The Little-Known Stars of Jewish Baseball

Book Tells Forgotten Tales of 'Yiddish Curver' and Moe Berg

By James Sullivan

Published April 06, 2013, issue of April 12, 2013.
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“But if it’s ‘and,’ the book is about two subjects, and it’s 6 million people,” Ruttman explained, sitting in his second-floor office above a row of shops and restaurants in his hometown of Brookline, just outside Boston. “It’s not really a sports book — well, it is a sports book, but it’s also an oral history of a group of people in America among many other groups.”

Ruttman, who doesn’t think of himself as a very observant Jew, says he found as many different approaches to Judaism as he had interview subjects — 50 or so.

“Judaism allows that,” he said. “It’s a big tent.” One chapter features an Orthodox rabbi, Michael Paley, who believes that Greenberg, the beloved Hall of Fame slugger, may have been “the most important Jew who ever lived in America.” Another focuses on Elliott Maddox, the African-American former Yankee who converted to Judaism at age 26.

The framed pictures in Ruttman’s tidy office include an enlarged snapshot he once took of Leonard Bernstein conducting at Boston’s Symphony Hall, and a copy of an original deed to Boston, dated 1701 and beginning with the words “To all Christian people.”

The author’s first book, “Voices of Brookline” (Peter E. Randall Publisher, 2005), earned praise from the late Howard Zinn as a model of community oral history. As Ruttman was conceiving “American Jews & America’s Game,” he sent a note to the author and activist, asking whether he thought it was a good idea.

“I think you’re on to something,” Zinn replied.

“Coming from Howard Zinn,” said Ruttman, a spry, good-humored 81-year-old, “I figured, well, maybe I’m on to something.”

Ruttman’s late-blooming career as a baseball historian might be traced back to his youth, when he and his stickball-playing friends would hop the turnstiles at the old Braves Field, just a few blocks from Ruttman’s childhood home, to watch Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain and the rest of the then-Boston Braves play. When a 12–year-old Ruttman slipped into the press box during a game, the cigar-chomping sportswriters praised his gumption.

“They bought me a ham and cheese sandwich,” Ruttman recalled with a grin. “That taught me, if you want to go someplace, just try to go.”

His book got off to a ringing start when he befriended Marty Appel, a former Yankees public relations man who has written plenty of books of his own. Appel suggested that Ruttman travel to Israel during the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League in 2007. On his first day there, he came downstairs from his room and sat down to breakfast with former major leaguers Art Shamsky, Ken Holtzman and Ron Blomberg, all of whom were managing in the league.


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