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Jews in American Sports

Bennett Muraskin
October 3, 2011

by Bennett Muraskin

From the Autumn, 2011 issue of Jewish Currents

FOR THE JEWS the Jews of the East European shtetls, strenuous physical activity was for goyim — and for those Jews unfortunate enough to have to earn their keep as shleppers, water-carriers, porters, and the like. A Jewish boy was supposed to study. From age 3, he was sent to kheyder, which lasted all day. After completing kheyder ten years later, he either went to work or to yeshiva. Then he married and raised a family.

As shtetl Jews moved to big European cities, some took up exercise and sports, on purely an amateur level, and usually separately from gentiles — although six Jews, three from Germany, two from Austria, and one from Hungary, won Olympic medals in gymnastics and swimming at the first modern Olympics in 1896. Jewish sports societies emerged in Europe at around that time, and in 1921 the World Jewish Congress, influenced by Zionist organizations seeking to foster Jewish nationalism, established the still-enduring Maccabi World Union, which sponsors the Maccabiah Games, a “Jewish Olympics,” every four years.

America was different for the Jews. Here they were permitted and expected to assimilate. Not only did public schools encourage exercise and sports, but so did the older German Jewish community and the institutions they promoted to “Americanize” their poor relations: YMHAs, settlement houses, the Educational Alliance, and others. Athletics were not a tough sell. Daily newspapers had easy-to-read sports pages. Sports were seen as a wholesome alternative to criminal activity for Jewish boys growing up in urban ghettos. Before long, Jewish participation in sports was embraced by the Yiddish press and by Jewish labor unions, communal organizations, and Zionist parties. The older generation might still disparage Jewish athletes as “trumbeniks” or “bums” — as a writer for Der Tog (“The Day”) ruefully observed, “the grandfather studies the Torah, the father the business section, the son the sports page” — but for most Jews, Jewish athletes were a source of pride.

The most popular sport in the Jewish immigrant community was basketball, invented in 1891 in the Northeast during the era of mass Jewish immigration. The game was well-suited to the urban environment because it did not require much space and could be played both outdoors and indoors. Other than in city schoolyards, it was in the Catskill resorts, where so many Jewish boys worked during the summers, that young Jewish basketball players honed their skills and developed their game.

Like-what-youre-readingAccording to historian Howard Sachar, “in the widening Jewish sectors of the Bronx and Brooklyn, children shared increasingly in the values and pleasures of the host culture. For their generation, those status symbols at last began to include sports — not the gangster-infested mayhem of boxing, but the ‘clean,’ ‘gentlemanly,’ ‘healthy’ sports of much admired college [basketball] heroes.” In 1929, as Jews began to enter basketball in large numbers, the Forverts described it as a “Jewish sport,” in which “brains, nimble thinking and speedy coordination between mind and muscle are more effective than mere physical brawn and power.” When Jewish domination of the sport became apparent in the 1930s, a Daily News columnist, Paul Gallico, wrote that basketball “appeals to the Hebrew because the game places a premium on an alert scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart-alecness.” Neither the philo- nor anti-Semitic assertions were helpful, of course, but they reflected how Jews dominated “Jew ball,” as basketball was colloquially known, during the 1930s and ’40s.

In New York, Jewish players were highly visible on every major team, from the public City College to the private New York University and Long Island University, and even the Catholic-run St. John’s. Jewish basketball prowess reached its apogee in the 1949-50 season with CCNY’s victory in both national college tournaments, with a team led by the legendary Nat Holman. The nadir was reached just one year later with the notorious “point shaving” scandal, in which twenty-two players, eight of them Jewish, from six different colleges were convicted of fixing the point spread in dozens of games over the 1947-’50 seasons. Ten gamblers were also indicted, four of them Jews. Fortunately, there was no anti-Semitic backlash, because of the sympathy felt for Jews after the Holocaust — and because of a concurrent scandal at West Point that involved non-Jewish cadets cheating on exams.

