Jews & Baseball

Why do we idolize Jewish baseball players?

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Jews are proud of their ballplayers; sometimes treating them like modern variants of biblical icons, heroes in their community, legendary for their talents. Why?

It would be easy to attribute this to the nebbish stereotype attributed to Jewish men. When one of them picks up a bat and clocks a ball into the upper decks, it is kind of like the spirit of Woody Allen just got knocked out along with the ball. Yet there was a time when Jews were pegged with athletic stereotypes. From the mid-1920s to the end of the 1940s, Philadelphia's pro-basketball team was called the SPHAs, short for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. Their team was made up primarily of Jewish players, but they weren’t the only such team. Jews filled the ranks of pro basketball all over the country. Pundits referred to the "chosen" players' natural dexterity and sense of rhythm as well as their more intrinsic athletic ability.

American writer Paul Gallico even went so far as to say basketball was a premiere sport for Jews because, "the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind." Such praise, if you want to call it that, was a far cry from Guest's ode to Greenberg, but it did reflect a time when Jews were seen in much the same way minority and immigrant athletes were in later decades. Sports became a venue for poor, disenfranchised segments of the American population, such as Jews, blacks, and immigrants, to achieve a degree of upward social mobility. 

Adopting the "American Religion"

The athlete as refutation of the weakling stereotype may have something to do with Jewish sports fandom today, but it probably isn't at the core of why Jews flock to Jewish sports stars. For that answer, you should look at what sports represents in American culture. It has been called a democratizing force or "the American religion." There is no doubt that for immigrants eager to assimilate into their adopted society, finding a connection to the American pastime seemed as sure a ticket as any other.

An English professor in San Francisco, Eric Solomon, made a similar observation in 1998, when he told The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, "Their families came to this country from Eastern Europe and they had to get a substitute for what they left behind, the shul and the shtetl. So what they found in major-league baseball was a community, a way of becoming American and yet retaining their identity as Jews."

He went on to point out the voluminous number of Jewish authors who wrote about baseball: Bernard Malamud's The Natural or The Celebrant by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, for example. It was Roger Kahn who wrote The Boys of Summer, arguably the greatest baseball book ever written.

Nevertheless, the connection between Jews and baseball has always been strongest at those moments when great players have put their Jewish identity ahead of their performance on the field. It's hard not to look at Sandy Koufax in 1965, when he pulled a "Greenberg" and sat out the first game of the World Series, and see an American Jew reminding his people of the freedom and acceptance they enjoy in this country. Two decades removed from the Holocaust with the Civil Rights movement in full bloom, ethnic and religious minorities faced prejudice that seemed to boil over just as it was being confronted more forcefully than at any time in American history. Yet there was Koufax, steadfastly refusing to play in one of the most important games of his career.

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Bradford R. Pilcher

Bradford R. Pilcher is the Managing Editor of American Jewish Life magazine. His writing has appeared in venues such as Wired News, PopMatters, Jewsweek, and he has served as an advisor to the National Museum of American Jewish History.