by Jonathan Kirsch | JewishJournal.com | July 21, 2011
One of my fondest childhood memories are the baseball games that my grandfather and I watched on the public diamond in La Cienega Park. The players were Jews, and so were the fans. Perhaps that’s why I still think of baseball as a sport with a special resonance for Jews. After all, even if we don’t remember the first Jewish professional ballplayer — his name was Lipman Pike — who in the NBA or the NFL can stir the Jewish soul like Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax?
Something of the same point is made in “Jews and Baseball” by Burton A. Boxerman and Benita W. Boxerman (McFarland, $45.00 per volume) (www.mcfarlandpub.com, 800-253-2187), a handsome hardcover series in two volumes, both of which are full of history and memory, and both of which are richly and appropriately ornamented with stats, color commentary, and lots of evocative photographs. Volume 1 is subtitled “Entering the American Mainstream, 1871-1948” and, as if to emphasize the pivotal role that Greenberg played in the national sport, Volume 2 is subtitled “The Post-Greenberg Years, 1949-2008.”
Martin Abramowitz, who contributes a foreword to Volume 1, argues that baseball was nothing less than a machine for turning greenhorns into Americans, and my own grandfather – who arrived in Brooklyn from Bobruisk via Palestine, Cairo and Gallipoli — was an example of precisely that phenomenon.
“The Jews who paid to watch, or who hovered around radios, bars, and sports pages as fans of the game, were absorbing America, being absorbed by America, and contributing to America,” writes Abramowitz. “It’s no surprise that Solomon Schechter, the long-time chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the leader of Conservative Judaism, told his students that if they wanted to be successful as rabbis, they needed to understand baseball!”
The Boxermans remind us that the total number of Jewish major leaguers has been no more than roughly 160, and they represent less than one percent of all major league players since 1871. By contrast, the Jewish community has represented between two and three percent of the American population. But these athletes — and the far more numerous Jewish owners, managers, coaches, executives, union leaders, sportswriters, broadcasters, statisticians, and umpires — represent something unique and important about the Jewish experience in America.
“Jews gave to baseball not only the great love for the game,” they conclude, “but also a number of good and a few great players, the World Series, innovative statistics, equal rights for players, and even the music for baseball’s national anthem.”
Koufax and Greenberg are only two of the many of the Jewish players who are featured in these books, but they are deservedly singled out as superstars. Greenberg, the authors insist, “was, without a doubt, the greatest Jewish baseball player during the first century of baseball,” and they quote Alan Dershowitz for the proposition that he was “the most important American Jew of the 1930s.” While both Greenberg and Koufax famously refused to play ball on Yom Kippur, but the authors insist that Greenberg took the greater risk when he did so back in the 30s, which is exactly what Dershowitz is referring to.
The Boxermans have achieved something especially noteworthy with “Jews and Baseball.” We’ve all heard the joke about the shortest book in the world — “Great Jewish Sports Heroes.” Now we know that there’s enough to say about Jews in the great American game to take up two books!
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.