In the first professional basketball league, the American Basketball League, which lasted for twenty-six seasons between 1925 and 1955, the dominant team was the SPHAs, which stood for the South Philadelphia Hebrew All-Stars, an exclusively Jewish team whose players wore Stars of David on their shorts. The Dux, an all-Jewish, Brooklyn-based team, was another powerhouse. Buoyed by his popularity as an athlete, former ABL player Sammy Kaplan was elected on the American Labor Party ticket to the New York State Assembly from Brownsville, Brooklyn in the early 1950s.

bookA_Page_035_Image_0001THERE WERE SEVEN Jewish players on the New York Knicks when the Basketball Association of America was established in 1946, one of whom, Ossie Schechtman, scored the league’s very first basket. The championship team that year, the Philadelphia Warriors, had three Jewish players and a Jewish coach. In 1949, this league became the National Basketball Association (NBA), which featured Dolph Schayes (pictured at right), a genuine superstar in the 1950s and early ’60s and later a successful coach. Few Jewish players, however, could afford to make the switch from semi-pro ball (with jobs on the side) to full-time, poorly paid professional ball. In 1950, the NBA became racially integrated, and with the movement of Jewish families to the suburbs in the post-war years — where hoops were posted in small driveways rather than in urban parks — Jewish dominance of basketball came to a rapid end.

From the 1920s through the ’40s, Jews were even more dominant in boxing than in basketball, in defiance of the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish weakling. The fact that Jews excelled as defensive boxers rather than bruisers was enough proof of Jewish cowardice for hard-core anti-Semites, but to Jewish immigrant youth, these champs were heroes. During this period, Jews held twenty-six world titles, and two Jewish champions, Benny Leonard and Barney Ross, rose to iconic status.

BOXING WAS CENTERED in New York City, and Jews were central to the sport, not only as fighters but as promoters, managers, corner men, sportswriters and magazine publishers. Boxing trunks, the ropes and the very ring itself were manufactured by Everlast, owned by Jacob Golomb. Unlike basketball and baseball, however, boxing was never considered a respectable career for Jewish athletes. It was too violent and tainted by mob influence. Who’s Who in American Jewry refused to list Jewish boxers, no matter how famous. Many Jewish boxers therefore changed their names, not to avoid anti-Semitism (no need, as the fight game was dominated by Jews) but to hide what they were doing from their families. Harry Rudolph, the son of a Jewish butcher, won the middleweight championship as Al McCoy; Morris Schneer, a junior welterweight champ, fought as Mushy Callahan.

Benny Leonard (Leiner) grew up poor in New York City and learned to fight to survive on the streets. He held the lightweight crown from 1917 to 1925 and retired undefeated. His Jewish fans called him the “Great Benya.” Two of his title fights in 1922 and 1923, fought outdoors in baseball stadiums, each drew over sixty thousand fans. After the stock market crash wiped out his wealth, Leonard returned to the ring and was knocked out for the first time by Irish boxer Jimmy McLarnin. Leonard raised money for Jewish and non-Jewish charities and supported the Zionist cause. In 1925, he wrote an article for a magazine, Palestine, in which he asserted “the Jew is especially adapted for the sport of boxing because, in the final analysis, it is the most elemental form of self-defense.”

ross-barney-111Barney Ross (Rasofsky, pictured at left)) grew up in Chicago. His father was murdered in a hold-up, his mother was institutionalized after a nervous breakdown, and his younger siblings were sent to an orphanage. After a brush with crime, he turned to boxing and used his winnings to reunite his family. Ross held both lightweight and welterweight titles between 1930 and 1938. In 1934, before a crowd of sixty thousand, he defeated McLarnin, the boxer who had ended Benny Leonard’s career. Ross volunteered for service in World War II, won a Silver Star and a Presidential Citation in combat in the Pacific, and became addicted to the morphine he received to ease the pain of a battle wound. After the war, he kicked the habit and became an anti-drug crusader. He was also a staunch Zionist who helped smuggle weapons to Israel in 1948.

