Maybe it wasn’t quite Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp, but when David Newhan got a chance to play for the Baltimore Orioles in the summer of 2004, he made the most of it.

The left-handed swinging sparkplug belted a 435-foot pinch-hit home run in his first at bat for Baltimore on June 18. Previously a utility player, Newhan became a fixture in the lineup, hit an inside-the-park home run against Pedro Martinez, and was hitting .400 by late July.

Orioles fans bombarded the Baltimore Jewish Times with calls and emails demanding an article about the new Jewish hero.”1 The Times is the “go to” paper for Jews in the greater Baltimore area. When the newspaper obliged with a feature story on Newhan, revealing that he is a Jewish believer in Jesus, enthusiasm turned to hostility.

“Instead of explaining that Newhan is an apostate Jew who has left the faith,” one reader wrote, “[the article] gives his ideas legitimacy, sure to add fodder to Hebrew-Christian propaganda.”2

The editors replied, “So why did we write about it, and why did we let Mr. Newhan speak of Jesus and Jewish symbols on our pages? The answer is simple, and penetrates the heart of our craft: It’s because you were talking about it, and you kept asking us.”3

When Newhan joined the New York Mets in 2007, people were still talking about it. After noting that Newhan was one of the team’s three Jewish players, The New York Times wrote, “Newhan’s religious odyssey, however, has taken him so far outside the Jewish mainstream that many Jews probably no longer consider him Jewish.”4

Newhan, now 37, finds that reasoning absurd, since many of the Jewish players he knows in baseball are agnostic, non-practicing, or dabbling in eastern religion. Ironically, Shawn Green, who was the baseball idol of Jewish kids until he retired in 2007, did not attend Hebrew school or have a bar mitzvah; Newhan did both.

The controversy even spilled over into the world of baseball cards! Jewish Major Leaguers, a company that issues an annual set of Jewish player cards, discontinued Newhan’s card in 2008. Newhan’s dad, Ross (who does not believe in Jesus), called Martin Abramovitz, the president of the company, and expressed his unhappiness with the exclusion. He told Abramovitz that his son is a Jew, and that both Ross and his wife, Connie, are Jews. Abramovitz said he would “reinstate” David, and would be pleased if Ross would write the bio for David’s card.

You would think that would have settled the matter, especially because Ross is a Hall of Fame baseball writer for The Los Angeles Times! However, when no David Newhan card appeared in 2009, and ISSUES asked Abramovitz why, he replied: “at some point, we learned that he had become identified with Messianic Judaism (Christ as the Savior), so we stopped including him.”5

Ross Newhan says, “The position of Mr. Abramowitz and his card company is utterly ridiculous. David was born to Jewish parents. He was a bar mitzvah. He has read thoroughly about Judaism and celebrates the Jewish holidays. I became so frustrated trying to explain all of this to Mr. Abramowitz that I finally told him to do what he sees fit. However, to exclude him is wrong. His card collection is incomplete.”

Not all Jewish baseball aficionados dismiss Newhan. Howard Megdal, who ranked all Jewish players in the history of baseball by position in his book, The Baseball Talmud, rated Newhan #4 among second basemen. As to why he included Newhan, who he knew to be a Messianic Jew, Megdal displayed a sense of humor: “We as the Jewish people cannot afford to cast aside middle infielders.”6

Newhan grew up in Yorba Linda, California (near Anaheim). One of the very few Jewish families in the neighborhood, the Newhans went to a nearby Conservative synagogue, but David eventually stopped attending after his bar mitzvah. Though he was one of the top high school hitters in the area, his 5’8″ frame may have given the scouts pause. He played one year of community college baseball, transferred to Georgia Tech, then to Pepperdine. He hit .313 with 15 home runs and 71 RBIs in 103 games in his two years at Pepperdine, and was drafted by the Oakland A’s in 1995.

While at Pepperdine, a Christian university, students talked with him about Jesus and piqued his spiritual interest.

“Here I am, this Jewish kid going to Pepperdine, of all places,” he recalls. “And then when I signed and found myself playing pro ball, I started looking into things more. I just never felt complete or whole, and it seemed like there must be more to life. I even read books on Buddhism.”

