From baseball to boxing to football, Jews have been shining stars on American sports teams for generations. Two-time American League MVP Hank Greenberg hit 58 homeruns in 1938, just two shy of Babe Ruth’s single season record. Featherweight champion Abe Attell, who won his first fight in 1900 at the age of 16 when he knocked out Kid Lennett in two rounds, defended his title with a record-setting streak of 18 wins. Innovative quarterback Sid Luckman led the Chicago Bears to four NFL championships between 1939 and 1950; he was a pioneer in the implementation of the T-formation and central to the Bears’ 1940 record-setting win of 73-0 against the Washington Redskins. But the intellectuals who oversaw the Forward in the early 20th century were not interested in sports, and the paper didn’t begin including coverage until the 1920s. Part of the Forward’s mission was to help the acculturation of Jewish immigrants in America, and by omitting sports from its pages the paper inadvertently contributed to this cause. Jews turned to other English-language tabloids to get their sports fix. The Daily Mirror was a popular choice among sports fanatics, and on occasion the paper printed messages in Yiddish.
- SARAH KRICHEFF
‘Whitechapel Windmill’ in the Ring
The entire sports world is talking about Jewish pugilist Jackie “Kid” Berg’s sensational victory over Cuban fighter Kid Chocolate, whose record previously had been an unblemished 156-0. This accomplishment has catapulted Berg to great heights in the esteem of fight fans. The fight’s ethnic flavor was particularly interesting, with a cross in Kid Chocolate’s corner and a tallit in Kid Berg’s. Berg’s manager was heard yelling from the corner, “Yidl, gib klep!” (“Hit him, Yidl!”), and the boxer’s father wrote a letter to the Forward, asking the paper to write about the fight so that he could read about it in Yiddish. — 1930 in the Forward
When Judah Bergman, aka Jackie “Kid” Berg, aka the “Whitechapel Windmill,” won the world Junior Welterweight title in 1930, the native Londoner was a mere 20 years old, with a whopping 85 professional fights already under his belt. Berg began his boxing career in London, 20 days shy of his 15th birthday. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in the East End of London, Berg, who boxed with a Star of David on his trunks, would go on to become the most famous Jewish boxer of English descent since the legendary late-18th-century bare-knuckles brawler, Daniel Mendoza. Word had it thatΚalong with the Jewish star on his trunks,ΚBerg wore a tallit and tefillin into the ring on occasion.
After fighting exclusively in London 59 times through the first four years of his career, Berg took several fights in Chicago and Detroit. By 1929, most of his fights were in New York City, and by 1931 he had moved to the United States permanently. It was in 1931 that Berg lost a World Lightweight title fight to Tony Canzoneri, whom he had already beaten in 1930, a month before winning the Junior Welterweight championship. Prior to the Canzoneri fight, Berg had successfully defended his Junior Welterweight crown six times and had won a 10-round decision at the Polo Grounds in a nontitle fight over undefeated Cuban legend Kid Chocolate, ending that “kid’s” 156 fight win streak. After five more fights, a rubber match with Canzoneri was held in New York, this time for both the Lightweight and Junior Welterweight championships. Canzoneri would win this one by a 15-round decision.
In 1934, Jackie Berg won the British Lightweight title, with a 10th-round technical knockout over Harry Wilzer in London. He would lose that title some 14 months later, but continued fighting for nearly 10 more years, finally retiring after 192 professional fights, with a 157-26-9 record. Colorful in and out of the ring, he was said to have had an affair with actress Mae West and to have maintained a friendship with Jewish gangster Jack Spot, who, like Jackie, hailed from London’s East End.
In 1992, the year after he died, Berg was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The following year, he was elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
- Rob Charry
A Hakoah Legend
More than 20,000 Jewish soccer fans and at least as many gentiles filled the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan to watch the famed Austrian Jewish soccer team Hakoah-Vienna beat the American All-Star team 4-0. Hakoah-Vienna created a sensation immediately after arriving in New York from Europe. Thousands of Jews greeted the team’s ship at the pier, and Mayor Jimmy Walker gave the members an official welcome on the steps of City Hall. When the team appeared at a Second Avenue Yiddish theater, the police had to rescue the players from a throng of enthusiastic fans. Jews are used to seeing famous Jewish pianists, violinists and chess players, but a famous soccer team — and, what’s more, one of Europe’s best — is something new.’ — 1926 in the Forward
“All soccer needs if it wants to become a major sport in the U.S. is a few great teams.”
