Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League by Aaron Pribble
University of Nebraska Press, 2011
List Price: $24.95
Every fall when school starts up, millions of kids across the country are tasked with writing an essay recounting “What I did on my summer vacation.” Aaron Pribble, a social studies teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, has turned the tables. The former college pitcher, who has logged time in the Western and Central independent minor leagues, wrote an entire book on his summertime adventure in the Mideast, pitching for the Tel Aviv Lightning.
The Israel Baseball League, whose managerial ranks included former big leaguers Ron Blomberg and Art Shamsky, lasted only one season, flaming out after financial woes plagued its 2007 campaign. Thanks to Pribble’s diligent journal-keeping, the league will not be forgotten. The tall left-hander, who led the circuit in ERA, penned a memoir of the summer entitled “Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League.”
The son of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, Pribble had never fully embraced his Jewish heritage growing up. When the chance to play in Israel presented itself, he viewed it as an opportunity to both discover more about what being a Jew meant to him and resurrect his pitching career for a summer. Being Jewish, however, wasn’t a requirement for participating in the IBL, which featured a fair number of Dominicans as well as players from Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States, among other countries. Several were veterans of the affiliated minor leagues, while others had no professional experience of any kind.
As Pribble explains, “to be a player in the IBL, one’s talent was inversely related to his degree of Jewishness. On the one end, if you weren’t Jewish at all, like Jeff [Hastings, a teammate who formerly played in the Atlantic League] or the Dominicans, you had to be very good. On the other, if you were Orthodox or, better yet, Israeli, I guessed all you needed was a heartbeat.”
The motley collection of talent was housed in a kfar outside Tel Aviv and divvied into six teams for a two month season in which they would play six games a week, resting on the Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). The early days were something like the first week of college, spending time building friendships with teammates of vastly differing backgrounds. The players were left in many ways to fend for themselves, creatively finding ways to practice despite the camp’s lack of necessities such as a weight room, batting cages, or even a diamond.
Baseball fields, as one might imagine, were a rarity in Israel. To provide enough space for six teams to play every day, the IBL converted old softball and soccer fields into diamonds. Good hops in the infield were a rare treat. Early in the season one player unearthed a nail-covered 2×4 from the gravelly infield of the worst park, where the right-field fence stood a mere 225 feet from home plate.
These conditions helped bring the players together. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they soon joined ranks when their initial paychecks were first late, then issued for only half of what was due. The matter erupted into a confrontation between 120 angry players and the commissioner of the league on a blazing hot basketball court at the kfar, with the players threatening to strike before the controversy was finally quelled.
Pribble, who holds a master’s degree in political science, was drawn to Israel by more than baseball and religion. He took advantage of his unusual opportunity to study the culture, learning from locals who attended the games and some of his Israeli teammates, as well as a Yemenite Jew he dated for much of the summer. He recounts sight-seeing trips to Jerusalem and Masada, but most riveting is his trek with a teammate into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, where they were greeted more often than not with smiles. An unofficial ambassador for the game, he spread seeds into Palestine, playing catch in the street with two small boys and leaving the baseball behind as a parting gift.
These rare insights into life half a world away make “Pitching in the Promised Land” unique among recent baseball titles. Pribble tells his story with wit, a little self-deprecating humor, and an eye for detail. He keeps the action on the bumpy, dusty fields entertaining, despite a level of play that sounds at times to have been just a notch or two above a good 30-plus league here in the States.
Will it be required reading for Mr. Pribble’s social studies class? Short of traveling to Israel on their own, it’s hard to imagine a better introduction to a far-off land and its age-old conflicts. Just because it’s entertaining doesn’t mean they can’t learn something along the way.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at [email protected].