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Jews and Baseball: Highlights, Low Lights, and Shining Lights
by Bennett Muraskin
FOR JEWISH CITY KIDS in 20th-century ethnic ghettos, baseball was not so much a participatory sport as a spectator sport. Jewish boys could imitate baseball with stickball or punch ball on streets, courtyards, and alleyways, but they did not have enough open space to play actual baseball — at least not until the cities started building parks and ball fields, and Jewish kids started going to colleges that had baseball teams. Nevertheless, because baseball was the “national pastime” and highly popular in the big cities where Jews lived, Jews striving to become real Americans rapidly became baseball enthusiasts.
Before Jews became fully a part of baseball, however, they first had to cope with an episode that was grist to the anti-Semitic mill: the infamous “Black Sox Scandal” in 1919, when much of the Chicago White Sox team were bribed to throw the World Series. Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein was accused by the baseball commissioner of being the brains and money behind the scandal; although it now appears that Abe Atell, the Jewish former boxer, put in the fix, Rothstein certainly had inside information and profited from it. Henry Ford exploited this scandal in his anti-Semitic mass newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, as an example of intrinsic Jewish dishonesty.
THE FIRST PROMINENT Jewish baseball player was Johnny Kling, a star catcher who played for the Chicago Cubs in the first decade of the 20th century, including in three World Series. (The Cubs have not won a World Series since!) The Jewish player with perhaps the weirdest nickname was Barney “The Yiddish Curver” Pelty, who pitched for the St. Louis Browns around 1910. (Curver sounds awfully like the Yiddish word for “prostitute.”)
In the late 1920s, Andy Cohen was eagerly signed by the New York Giants to attract Jewish fans, and was heralded by the New York Jewish community as a great hero. Fans could even buy an “ice cream cohen” at the ballpark. Felled with injuries, Cohen lasted only two seasons (1928 and 1929), but his celebrity status helped dissipate the stench of the Black Sox scandal.
And the Giants meant business. On September 11, 1941, the team started four Jewish players: Sid Gordon, a good-hitting outfielder, who began a 17-year career in the majors; outfielder Morrie Arnovich; pitcher Harry Feldman; and Harry Danning behind the plate. How’s that for a bit of Jewish baseball trivia?
The strangest Jew who played professional baseball was probably Moe Berg, whose career spanned the 1920s and ’30s. At a time when most ballplayers were country boys with rudimentary educations, Berg grew up in Newark, New Jersey and graduated from Princeton University. An excellent defensive catcher, it was said that he could speak six languages, but could not hit a curveball in any of them. During World War II, Berg became a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, posing as a French Canadian businessman in Italy. His mission was to discover whether Germany was developing nuclear weapons. Berg carried out a few assignments in the post-war period for the CIA, but did not fit the company mold and became a drifter. A habitual schnorer, he may be the only person who ever managed to mooch off Joe DiMaggio, a notorious skinflint. Berg found an excellent biographer in journalist Nicholas Dawidoff, who wrote The Catcher was a Spy (1995).
Much has been written about the incomparable Hank Greenberg, the Bronx boy who began his stellar career with the Detroit Tigers during the 1930s, at the same time and in the same city where Father Coughlin was spewing his anti-Semitic propaganda. Greenberg rarely let the anti-Semites get under his skin. When the Tigers went to the World Series in 1935, a creative rabbi somehow found Talmudic authority to allow him to play on Rosh Hashanah but not Yom Kippur. During Greenberg’s last season in 1947, while playing with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he met Jackie Robinson, then in his rookie season. Drawing on his own experience with anti-Semitism, he encouraged Robinson not to succumb to racist abuse. Greenberg served with distinction in World War II. After retiring as a player, he remained in baseball as the general manager and part owner of the Cleveland Indians. He was the first Jew to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1970 he testified in court on behalf of Curt Flood, the first ballplayer to challenge the reserve clause, which tied players to a particular team.
