On Record: Baseball History

By Gerald Eskenazi

Published July 03, 2007, issue of July 06, 2007.
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Jews and Baseball, Volume I: Entering the American Mainstream, 1871-1948
By Burton A. Boxerman and Benita W.Boxerman
McFarland & Company, Inc., 232 pages, $39.95.

Baseball, like Yiddish, has generously gifted many words and expressions to the English language. The game even has an expression for a mediocre ballplayer whose career was short: “He was up for a cup of coffee.”

Well, now we have a book with a long-awaited title: “Jews and Baseball.” Unfortunately, I discovered that most of the players were up for merely a glezele tey, a little glass of tea.

In roughly 140 years of baseball, there have been about 140 Major Leaguers who were Jews. Of course, one noted star in this book — which takes us to 1948 and thus doesn’t include Sandy Koufax, Al Rosen, et al. — is Hammering Hank Greenberg, a Hall of Famer, a slugger who was one of the great players in an era of great players.

But why does early baseball history lack a Jewish presence? You know all the reasons. (“Is this a job for a Jewish boy?”) Yet, most of the players whom authors Burton A. Boxerman and Benita W. Boxerman write about were, in fact, college boys who rejected careers as doctors to fulfill childhood dreams of playing in the Major Leagues.

Although ultimately this book is about the men who played a game, it has the feel of a thesis, and that’s too bad. When you want real-life anecdotes, instead you get citations that often are merely repeats of other bobe-mayses. The book is 184 pages of text, and it also includes an additional 20 pages of notes and an eight-page bibliography.

Thus, we get learned citations for someone’s batting average. I didn’t know that things in the public record needed to be cited; it’s as if you wrote that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and cited The New York Times as your source. Batting averages and fielding averages and games played are everywhere.

But this is perhaps an unfair cavil. The authors worked hard at what seems to be unfamiliar territory. They researched the enigmatic Moe Berg, a character I met many years ago at Yankee Stadium. He was a former light-hitting catcher. It was said of Berg, a graduate of Princeton University and the Sorbonne, “He can speak seven languages, and can’t hit in any of them.”

The Boxermans don’t try to profile every ballplayer who was Jewish; instead, they concentrate on those who made an impact on the game, or symbolized a time and place. And the authors don’t stop on the playing fields; they go into the press boxes and the front offices to introduce us to Jewish writers and owners.

One of those writers, Shirley Povich of The Washington Post, regaled me once with stories of his New Hampshire boyhood, and of how he took bar mitzvah lessons from an itinerant, horseback-riding rabbi.

Wisely, the authors are nonjudgmental when discussing antisemitism (which takes up a very small portion of the book), for they understand that there was an era for the national pastime when a person’s ethnic or nationalist identity was fair game for bench jockeys — as was that person’s physical appearance.

Still, it is jarring when we read of the journal Sporting Life arguing that a player should not be suspended for “such a trifling offense as insulting the Hebrew race.”

The book’s surprises include seminal baseball moments of which Jews were part — surprising because of the infinitesimal number who have ever suited up (indeed, a higher percentage owned teams).

Thus, the last pitcher in the American League to toss a home run ball to Babe Ruth was — did you guess it? — Sydney Cohen of the Washington Senators. How about Bill Starr, who once pinch-hit for Ted Williams (who knew?). And Albert Lasker, a majority owner of the Chicago Cubs, drafted a plan that led to the creation of an all-powerful commissioner after the Black Sox gambling scandal. Whenever you sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” remember that it was written by Albert Von Tilzer (the “Von” was an add-on). And if you’re keeping score, you can thank Jacob Morse of the Boston Herald for inventing the baseball-shorthand symbols (“k” for strikeout).

These items make for much more fun reading than an anecdote on Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, which once ran a story headlined “Jewish Gamblers Corrupt American Baseball.”

Instead, just look at the bygone names in that time before Koufax, and conjure up Milt Galatzer, Jim Levey, Morrie Arnovich, Eddie Feinberg. Or the fascinating Dolly Stark, the first Jewish umpire of the 20th century, who was brought up in a shelter, suffered mental breakdowns, took a year off and came back. They even gave him a “day” at the Polo Grounds. And what about those Jewish owners and ballplayers who consulted their rabbis about taking off on the High Holy Days? One owner figured it out: He brought two rabbis with him to a game.

Only in America.

Gerald Eskenazi, a former New York Times sportswriter, is working on a memoir titled “Class of 1950: What Happened to the Smartest Kids in Brooklyn,” to be published next year.

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