youkilis after the signing, and they have each confirmed that their rough history won’t be a problem in the clubhouse. And with the large Jewish fan base in New York, his heritage will be warmly welcomed.