Other ethnic minorities were, of course, well represented among boxers, and fights were often promoted as miniature ethnic conflicts — so that Jimmy McLarnin, for example, who had a string of success against Jewish fighters, was advertised as “the Jew beater” until Ross got the better of him. A more innocuous form of this ethnic profiling consisted of Italian boxers entering the ring to the Tarantella, Irish boxers to a jig, and Jewish ones to “My Yiddishe Mame.”

Max Baer, one of the best-known “Jewish” boxers (and a world heavyweight champion),was the son of a non-observant Jewish father and an observant Christian mother. He played up his Jewish origins because it was good for business. When Baer defeated German fighter Max Schmeling, he wore a Star of David on his trunks. When he lost to Joe Louis, he did not. According to a sportswriter, “the closer Max Baer got to New York, the more Jewish he became.” The Jewish public adopted him as one of their own, and Baer never objected. There were very few Jewish heavyweights, but two bona fide Jews held the light heavyweight crown: Abe “Battling” Levinsky from 1916 to 1920 and “Slapsy Maxy” Rosenbloom, from 1930 to 1934.

There was even a Jewish element to the famous 1938 Louis-Schmeling match in Madison Square Garden. Promoter Mike Jacobs had helped Louis overcome racist prejudice to become the first Black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson two decades earlier, but Jacobs came under intense pressure from the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations to cancel the 1938 bout, and hundreds of anti-Nazi demonstrators protested Schmeling’s arrival in the U.S. Instead of cancelling the fight, Jacobs promised to donate 10 percent of the gate to aid Jewish refugees.

Schmeling, meanwhile, may have been Hitler’s favorite boxer, but when he fought in the U.S. he had a Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, aka “Yosl the Muscle.” In those days, boxers fighting in New York typically trained in the Catskills, and since Joe Jacobs kept kosher, Schmeling ate kosher food while preparing for his fight with Louis. Maybe the stuffed derma did him in. Louis stayed away from the Borscht Belt to train in Lakewood, New Jersey.

FOR CITY KIDS, baseball was not so much a participatory sport as a spectator sport. Jewish boys could play stickball or punchball but did not have enough open space for traditional baseball. Yet it was the “national pastime,” highly popular in the big cities in which Jews settled, and in the course of becoming “real Americans” they rapidly became baseball enthusiasts. First, however, they had to cope with an episode that was grist to the anti-Semitic mill: the infamous “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919, in which most of the Chicago White Sox team were bribed to throw the World Series. The culprit was said to be Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein. Although it now appears that Abe (“the Little Hebrew”) Attell, the featherweight boxing champion from 1906 to 1912, put in the fix, his friend Rothstein certainly profited from it. Henry Ford exploited this scandal in his anti-Semitic newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, reporting it as an example of intrinsic Jewish dishonesty.

bookA_Page_017_Image_0001The very first American baseball player to go professional was a Jew, Lipman Emanuel Pike (pictured at right), a power hitter in the 1860s with the Philadelphia Athletics; he once hit six home runs in a game that had a final score of 67-25. (Baseball resembled softball during that era, with underhand pitching.) When it became known that he and two other Athletics were being paid $20 a week in violation of amateur rules, a hearing was called by the National Association of Base Ball Players. When no one showed up to the hearing, the door was open to the professionalization of baseball. In 1869, with the Brooklyn Athletics, Pike batted .610. When he retired at 42, he had a six-season National Association batting record of .321, 20 home runs and 332 runs batted in, and a five-season National League batting record of .306, five homers and 88 RBIs.

The first prominent Jewish player in the modern game was Andy Cohen, eagerly sought by the New York Giants to attract Jewish fans and heralded by the New York Jewish community as a great hero. Owner-manager John McGraw knew a good thing when he saw it. Only in the Polo Grounds could a fan buy an “ice cream Cohen.” Cohen lasted only two seasons (1928-1929) before an injury ended his career, but his celebrity status helped disperse the stench of the Black Sox scandal.

