In David’s Footsteps

Despite Obstacles, Jews Have Made History in Nearly Every Sport

By Ira Berkow

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
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This is the second in a series of special sections celebrating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in the United States.

One of the great moments in Jewish sports history came about in a World Series game. And there wasn’t even a man of Hebraic descent on the field.

At the opening game of the 1965 World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers faced the Minnesota Twins in Bloomington, Minn., with Don Drysdale as the starting pitcher for the Dodgers. He was the team’s future Hall of Fame right-hander. But he was only the No. 2 pitcher on the team. Sandy Koufax, the future Hall of Fame left-hander, was actually scheduled to pitch this game, but it fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Day. Out of conviction and respect for his religion, Koufax chose to sit this game out.

It turned out to be less than a happy day for the fire-balling Drysdale. He gave up one run in the second inning, and then, in the third, the roof caved in on him. The Twins began the inning with a double, followed by an error, a home run, a double, a single, a walk, a single, scoring the seventh run off Drysdale — yes, two outs were mingled in there — but after that last base knock, by Frank Quilici, who had begun this melancholy inning with his first single, the Dodgers’ manager Walter Alston had seen enough. He went out to the mound to relieve Drysdale. As he approached the tall pitcher to take the ball, Drysdale, mortification etched in his face, looked at Alston.

“I know what you’re thinking, Skip,” he said. “You’re wishing I was Jewish.”

The Dodgers lost 8-2. But the Series ended positively for the Dodgers, thanks primarily to the Jew who wasn’t originally there. He showed up as the starting pitcher in Game 2 (he lost 2-1), Game 5 (he hurled a four-hit shutout, striking out 10 and winning 7-0) and then, on just two days’ rest, pitched another shutout in the seventh and deciding game, this time allowing just three hits, again striking out 10, and winning 2-0. He was named Most Valuable Player in the Series.

Koufax was surely the most famous — if not also the most successful — Jewish athlete of our time. And he rose to prominence in what has traditionally been called the “American Pastime.” But Jews have made their marks in virtually every sport, though their numbers might be relatively low in relation to other ethnic or religious groups. No one, however, has won more gold medals during a single Olympics than Mark Spitz (seven swimming gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics) and few have been more dominant in their sport than the fencers in the Olympics in the first third of the century (Jewish fencers in the 1908 and 1912 Olympics alone won 17 gold medals, representing Hungary, Belgium and France), and American basketball players of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s (led by the great player and coach, Nat Holman). In boxing, from the years 1910 to 1940 — except for one year — there was a Jewish world champion in at least one of the boxing divisions, and in 1933, four of the eight major divisions had Jewish world champions: the lightweight champ, Barney Ross; the welterweight champ, Jackie Fields; the middleweight champ, Ben Jeby, and the light-heavyweight champ, Maxie Rosenbloom.

In fact, one of the earliest boxing champions was the English Jew Daniel Mendoza. He was only 5-foot-7, 160 pounds, but he was the English champion — then considered the world champion — from 1771 to 1775. He introduced the elements of the so-called “science of boxing.” Before Mendoza, boxers just stood and punched each other toe to toe. Mendoza, apparently, had an aversion to being hit. So he ducked. He moved. He parried blows. This astonished the boxing community, but soon many adopted his techniques. Benny Leonard — as well as, of course, Muhammad Ali —took that legacy to even greater heights.

As recently as the last Winter Olympics, in Salt Lake City in 2002, Jews played an especially prominent role in the popular women’s figure-skating events. Sarah Hughes, whose mother is Jewish, won the gold medal; Irina Slutskaya, whose father is believed to be Jewish, won the silver, and 4-foot-11, 17-year-old Sasha Cohen, from Ukrainian Jewish parents, finished a strong fourth.

Jews, though, have had smaller numbers in sports for a variety of reasons. One is supposedly that physical violence (which would including boxing and fencing, for two) was “un-Jewish.” Another is that in the first half of the 20th century, Jews used such sports as boxing to rise out of the ghettos. When they were given greater opportunities in the society, such as the doors opening in medical and law schools, Jews took this route to better their lives.

