Why Aren’t There More Muslims In Baseball?

To the best of my knowledge, there has only been one Muslim player in the history of major league baseball: Sam Khalifa, a Pirates backup shortstop who played 164 games in the 1980s before retiring following his father’s unexpected murder. (His Egyptian father, Rashad Khalifa, was a heterodox Muslim scholar in Tucson, Arizona, where Sam Khalifa grew up. Sam is now a baseball coach at his old high school, Sahuaro.)

Other American sports have featured well-known Muslims — Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon and American Shareef Abdur-Raheem in the NBA; Americans Ahmad Rashad and Az-Zahir Hakim in the NFL; Lebanese-Canadian Nazem Kadri in the NHL; and of course, boxer Muhammad Ali has a claim to being the most famous American Muslim, period. (Incidentally, Ahmad Rashad was a student of Rashad Khalifa.) In baseball, meanwhile, while the majority of players have come from a Christian background, there have been members of many other religious minorities, both practicing and nonpracticing, like Ryan Braun (Jewish); Bryce Harper (Mormon); and Khalil Greene (Baha’i). (For that matter, back in 2009, when he was dating Kate Hudson, Alex Rodriguez considered converting to Buddhism.) So why haven’t there been more Muslims in baseball?

It’s something of an accident of history and geography, according to two sportswriters I contacted. Parvez Fatteh is the editor of SportingUmmah.com (a blog devoted to the accomplishments of Muslim athletes), a doctor, a passionate Braves fan, and an Indian immigrant who came to Georgia when he was 5. He emphasized geography. “The Muslims in other American sports are generally either African-American Muslims (American football) or immigrant Muslims (basketball),” Fatteh told me.

And those immigrants come from regions/countries that actually play and promote basketball: West Africa (Nigeria & Senegal), Eastern Europe, and Turkey. And none of those countries/regions have a passion for baseball. Nazem Kadri is a bit of an aberration. Canada is such a one-sport country, that if any immigrant, regardless of religion or race, is going to pursue a team sport, it’s darn well gonna be hockey!

Second, that brings up the issue of African-Americans in baseball. As you and I know, the number of African-Americans in professional baseball has been dwindling over the past two to three decades… the diminished presence of African-Americans in American baseball reduces one more pool of potential Muslim baseball players.

Rany Jazayerli comes from a similar background — he’s also a full-time doctor who moonlights as a sportswriter and passionate baseball fan. He was born in this country, the son of a Syrian immigrant. “Among immigrant Muslim Americans, baseball is much less popular than football and basketball,” Jazayerli told me in an email. “This stands in stark contrast to immigrants 100 or even 50 years ago. I don’t know if that’s true of all immigrant groups, but it might be. In 1930, the best way to assimilate and prove yourself a True American if you were a 12-year-old kid was to memorize the Yankees’ lineup. Today, being an SEC or Big 10 expert is probably a truer sign of your Americanness.”

(It does bear mentioning that, in America, the word “Muslim” has a few different meanings. In addition to the standard definition, in the context of the African-American community, it is also often used to refer to the Nation of Islam or its offshoots, such as the Five Percent Nation and the now-defunct Your Black Muslim Bakery; members of these sects have typically been called Black Muslims, though many Orthodox Muslims would dispute their being included as members of the same faith. A fuller discussion of The Nation of Islam is, quite obviously, beyond the scope of this article.)

One player who had a chance to bridge the gap was Khalid Ballouli, the son of a Lebanese father and an American mother who was the daughter of Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Dick Fowler. His father raised him as a nonpracticing Muslim, but the family also celebrated the Christian holidays with his mother’s family. He grew up in Austin, went to Texas A&M, and was drafted in the sixth round in 2002. He pitched in the Brewers system until 2006, making it as far as Double-A Huntsville before an injury ended his career. He returned to A&M afterwards to complete his Ph.D., and currently teaches sports marketing at the University of South Carolina — making him the third person I interviewed with the title of “Dr.”

“My career started professionally in 2002, after 9/11,” Ballouli told me. “I’ll be the first to tell you because of my looks, my presence, I think people identified me as being white like them. I’m not sure I didn’t get lost in the shuffle, get identified as another white American player. I never felt discrimination. However, there were awkward times when we would be watching live coverage of what was happening in Iraq, or a speech from President Bush in 2002-2003-2004, and that would be an awkward moment of hearing some comments made, overgeneralizing what that culture is about.”

Actually, in 1986, Sam Khalifa reported much the same experience to a writer for Aramco World, a magazine published by the Saudi oil company. “Sure, there’s always some clubhouse ribbing and I’ve been called ‘the shaikh,’ but it’s been in fun,” he told Brian Clark. “I never felt any prejudice in Arizona or anywhere else. People respect me for what I am and that’s good.”

However, Ballouli felt very conscious of being the only minority on his teams — the only Arab-American, the only Muslim. “The makeup of my tee-ball team probably was the same as the makeup of my college and professional team,” he said. So he got used to being surrounded by Christian coaches and players. At Texas A&M, he said, there was “a very Christian coach who was very passionate about Sunday chapel and bible study.” On that team, he was often conscious of being different.

We had a tight-knit team, so we had a pregame meal, and one of the more awkward moments is when he would have players go around and give the blessing. He would go to players — and you could decline. But in some ways it was tough. It put the player in an awkward position, if he’s Jewish or Muslim or another religious minority. Even by declining, you’re calling attention to yourself. Or, if you agree to it, it calls even more attention to yourself, because they don’t know what you’ll do. I was probably the only person who was not Christian on the team to decline the prayer.

Ballouli had a family connection to the game. But most other second-generation American Muslims aren’t lucky enough to be related to major leaguers. If Jazayerli is right, other first- and second-generation American Muslims may gravitate first to basketball and football. So that may mean that the next Muslim major leaguer may need to come from outside America — a Muslim who grew up in a country where the kids invariably play baseball.

That’s what Adnan Virk suggested. He’s a Canadian of Pakistani descent who became the first Muslim anchor on ESPN when he was hired in 2010. “My brother and I grew up in Eastern Ontario, played hockey in the winter, baseball in the summer, typical Canadian kids who enjoyed sports a lot,” he told me. “The first Muslim star is not going to be from a Muslim country, it’s going to be a guy like me. Like DiMaggio — his family was from Italy, but he was from San Francisco.”

That might be a player like Darvish — the son of an Iranian father who grew up in a baseball-mad country and turned out to have one of the best pitching arms in the world. Or it might be a Pakistani kid growing up in the Caribbean. (Or, perhaps, it could be an Indian who won a reality TV show to pitch for the Pirates.) Either way, that player will follow a road like Nazem Kadri, who rose to prominence in the national sport.

As it is, many American Muslims, like Jazayerli and Ballouli, are still baseball fans. Shiraz Rehman is currently the Assistant General Manager for the Chicago Cubs, and is proud of both his heritage and his religion. In Oakland, Farhan Zaidi is the director of baseball operations and one of the key architects of the A’s successes, and is likewise a proud Muslim. Like our two Quaker presidents — Hoover and Nixon — many Muslims punch the clock, go to work, and yell for their favorite teams without many people knowing their particular religious background.

To be sure, the countries with the most Muslims are not generally the countries with the most baseball fans. But as baseball seeks to expand its reach into countries around the world, there’s a good possibility that the first Muslim baseball star will turn up somewhere — as Ballouli mentioned to me, that there’s a strong Little League program in Saudi Arabia. So you never know.

Still, it may not happen until after the Pirates win the World Series. Or maybe the Cubs.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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9 years ago

Great article. Not something I would have expected on Fangraphs, but a very good read.