Jackie Robinson and the Jews

Review: Jews in Baseball Had Mixed Record on Black Progress

Mixed Record: Jackie Robinson inspired Jews by breaking baseball’s color line. However, the role of Jews in promoting the sport’s integration was decidedly mixed.
Getty Images
Mixed Record: Jackie Robinson inspired Jews by breaking baseball’s color line. However, the role of Jews in promoting the sport’s integration was decidedly mixed.

By Gerald Sorin

Published August 01, 2011, issue of August 12, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball
By Rebecca T. Alpert
Oxford University Press, 236 pages, $27.95

Recently, the Yankees’ Derek Jeter hammered out his 3,000th career hit, only the 29th batter in baseball history to reach that exalted plateau; at the age of 37, he is the fourth-youngest player to accomplish that feat, and only the second shortstop to do it. Moreover, Jeter’s 3,000th smack was a home run — an extraordinary event, occurring only once before in a century of modern baseball. Almost as astonishing, Jeter went five for five and drove in the winning run.

Even those who pay little attention to baseball took notice of Jeter’s phenomenal day at the stadium. But in all the deserved hullabaloo in the media, little notice was taken of Jeter’s “race”: black, by American definition. Yet it had taken 50 years of modern major league baseball before Jackie Robinson, winner of varsity letters in four sports at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a superb ballplayer in the Negro and minor leagues, was permitted to make his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, finally breaking the “color line” in big league baseball.

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

Robinson, named Rookie of the Year the same year he joined the Dodgers, went on to become one of the best athletes in the game. Depicted appropriately as a heroic figure whose success seemed to prefigure the end of racial discrimination in all aspects of American life, Robinson plays an outsized role in Rebecca Alpert’s “Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball.” The story of Robinson’s achievement provided a host of Jewish writers, community leaders, teachers and artists with a symbol of their own experience of Americanization in the post-World War II era, and a paradigm for what many second-generation Jews saw as essential to their identities as American Jews: the obligation not only to secure their own rights, but also to get to the “roots” of racial injustice in order to help America rid itself of bigotry.

Baseball, as Alpert puts it, “was America.” The respect and love of Robinson and his attainments allowed many liberal Jews, who identified with the black struggle in America, to combine an attachment to the national pastime — especially to the newly integrated Brooklyn Dodgers — with the belief in the value of the social equality, which they learned at home. At the same time that they were becoming more American, they could hold on to ethnic distinctiveness and to the value of justice crucial to it.

Alpert recognizes this intricate process of identity construction on her very first page, where she tells us that her own American Jewish progressivism was shaped in part by her mother, who taught her about Robinson, Jews and the Negro League, and by Jewish support and activism for the integration of professional baseball. Thousands of other Jewish children heard the same teachings. For example, in 1947, my grandmother presented 7-year-old me with a fully uniformed, batwielding Jackie Robinson doll, along with a speech — not her last — about social equality.

During Alpert’s research, however, she discovered that the role Jews played in black baseball was decidedly less heroic and more complex than she had been led to believe. Beginning in the Depression era, a small number of Jews of Eastern European descent ventured into the sports business and came to wield an economic and social power in black baseball that was denied them in other arenas. They inevitably competed with a minority of black owners and agents less well capitalized, and sometimes, in order to stimulate attendance, encouraged (but did not invent) a vaudevillian style of play uncomfortably resembling minstrelsy.

Coming from the “outside” as Jewish and white — or out of left field, as Alpert puts it — Jews, though intimately involved with the game, remained outsiders. In this racially tense context, they both acted out and fell victim to pervasive stereotypes of Jews as greedy middlemen. Alpert points out that in the same context, some black owners, too, in order to stay solvent, made clowning an indispensable part of the game, playing out and reinforcing ugly images of blacks as lazy and foolish and as skilled at only the trivial.

In strangely disorganized short subchapters that move unsteadily among biographical detail, historical narrative and unnecessarily repetitive analysis, Alpert tells what should have been a richer and more dramatic tale in a way that is hard to get at directly, or to review succinctly. Suffice it to say here that Jews and blacks — owners, agents, managers, players and journalists — were involved in disputes that involved economic control, mutual stereotyping, ethnic pride and assimilation. But it was particularly the Jewish Communist sportswriters at the Daily Worker who saw the desegregation of baseball as a moral imperative. Taking some latitude with Communist Party policy, they strenuously fought for all measures that would help end racial segregation in baseball, even if those measures lent support to the capitalist system.

The role of the Jewish entrepreneurs also was complicated, but they accurately believed that during an era of great economic difficulty, they had helped stabilize the business of black baseball. In accomplishing this, many proprietors, including Abe Saperstein, who owned a black baseball team as well as the Harlem Globetrotters and later scouted black talent for the Cleveland Indians, made a visibly important social contribution by providing employment and entertainment for the black community.

Several Jewish owners, even if more for business reasons than for moral ones, also promoted desegregation of major league baseball. Syd Pollock, Ed Gottlieb and Saperstein (along with the black superstar Satchel Paige) proposed bringing a “complete Negro league team” into the majors as a way of demonstrating black ability. And William Benswanger, the Jewish owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was receptive to hiring blacks during World War II to replace key players in the service. How crucial the interventions of Saperstein and Benswanger were to the integration of major league baseball is difficult to measure exactly. But even if late and somewhat obliquely, and not as heroically as Alpert once believed, Jewish capitalists joined Jewish political radicals in helping to end Jim Crow baseball.

Gerald Sorin is the author of “Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent” (NYU Press, 2002). His biography of Howard Fast will be published in 2012.

Read Ross Ufberg’s serialized novel about a Jewish baseball team in the 1930s on The Arty Semite blog.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.