Of the roughly 16,700 recorded baseball major leaguers from 1869 through 2002 — including the Dodgers’ current star right-fielder, Shawn Green — only 142, or 1%, were Jews, in a population that in the last century had about 3% Jews. These Jews are immortalized, more or less, in a new, creative baseball-card collection called, appropriately, Jewish Major Leaguers.

As a testament to how difficult it was for Jews to play in a team sport in the early years that was rife with antisemitism — as was the rest of society, to be sure — 10 players changed their names for “business” reasons. Among them were: Ed Corey, a pitcher with the White Sox, born Cohen; Reuben Ewing, a shortstop with the Cardinals, born Cohen; Sammy Bohne, an infielder with the Cardinals, Reds and Dodgers, born Cohen. Harry Kane, a Phillies pitcher was born Cohen; a third baseman for the Yankees, Phil Cooney, was also born Cohen.

One who didn’t change his name, of course, was Hank Greenberg, who is also in the Hall of Fame. He was one of the great sluggers of his time, and famously came close to breaking the then-hallowed record of 60 homers in a season, held by Babe Ruth. Greenberg hit 58. There is a belief, among Jews particularly, that with 58 homers and five games to go, the pitchers, managers and umpires “didn’t pitch” to Greenberg because they didn’t want a Jew to break the Babe’s record.

Greenberg told me that the story wasn’t true. He got several hits in those five games, and hit some long outs, but no home runs. In fact, he said, some players and umpires even bent over backwards to help him. He told of a game late in the season in which he drove a ball deep into a corner of the outfield. Never a speedy runner, the 6-foot-4 Greenberg lumbered around the bases. He saw he had a chance for an inside-the-park homer, and tried for it. The throw to the catcher beat him, he said, by about five feet. “But the umpire, my friend Bill Summers, called me safe. Home run number 57.”

In the late 1930s, when the situation in Europe worsened for Jews, Greenberg said that “every time I hit a home run, I felt I was hitting one against Hitler.”

And Shirley Povich, the great Washington Post sportswriter, who was also Jewish and covered Greenberg, said that “Hank Greenberg was the perfect standard-bearer for Jews. He was smart, he was talented — and he was BIG.”

Greenberg and Koufax are generally known as the lone Jewish players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is, though, a third. The mother of Lou Boudreau, the standout shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, was from an Orthodox Jewish family. She died when he was a small boy, and he was raised Catholic by his French father. Boudreau never tried to hide his Jewishness, but he never wore it on his sleeve either. The fact of Boudreau’s half-Jewishness is so little-known that the creators of one Jewish baseball-card collection missed him. There should be 143 Jews in the collection.

Surely one of the most intriguing baseball players was Moe Berg, a marginal catcher but who played 15 years in the big leagues. He was a Princeton graduate who majored in languages and also passed the law bar. He lived in New Jersey in his later years — he died in 1972 at age 70 — and would frequent Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium to watch games from the press box. I often took the opportunity to sit with him, for it was a delight and an education.

One day he told me about his visit to Albert Einstein’s home in Princeton, N.J. The two sat and chatted and drank tea from glasses, in the European style.

“At one point,” Berg said, “Dr. Einstein said to me, ‘If you teach me baseball, I’ll teach you the theory of relativity.’ Then he thought for a moment. He said, ‘We’d better not. You would learn the theory of relativity faster than I could learn baseball.’”

Regardless of the numbers, Jews have demonstrated that they can excel in sports as they do in other areas — and have for a very long time. After all, the first great athlete in history, as described in the Old Testament, was a young man who was deft with a slingshot.

Ira Berkow is a sports columnist and feature writer for The New York Times. He shared the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2001. He has published numerous books, including “To the Hoop: The Seasons of a Basketball Life” (Ivan R. Dee), which is being published this month in paperback.

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