There have been many Jewish baseball stars since Greenberg — including the recently deceased Al Rosen (aka the “Hebrew Hammer”), the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1953, and, of course, Sandy Koufax (aka “The Left Hand of God”), the great strikeout pitcher from Brooklyn, who was key to the success of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, Greenberg is sui generis. He excelled when Jews were a vulnerable minority. His achievements were understood by the entire Jewish community to be a triumph over anti-Semitism.
Two other baseball Hall of Famers have often been misidentified as Jews: Lou Boudreau, who played for the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox from 1938 to 1952, and Rod Carew, who played for the Minnesota Twins and California Angels from 1967 to 1985. The former, although half Jewish, was raised as a Catholic, and the latter married to a Jewish woman, but did not convert.
Norm Sherry, catcher, and Larry Sherry, pitcher, were brothers on the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1959 to 1962 and became the first Jewish battery in the Major Leagues. Larry was the Most Valuable Player in the 1959 World Series, in which he threw as a relief pitcher in all four Dodger victories, winning two and saving two, with an earned run average of only 0.71 ERA in 12-2/3 innings.
In 1973, a Jewish ball player had the distinction of being the first designed hitter: Ron Blomberg of the Yankees. He wrote a book about the experience titled Designated Hebrew: The Ron Blomberg Story. His teammate for two seasons, pitcher Ken Holtzman, a star with the Chicago Cubs accumulated a 174-150 win-loss record in fifteen seasons and threw thirty-one shutouts. That’s more victories than any other Jewish pitcher, including Sandy Koufax.
Two of the so-called “clown princes” of baseball were also Jews: Al Schacht, a pitcher and coach, and Max Patkin, who never made it out of the minor leagues but had a comic flair. Schacht once wrote: “There is talk that I am Jewish, just because my father was Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I speak Yiddish and once studied to be a rabbi and cantor. Well, that’s how rumors get started.”
THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC has produced an abundance of Major League Baseball players, but only one of them is a practicing Jew: pitcher Jose Bautista, the son of a Dominican father and Israeli mother, who played for four teams between 1988 and 1997. (He is no relation to the slugger with the same name currently playing for the Toronto Blue Jays.)
In recent years, there has been a small clutch of Jewish Major League stars. Shawn Green, who retired in 2008, was arguably the best Jewish offensive ball player since Hank Greenberg, and hit over 300 home runs during his fifteen seasons in the majors. Five-time All Star Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers (half-Jewish and raised as a Jew) won the Most Valuable Player award in 2011, but unfortunately had his reputation tainted by his use of performance-enhancing drug. Kevin Youkilis, an intense infielder and defensive ace with the Boston Red Sox, was a three-time All Star with a .281 batting average and 150 home runs in nine seasons.
BASEBALL HAS CAPTURED the Jewish literary imagination like no other sport. Novels about the sport include Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (1967), and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (1991) — and Neil Simon’s classic play Brighton Beach Memoirs (1984) is full of love for and fascination with the game. Journalist Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer (1972) depicts the Jewish romance with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist, wrote essays about the game that were collected and published posthumously in a title that says it all: Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball (2003).
In 2010, Peter Miller directed a documentary titled Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, narrated by Dustin Hoffman. An exhibit, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American,” opened in March 2014 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
For leftwing Jews, baseball also had a political dimension. Before and after World War II, they and other leftists collected petitions and picketed baseball stadiums to strike down the color bar. According to Jackie Robinson’s biographer Arnold Rampersad, “the most vigorous efforts [to integrate baseball] came from the Communist press... an unrelenting pressure for about 10 years in the Daily Worker, notably from Lester Rodney.” His colleague Bill Mardo (born William Bloom) comes in a close second.
Rodney grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, ran track and field and became radicalized during the Depression. He joined the Communist Party in the mid-1930s and worked as the Daily Worker’s sports editor from then until 1958, except for his military service in World War II. He coordinated with leading black newspapers in printing stories praising the accomplishments of players in the Negro League and attacking Jim Crow in major league baseball. After the Dodgers brought up Jackie Robinson in 1947 and the New York Giants integrated two years later, Rodney kept up the pressure on the Yankees. It took eight more years until they signed their first black player, Elston Howard, in 1955. The last team to integrate was the Boston Red Sox in 1958.
