MLB’s Arab Heritage Night Honors ABPA

Image from Because Baseball. ABPA honored by the Washington Nationals at the Arab Heritage Night

Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB), said that, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Joe Lahoud, recently honored for the impact he made as one of the historic players in baseball history, lays claim to the title of the MLB’s first player of Arab descent.

Joe Lahoud was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1947 to a mother of Irish descent and his father was born in Massachusetts — but his father’s parents were full-blooded Lebanese who migrated to the United States. In an article interview for the Society for American Baseball Research, Joe spoke about how baseball wasn’t his first sport. Although he played baseball in his senior year of high school, he played basketball and soccer too. Lahoud was even awarded multiple scholarships in basketball and served as co-sports editor of his high school paper.  

After playing basketball for New Haven College in West Haven, Connecticut for just one year, his father had open heart surgery and Joe’s future in sports changed in an unanticipated way. He had to make a decision: to continue attending school or assist with the financial burdens of his family. 

He was scouted by a professional baseball team and began his career in the fall of 1965. At 6-foot-1, Joe batted and threw the baseball left-handed. 

Over the course of his career, he played for the Boston Red Sox, the Milwaukee Brewers, the California Angels, the Texas Rangers, and the Kansas City Royals. He debuted for the Red Sox in 1968 and on June 11, 1969, and made history as the youngest player — at 22 years of age — to hit three home runs in a single game. Joe retired from baseball in 1978.

During the first-ever Major League Baseball Arab Heritage Night on September 25, 2019, he returned to the field, honored by the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. Before the Washington Nationals took on the Philadelphia Phillies, leaders of the greater Washington DC Arab and Arab-American business community joined together to receive the Spirit Award. Weeks later, the Washington Nationals became champions for the first time in franchise history, and was also the first team from Washington, D.C. to win the World Series since 1924. 

The Arab-American Business & Professional Association (ABPA) was among those honored at the Arab Heritage Night event; other organizations included the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and the Shafik Gabr Foundation.

Image from Because Baseball. ABPA was honored at the Arab Heritage Night hosted by the Washington Nationals.

The Washington Nationals partnered the non-profit organization, Because Baseball, which was created to share baseball with the greater Middle East. Its founder, Kemp Gouldin, came up with the idea of doing an Arab Heritage Night because a number of MLB teams had their own heritage nights. 

“I’ve been talking to a number of Major League Baseball teams over the last several years. All of them have held Heritage nights for various groups, so the idea came to my mind to do something like this with the Washington Nationals. That was really the genesis of the idea, and since this is such an international city with so many Arabs and Arab-Americans — both individuals and organizations — that are doing such great work, DC seemed like the perfect fit to launch such an event,” Kemp said during a phone interview with ABPA.

Kemp’s vision and hope is that this type of event is replicated in every Major League stadium. 

“There were four organizations that were honored on the field that evening. My hope and my vision is that this kind of event takes place in every Major League stadium, and this was the first step in that direction. For next season, there are discussions with the Washington Nationals to do a more robust Arab Heritage night, with food trucks and more music; really celebrating more of the cultural elements of the Arab and Arab-American community. That’s how I envision it, expanding the evening to become more and more involved and allowing the Nationals and the community to fully engage with each other. This was a tremendous first step in that direction. I was very pleased with the outcome.

“I’ve even had a few conversations with some minor league teams who are interested in replicating an event like this. There are 160 minor league teams across the country. When it’s all said and done, that’s a total of 190 cities we can engage and impact with these Arab cultural celebration nights. Because Baseball has an exciting story to tell about the work we’re doing in the greater Middle East and the Arab world. These nights offer a chance to share our story and for people to connect with the sport of baseball within their own community. This was a really interesting and important chance for the rest of baseball, the country, and the world to learn about Arab-American contributions.

“There’s only a few Arab-Americans who have ever played the game at the highest (Major League) level. Joe Lahoud has a unique place in history as the first MLB player of Arab descent. That’s why he was honored — he played a significant yet widely unknown role in the history of baseball.

“Joe is a tremendous ambassador for the game of baseball and for the community. He’s very proud of his Arab heritage. To this day, he still spends a lot of time working with Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association (MLBPAA), a nonprofit organization of retired players that holds various clinics for youth all over the United States.

“He loves working with kids; he loves the game of baseball; he loves sharing the game of baseball; he loves sharing the game of baseball with kids. He’s very excited about coming over to Egypt within the next 6 months to lead clinics and to share the game there.

“As we continue to expand our work in the Arab world, he’ll come to different countries with us and teach there as well. He’s very excited about being an ambassador for the game.

“Joe has never been to Egypt — he’s actually never been to the greater Arab world. He’s Lebanese by descent, and he’s extremely excited about coming to Egypt, going to Lebanon, and going to other countries in the Middle East. He played for 11 years. He really enjoyed it. What he always talks about is how much of a privilege it was to play the game. For him, he wants to be able to share that with others to inspire kids and offer them the same opportunities he had.

Image from Because Baseball. Joe Lahoud honored at the Arab Heritage Night

But why don’t Arab-Americans or Arabs in general play much baseball? Why don’t they gravitate towards the sport?

“I think it’s a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know,’ Kemp said. 

“Until recently, there had never been a concerted effort on behalf of baseball to share the game with our friends in the region, and even those friends in our own backyard. The fact that this is a new endeavor to share the game with the Arab-American and Arab communities here in the states shows that we’re on the forefront of something exciting with the real potential for future transformational impact for kids, the community, and for building bridges of friendship within our own backyard and across borders.

What about objections that the sport is expensive?

“That’s the misconception about baseball. A lot of people think about it as an expensive game. At its most fundamental level, when I was playing in my neighborhood with my friends, there were only two necessary items: A ball and some sort of a bat or stick. Those are the only two things that are 100% essential. However, we cannot discount the excitement a kid has of putting on and using a glove. There’s nothing cooler than hearing the sound of a baseball hit a leather glove. But you can still only play baseball with a bat and a ball.

“The simplicity of equipment is part of baseball’s enduring beauty. Another really beautiful thing about the game is it grows with you. At its most basic level, the sport involves hitting a ball with a bat and running to bases. As children get older and learn more of the nuances and rules, it’s really a game that will age well.

“Baseball is a game that you can grow with.”

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