The best Jewish pitcher ever? That's a no-brainer: It's Sandy Koufax. The dazzling lefty, who began his major league career with the Brooklyn Dodgers and became an icon after the team relocated to Los Angeles for the 1958 season, is on every short list of the greatest hurlers in the game's history.
The best Jewish pitcher today? Well, that seems to be a no-brainer, too: It's Max Fried. Also a lefty, he broke into the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves in 2017 and blew up in 2019, reaching double digits in victories in his second start after the All-Star break. History can wait in Fried's case; he's all of 25 years old.
But the two are linked. Fried met Koufax during the 2018 playoffs when the Braves and Dodgers collided in L.A.
"It was incredible," Fried recalled this season in the visitors' clubhouse at Wrigley Field.
Fried grew up in Los Angeles, where he played in high school with White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito-who blew up himself in 2019, becoming a first-time All-Star-and each is on the other's short list of best friends. Both are Koufax fans, but Fried is especially; he wore Koufax's number with the Dodgers, 32, in the Hall of Famer's honor in high school. A young Jewish pitcher in that neck of the woods is going to hear about Koufax all the time, including at temple.
"The more success I had growing up, the more I heard about Sandy Koufax in the Jewish community," Fried said. "Growing up in Los Angeles and being left-handed, eventually I started idolizing him. Obviously, he was before my time. But I always strived to follow him. And everything I ever heard was about how great a person he was rather than how great of a pitcher."
Koufax famously chose not to start Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Fried's Jewish identity hasn't been nearly as big a part of his baseball identity. He has, though, been thrown into clubhouses with more than a few teammates who were surprised to learn of his religious background.
"I've had multiple teammates, actually, tell me I'm the first Jewish person they've ever met," he said. "I'd say over five people have told me that."
A reporter wondered if these were players from Latin countries, but no-these were players from small-town America, mostly in the South.
"Mostly, people who grew up in towns with maybe a couple thousand people," he said. "There are a lot of stereotypes that they ask you about, too, but no one has actually treated me differently because of it. It's never been too much in the forefront in the locker room or anything."
The Braves clubhouse is full of praise for Fried, a pitcher with pinpoint control that leads to a lot of strikeouts. Veteran catcher Brian McCann raves about Fried's command of the craft at such a young age. Fellow pitcher Josh Tomlin, who started two games against the Cubs in the 2016 World Series as a member of the Cleveland Indians, describes Fried as a "bulldog."
"He is very, very good and he is very, very smart," Tomlin said. "He is willing to learn, always. He's got unbelievable stuff, but he's willing to come to the ballpark and try to learn something different every day. And he competes. I'm telling you, he is one of the best competitors I've ever seen."
And then there's Giolito, who calls Fried a "straight-up stud."
Giolito and Fried had another prep teammate at the Harvard-Westlake School, Jack Flaherty, who has become one of the better pitchers for the St. Louis Cardinals. Their shared success story-three big-league standouts from one high school team-is off-the-charts amazing. Then again, maybe not.
"It's really cool," Giolito said, "but, at the same time, it's what we were expecting. When we were in high school, we knew we were really good and we knew that we were all going to get to the big leagues.
"And the way I look at it? If we can all, at the end of the day, have all these All-Star seasons between us, World Series, great [statistics], all that kind of stuff, that would be the dream. How cool would it be if all three of us get dinner when we're in our 60s and look back on our careers and where we all came from? That would be awesome."
Just guessing that Koufax would love to be there, too.
Steve Greenberg is a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.