Baseball players were the first among professional athletes to organize a union — the Major League Baseball Players Association — and they selected as its first executive director Marvin Miller, a Jewish labor economist with experience working for the Machinists, Auto Workers and Steel Workers unions. He served the MLBPA from 1966 to 1983, negotiated their first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, and led three strikes. Under Miller’s leadership, players went from indentured servants to highly paid professionals. Henry Aaron, the great home run hitter and Hall of Famer, once said that “Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him it.” Due to management opposition, this has not yet happened. Many say that Marvin Miller is one of the three most influential figures in the history of major league baseball, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.
Miller’s successor as executive director of the MLBPA, Donald Fehr, from 1986 to 2009, was also Jewish. He was followed by another Jew, Michael Weiner, who served from 2009 until his untimely death in 2013.
JEWS PLAYED A ROLE in team ownership as far back as 1900, when Barney Dreyfuss, born in Germany, bought the Pittsburgh Pirates, which he owned until his death in 1931. He is credited with organizing a championship series between the then independent National and American Leagues, originating the “World Series.”
Since Dreyfuss, there have been a many Jewish owners, executives, and general managers in Major League Baseball, including former star players like Hank Greenberg and Al Rosen. Rosen served as GM of the Yankees, the Houston Astros, and the San Francisco Giants. Brad Ausmus, after a 17-year career as an excellent defensive catcher, is now the manager of the Detroit Tigers. The current baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, is also Jewish.
There have been no shortage of Jews in baseball journalism and broadcasting. Journalist Maury Allen wrote about baseball for fifty years for the old New York Post and the Journal News. Mel Allen’s Southern accent helped mark him as the popular announcer for the New York Yankees from 1940 to 1964. Al Michaels has announced many memorable World Series games. In the 2000s, Suzyn Waldman, a Jewish woman, became a TV and radio sportscaster for the Yankees, one of the first in the profession.
What can be said about the Jewish identities of Jewish athletes? In the first half of the 20th century, consistent with their first-generation status and roots in the Jewish urban ghetto, Jewish ball players and other athletes were strong ethnic Jews. They fought off anti-Semites in their neighborhoods, raised money for Jewish charities, supported the Zionist cause, and eagerly served in the U.S. military during wartime. Since the 1950s, these loyalties have gradually waned. In this regard, Jewish athletes are no different from the Jewish population at large, which moved into the suburbs and experienced upward social mobility.
Judging from the fact that they have regularly played on Sabbath and Jewish holidays, it is safe to assume that Jewish ball players and other athletes have been mildly observant or on the secular end of the Jewish spectrum. When Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax refused to play on Yom Kippur, they did not necessarily spend the holiday in shul.
That does not mean they do not have Jewish ties. In retirement, some Jewish ball players have travelled to Israel to help establish a baseball league there, including Brad Ausmus, former Met Art Shamsky, and Ken Holtzman.
The longest lasting Jewish contribution to the American world of baseball just might be “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” sung every day at baseball games around the country. For its music we have Albert Von Tilzer to thank. His real name was Gumm, a shortened version of Guminsky, and he was a Jewish kid from Indianapolis. His brother Harry was a well known Tin Pan Alley composer. The lyrics were written by a non-Jew, songwriter and vaudeville performer Jack Norworth, who wrote them while married to a Jewish woman Nora Bayes (stage name for Eleanor Goldberg), a popular singer and actress. She was the first to sing the song in public.
“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was translated into Yiddish ages ago. Here is the version I like best:
Fir mir oys tsu der bolshpil
Tsum oylem lomir dokh geyn
Koyf mir di nislekh un kreker jek
Vil ikh keynmol fun dortn geyn avek
Vayl men shrayt “Hoorah” far di shpiler
S’iz a shande az men farshpilt
Vayl s’iz “eyns, tsvey, dray” strikes bist “oys!”
In der alte bolshpil!
Sing it with pride, for Jews have left their mark on this sport!
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer to our magazine, is the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.