The strangest Jew who played professional baseball was probably Moe Berg, whose career spanned the 1920s and ’30s. At a time when most ball players were country boys with rudimentary educations, Berg was a graduate of Princeton. An excellent defensive catcher, it was said that he could speak six languages but could not hit a curve ball in any of them. During World War II, he 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 if 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.

Much has been written about the incomparable Hank Greenberg, the Bronx boy who starred with the Detroit Tigers, in the very city from which Father Coughlin was spewing his anti-Semitic propaganda. Greenberg, the first Jew elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (in 1956), became one of the sport’s leading sluggers and true sportsmen at a time when Jews were a vulnerable minority. His achievements were seen by the entire Jewish community as a triumph over anti-Semitism. Less well-known than his batting statistics is the fact that in 1947, in his last season, Greenberg drew on his experience with anti-Semitism to encourage the rookie Jackie Robinson to withstand the torrents of racist abuse that accompanied his integrating of baseball. In addition, in 1970 Greenberg testified in court on behalf of Curt Flood, whose legal challenge to baseball’s reserve clause created the free agency system and released ballplayers from indentured servitude to their club owners.

The demise of free agency was accelerated by the unionization of baseball players, and their union was turned into a powerhouse by 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 Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1983, negotiated their first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, and led three strikes. Henry Aaron, the great home run hitter from the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, once said, “Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him it.” So far, however, the club owners have kept the doors barred.

THERE ARE AT LEAST two women who must be included in any accounting of American Jewish athletic stars. Lily Copeland, a track and field athlete from California, won a gold medal in the 1932 Olympics and three medals in the 1935 World Maccabiah games, but then honored the boycott organized by Jewish organizations against the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to protest Nazi anti-Semitism. Thelma Eisen, also from California, was a star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1944 to 1952. (The existence of this league was finally brought to popular attention in the 1992 hit movie, A League of Their Own.)

Also noteworthy is the fact that the rules of women’s basketball were established in 1899 by a Jewish woman, Senda Berenson, the first physical education instructor at Smith College. Her rules, according to JC’s own Jewdayo, “stressed cooperation over individual competitive play, with three zones and six players on each team. To ensure decorum and prevent her students from developing ‘dangerous nervous tendencies and losing the grace and dignity and self-respect we would all have her foster,’ Berenson forbade stealing the ball, holding it for more than three seconds or dribbling it more than three times."

With the success of the Women’s National Basketball Association and the enduring impact of the Title IX program on women’s athleticism, we can certainly expect more Jewish women to be noted as outstanding American athletes in coming decades.

What can be said about the Jewishness of Jewish athletes? Barney Ross was the only one of first-rank known to be observant, but in the first half of the 20th century, consistent with their first-generation status and roots in the urban ghetto, most Jewish athletes strongly identified as Jews. They fought anti-Semites in their neighborhoods, raised money for Jewish charities, supported the Zionist cause and eagerly served in the U.S. military during wartime. At the same time, they had no problem playing on the Sabbath and most Jewish holidays.

Since the 1950s, these ethnic loyalties have gradually waned, as they have in the Jewish population at large. Many American Jewish athletes do compete in the Maccabiah Games in Israel, however, and some, in retirement, have travelled there to help establish sports programs. Among the coaches of Israel’s short-lived professional baseball league, for example, were American ballplayers Art Shamsky, Ron Blomberg, and Ken Holtzman ­— while Eve Ellis, a tennis player recently inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, served for four years as national director of the U.S. tennis team for the Maccabiah Games.

Jewish athletes once helped dispel anti-Semitic stereotypes by serving as models for physically tough Jews, and by proving that there was no conflict between being a good Jew and a good American. Today, Jews are more likely to be sports executives or owners than players (think baseball commissioner Bud Selig, basketball commissioner David Stern and owner of the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban). Still, there is currently a bounty of Jews in baseball, and not very long ago a Jewish professional wrestling champ, Bill Goldberg, reigned. Gey veys! (Go figure!)

Bennett Muraskin conducts our “In Memoriam” column and writes frequently for us on history, politics, and secular Jewish culture. His new book, A Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, will soon be published by Ben Yehuda Press and the Association of Jewish Libraries.