If you’re thinking that the man who first made that observation was Pele, Maradona orΚDavid Beckham, think again. It was Erno Schwarcz, a Hungarian-born Jew who first toured the United States in 1926 with the renowned Austrian Jewish soccer team Hakoah-Vienna. Founded in 1909 by Austrian Zionists Fritz Lohrner and Ignaz Korner, Hakoah-Vienna was a Jewish sports club (and the largest sports club of its kind) that drew soccer players from all over Europe. Decades before the National Basketball Association, National Football League and Major League Baseball played exhibitions in foreign countries, Hakoah-Vienna took its show on the road, playing to big crowds in London and New York.
The force behind Hakoah-Vienna visit to the United States was Schwarcz, who was a left handed violinist and an orchestra conductor in Vienna in addition to being a talented soccer player. During the barnstorming tour here, Schwarcz decided to relocate to the United States, partly for business reasons but mainly to improve the quality of soccer in America.
Schwarcz would join the three-year-old New York Giants of the American Soccer League (not to be confused with the then 43-year-old New York (baseball) Giants or the two-year-old New York (football) Giants of the fledgling National Football League). By 1929, Schwarcz had formed a new team, the New York Hakoah Club, which he immediately led to a championship. In 1931, he became player-coach of still another team, the New York Americans. While leading the Americans to a National Championship in 1937, Schwarcz broke his leg, ending his playing career. He would eventually become business manager for the American Soccer League. Much as he was instrumental in the ’20s in bringing Hakoah-Vienna to America for exhibitions, in the ’40s and ’50s Schwarcz brought European powerhouses Liverpool and Manchester United over for successful tours of American cities.
Schwarcz was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1951 as a “Builder,” acknowledging his contributions to the game as a coach and then administrator.
- Rob Charry
A Golden Arm
The most popular man in America today is the 27-year-old pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sandy Koufax, alias “the Golden Arm.” Not only did he help the Dodgers win the first game of the World Series in front of 69,000 fans in Yankee Stadium, but he also broke the record for the number of strikeouts in a World Series game. Jews who didn’t usually pay attention to baseball began to take notice, and watched the Dodgers and their Jewish pitcher; even embittered “ex-Dodger-fans” from Brooklyn began to cheer for Koufax and the L.A. team. After breaking the record in game one, Koufax was pleased to see a reporter from the Forward. Although he was surrounded by a phalanx of journalists and photographers, Koufax went out of his way to shake hands with the reporter and to give Rosh Hashanah greetings. — 1963 in the Forward
Sandy Koufax’s ticket out of Brooklyn in 1953 was a basketball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. The 6-foot-2-inch Koufax had been a star player at Lafayette High School. As fate would have it, freshman basketball coach Ed Jucker was also Cincinnati’s baseball coach. Koufax asked for an “audition,” and a little more than a year later he was wearing a Brooklyn Dodger uniform and facing Hank Aaron in his major league debut.
Born in Boro Park, Sanford Braun became Sandy Koufax when his mother remarried. The family relocated to Bensonhurst when Koufax entered high school. Though basketball was his main sport, he also played first baseΚfor Lafayette’s baseball team. When a coach in a Coney Island league saw him whipping the ball around the infield, he decided to see if Koufax could pitch.
*On December 15, 1954, the Dodgers signed 18-year-old Koufax for $6,000 a season, plus a $14,000 signing bonus Ρ a hefty sum back then. Players who signed bonuses of more than $4,000 were termed “bonus babies” and went straight to the majors for two years. Koufax’s first two starts were a microcosm of his three Brooklyn seasons. He issued eight walks in four-and-two-thirds innings July 6, and then pitched a two-hit shutout August 27. The Dodgers went on to win their only World Series in Brooklyn that season, with Koufax merely a spectator.
After the Dodgers moved west to Los Angeles, Koufax began to come into his own. From 1961 through 1966, he won 129 games and lost only 47, with four no-hitters, three Cy Young awards, and World Series MVP awards in 1963 and 1965. In game one of the ’63, series, Koufax struck out 15 Yankees — a World Series record at the time. It was during the 1965 Series, though, that Koufax’s legend and stature in the Jewish community grew to epic proportions. Koufax sat out game one of the series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Jewish schoolchildren in Hebrew schools all over America beamed with pride.
An arthritic pitching elbow and rare circulatory problems in his left index finger forced Koufax to retire at age 31, after a 27-9 season. Still recognized as one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time, when 36-year-old Koufax was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, he became the youngest player ever to be enshrined at Cooperstown, N.Y.
- Rob Charry