While in the minor leagues, he met Karen Letizia, who talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus. As Newhan’s relationship with Karen developed, he spoke about spiritual things with the pastor of her church, Roger Friend. Friend encouraged Newhan to speak with Rabbi Barney Kasdan, the leader of a Messianic synagogue in San Diego.

“The more I read the Bible and read passages in Isaiah and Daniel that spoke of Messiah, it made sense to me,” Newhan says. “I couldn’t deny that Jesus fit the bill, and I just ended up believing. That was the train that came into the station, and I liked where it was leading. When I received Yeshua into my life, I felt like it was completed.”

He and Karen married in 2001 and began to attend Shuvah Yisrael, a Messianic congregation in Irvine, California. His parents were accepting, though not thrilled, with his new beliefs.

Newhan broke into the big leagues with the San Diego Padres in 1999, and after two seasons was traded to the Phillies. In 2001 he tore the labrum in his right shoulder and missed most of that year and the entire 2002 season. He came back and hit .348 for the Colorado Rockies’ minor league AAA team in 2003 and .328 for the Texas Rangers’ AAA team in 2004, but was not called up.

Then the Orioles grabbed him, and he took full advantage. His hot hitting may have surprised others, but Newhan says he always expected to succeed in the major leagues.

“In my mind, I did well because that’s the only chance I was given to play every day,” says Newhan. “When I got the at bats, I hit.”

It looked like Newhan was going to settle into a career in Baltimore. He had a great start as the regular left fielder in 2006, but broke his leg while stealing second base and missed most of the season. He was traded in 2007 to the Mets, where he experienced more frustration.

“I understood that I would not be playing regularly,” says Newhan, “but [manager] Willie Randolph used me only as a pinch hitter for about six weeks—and I play five or six positions! You’re facing the other team’s best pitcher when you’re pinch hitting, and you go six weeks without getting more than one at bat in a game, it’s tough.”

Picked up by the Houston Astros the next year, Newhan showed again that given the opportunity, he could do the job. He made a big contribution to one of the hottest second-half teams that season. He latched on with the Phillies in 2009, but played all year in AAA.

His hopes to make it back to the majors almost ended permanently. In late September 2009 near his home in Oceanside, California, Newhan, a lifelong surfer, dove off his board into water that was shallower than he realized. He broke three bones in his C2 vertebrae, an injury almost identical to the one that left Christopher Reeve paralyzed and which has killed others instantly.

“I should have died or at the very least been in a wheelchair,” says Newhan. “It’s very much a miracle.” He never needed surgery, removed his neck brace in early February, and has made a full recovery.

His trust in God has helped him through the many ups and downs of his career. “There’s so much frustration and failure in baseball,” he says,  “it just helps having faith that everything’s going to work for the good.”

David, Karen and their two young children, Gianna and Nico, attend Vista Christian Fellowship, the same church in which Pastor Roger Friend married them. They also celebrate the Jewish holidays and visit Shuvah Yisrael when they can.

While people question why he as a Jew follows Jesus, David finds it strange that more Christians don’t understand the Jewish roots of their faith. “The Jewish holidays are biblical and there are ties to Yeshua in every one of them,” he says. “At Passover the lamb shank represents the lamb of God, and Jesus is that lamb.”

As for Newhan’s future, he says, “One thing I learned from the surfing accident is that I’m not in control—Yeshua is. I’m just praying that he shows me what he wants of me and opens the doors where he wants me.”

Endnotes

  1. Editorial, Baltimore Jewish Times, August 6, 2004, 42.
  2. “No Place,” Baltimore Jewish Times, August 13, 2004, 47.
  3. Editorial, Baltimore Jewish Times, August 6, 2004, 42.
  4. Ben Shpigel, “His Father May Write About It, but Newhan Plays the Game,” The New York Times, February 22, 2007.
  5. Personal correspondence with the author, Matt Sieger.
  6. Howard Megdal, The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-by-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players (New York: Harper, 2009), xii.