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Remembering Sammy Khalifa


Twenty years ago today Sammy Khalifa played his last major league game.

Two and a half years later, his father, Rashad Khalifa, was killed, allegedly by Muslim extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda.

As a part-time shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1985 to 1987, Khalifa hit .219 and had an unremarkable career .579 OPS. But it wasn’t in the batter’s box where Khalifa made his mark: in a sport long in tradition and pioneers, Sammy Khalifa was the first Arab-American and Muslim-American in the major leagues.

Surprisingly, there is little celebrating Sammy Khalifa as a sports pioneer. Although there have been prominent Arab-American athletes in other sports (Doug Flutie, Rony Seiklay, etc.), Sammy Khalifa stands as the one and only major league baseball player with roots in the Middle East.

Fortunately, the career of the first Arab-American to play in the majors was long over before the Khalifa name would again make headlines. In 1989, a group of religious scholars in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa (religious edict) against both the father of Sammy Khalifa and author Salman Rushdie. (Rushdie also had a previous edict pronounced against him four days earlier by the Supreme Ruler of Iran.) Whereas Rushdie escaped assasination by living under police custody, Rashad Khalifa was not so lucky. According to Wikipedia, “he (Khalifa) was stabbed 29 times and his body drenched in xylol but not set alight” because of his establishment of religious sect he called the “Submitters“. Again according to Wikipedia, the Submitters’ doctrine stemmed from Khalifa’s own interpretations of the Qur’an, including mathematical research into the religious text. Some still consider the Submitters to be a cult with no base in traditional Islam.

Currently, Sammy Khalifa lives in the Tucson area, no longer affliated with baseball.

Looking back, it is difficult to imagine the saga of the Khalifas playing out today. What if Sammy Khalifa had a longer, more distinguished major league career? How would his career have been effected by September 11th, 2001? What if, along with Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, we recently inducted the first Arab-American ballplayer into the Baseball Hall of Fame? Could Sammy Khalifa have been a bridge to ease the current tension between the West and the Islamic World?

As further developments arise in the death of former NFL player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, it might be time to take a moment and remember Sammy Khalifa, the first Arab-American baseball player and the first athlete with ties to the war on terror.


7 comments on Remembering Sammy Khalifa

  1. I had no idea Doug Flutie was Arab-American. Thanks for the lesson on Sammy Khalifa. Who knew that I could learn something from an FSU grad? lol I kid.

  2. I had no idea Doug Flutie was from the Middle East, either. And my Greek friends always claimed Rony Seikaly as a Greek.

    Turns out both are of Lebanese backgrounds, according to Wikipedia (though it doesn’t specify if they are of Arab or Muslim decent, or Christian – my guess would be Christian for Flutie).

    Very informative article, Jordi. I’m jealous, this is right up my alley….

  3. Fascinating stuff, thanks for the info. Let’s make it even MORE fun and say that Barry Bonds was Arab, and that he was just about to break the HR record when 9/11 happened. Ooh, now we have real drama. Would he get held out for the rest of the season? And what about the ever-growing rumors of steroid use; are those started by the government just because he is a symbol of Arab strength? I smell a book/movie deal! Kidding.

  4. Bobby Rahal is another Arab American involved in big time sports, he is of a Lebanese descent.

  5. Former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Drew Haddad and formula one racer Tony Kaanan are of arab backgrounds as well. Rony Seikly was born in Beirut I think. Former NFL head coach Rich Kotite – also Arab descent. Not a very good coach though….lol. Flutie is not the only QB……Jeff George is another one.

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