US-Israeli former cop busts into sabra sports and gets identity shock of his life

In 1974, aged 13, Ami Baran decided to leave Chicago and move to Israel alone. By the time he was 13 — bar mitzvah age, when Jewish boys formally enter adulthood — his Zionist identity and commitment to a life in Israel had already been formed.

“I grew up understanding that my parents were Holocaust survivors,” Baran told The Times of Israel. “My father was a partisan fighter. His whole family was killed. They were exterminated. There’s a book called ‘The Jewish Partisans’ with a chapter about him. He was a hero. He saved a lot of people that made it to Israel. You know, ‘Defiance,’ the movie and the book. My father is mentioned in the book. I grew up on the stories.”

Currently head of the Israel Athletics Association, secretary-general of the Baseball and Softball Association in Europe, and executive director of the Israel Softball Association, Baran said sports played a special role for him even while he was growing up in a tough lower-middle-class neighborhood in the ’60s and early ’70s. At the same time, Baran’s family saved up and visited Israel five times between 1967 and 1973.

When he learned that his cousin, Amir Cohen, was killed in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Baran made up his mind to go to Israel permanently.

“I decided that somebody must take his place. That was me,” he said.

Baran told his parents that he wanted to go to a military school. His mother, Henia, came to Israel to check it out through the Youth Aliyah program sponsored by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Baran was subsequently placed in the Hadassim Youth Village in the central Israeli town of Even Yehuda. It was not a military school, although the program offered a gadna teen military training program for the students.

Eventually, while serving as an Israel Police major, he became the greatest pitcher in the history of Israeli softball. He was Israeli national javelin champion many times and competed simultaneously in the Maccabiah Games in javelin and softball.

Life as an almost-sabra continued as expected — until 2002, when Baran went through a shock after his mother’s death.

“I thought my mother was a Holocaust survivor like my father,” Baran said. “When she died, I found out that that wasn’t exactly true. She left a letter… [that] she came from a different kind of family, one that wore the other uniform.”

Ami Baran’s father in World War II, wearing a partisan uniform and holding his weapon. (Courtesy Ami Baran)

Baran went to Germany that same year to confront the truth.

“Members of my family in Konigsberg (today called Kaliningrad) fought and died in the German army and were buried with an Iron Cross,” he said. “My mother left Germany with my father after the war as a 16-year-old. I guess he kind of kidnapped her.”

Baran and his siblings had no inkling.

The German children of Baran’s grandparents knew that they had a sister in Chicago named Renate. Meanwhile, Baran’s Yiddish-speaking “Jewish” mother was known to all in her new homeland as Henia. Before he left Germany, Baran was given his German grandfather’s ring.

Getting his start in the field

Baran’s start in professional Israeli sports happened by coincidence. He spent a lot of time playing basketball, soccer goalie, and volleyball at the Hadassim boarding school, but it wasn’t until he got in trouble for throwing oranges in the orchard that his talent was discovered.

“I was sent to the principal, who was so impressed with my orange-throwing that he sent me to meet athletics coach Amnon Gur. They got me throwing the javelin, and from age 16, I became a junior national champion and then national champion of Israel,” Baran said.

Baran was sent to Germany to train with top coaches. By age 17 he took part in his first Maccabiah Games. After completing his army service, Baran combined studies at the prestigious Wingate Institute sports college with work in his mother’s business. His mother had immigrated to Israel a few years after Baran, and her work in Chicago and her business in Israel dealt with prosthetic ostomy bags.

Israeli pitcher Tito Smilovish in this undated photo. (Courtesy Israel Softball Association)

While walking through the Sportek athletic area in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park in 1984, Baran saw the Maccabi Tel Aviv softball team practicing and introduced himself to manager Shlomo Shovitz. Baran found that he remembered enough from his childhood to play with a team of American and South American immigrants in Tel Aviv.

Tito Smilovish was the pitcher who recognized Baran’s pitching potential and taught him the skill.

At first, Baran had speed but little accuracy. “I hit a lot of leftie batters,” he said. But Baran soon developed control and the ability to place his pitches where he wanted them to go.

He became a dominant pitcher in Israeli softball for decades to come, clinched many Israeli championships and pitched for the Israeli national team.

Baran married Israel high jump champion, Gabi Rosen, in 1988. That same year they traveled together to study law at Sheffield University in England. It was in England that Baran took on yet another sport, becoming the quarterback of the Sheffield University Barnsley Bears. He played football for three years as he studied law.

A smash hit

Back in Israel in 1995, Baran used his law degree to get a position as a police prosecutor in the Shai District in Judea and Samaria, where he served until 2011. At different times Baran served as a prosecutor, as head of investigations, and in intelligence dealing with numerous terrorist attacks and a range of other crimes.

Baran took a leave of absence from the police in 2007 to become the international director of the Pups for Peace organization, which trained bomb-sniffing dogs. That same year, he served as manager of the Netanya Tigers in the short-lived Israel Baseball League, which lasted for one season, and became chairman of the Israel Softball Association (ISA).

Former Israel Police major, athlete, and current Israel Athletics Association head, Ami Baran. (Courtesy IAA)

Baran’s involvement in softball management began in 1995 when he convinced the ISA to send a team to the World Championships for the first time. By so doing, he also got a chance to pitch for Israel in an international competition. Baran became a board member of the ISA and in 2002 founded Israel’s first women’s national softball team.

Jumping into the politics of international softball and baseball, Baran was elected in 2009 to the European Softball Federation board and in 2013 became its secretary-general. He was involved in a successful campaign to combine softball and baseball into one united European federation because, said Baran, “the Olympic organizers wanted them together. Baseball for men and softball for women. Many in softball are opposed.”

Ami Baran pitching in this undated photo. (Courtesy Israel Softball Association)

With Baran leading a push among European nations to get enough votes, the European Baseball and Softball Federation was created in 2014, while the World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC) was established soon after in 2017. This year Baran was elected secretary-general of the WBSC Europe.

After a 20-year break, Baran returned to athletics — another word for the track and field world — in 2016, when he was invited to serve as president of the Israel Athletics Association. He was chosen, he said, because “they knew my reputation as a sports organizer, as a javelin champion and longtime coach and with international sports connections.” While holding public positions in sports, Baran also owns a private security company.

In his new post, Baran went to work to bring the 2022 European U18 championship, a top-level international youth athletics event, to Israel. After strenuous lobbying at the European Athletic Association Congress in Turkey in 2017, Israel defeated a strong bid from Poland and was awarded the rights to host the event. The contest will take place this July 4-7 in Jerusalem, at the Hebrew University’s newly refurbished Givat Ram Stadium.

Living in the north-central Israeli village of Maor with his second wife Dalit, Baran has his work cut out for him.

“Right now, my priority in athletics is to make sure that the 2024 Paris Olympics will be a success for us,” Baran said.

Baran points to possible medals in the high jump and several promising distance runners. While heading the IAA, Baran continues to multitask, serving as head of WBSC Europe and head of the Israel Softball Association and continuing to coach pitchers in his backyard batting cage.

“I’m driven and don’t sleep much,” said Baran. “I want to leave saying that sports in Israel got better.”

Christin Hakim

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