I’ve never heard of a more chilling taunt in the world of sports: “You’re next for the gas ovens, Zeidel!” It was screamed back in 1968 by a Boston Bruin opponent at a Philadelphia Flyers’ hockey player named Larry Zeidel.
And yet, as this spring training marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s belated entry into the world of Major League baseball, I am struck by the fact that antisemitism has never really been an overriding issue in the sports I’ve written about over the past half-century.
In fact, of my more than 8,000 bylines in The New York Times, I recall only four pieces having to do with antisemitism, and three were in the nature of taunts, as opposed to violence or job discrimination. Certainly the Jew in American sports did not suffer the ostracism or the negation that hung over black athletes.
Let’s face it, there haven’t been all that many Jews playing at the highest levels. But more than 20 professional team owners now are Jewish, along with three of the four major league commissioners, as well as the head of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. And don’t forget the broadcasters and the reporters, whose ranks are disproportionately Jewish.
In the culturally sensitive America of today, does anyone really believe that a coach could refuse to play an athlete simply because he’s Jewish, or that a league would stand for an antisemitic incident?
Once upon a time, of course, such things occurred. But even among the most well known of these incidents, there’s a bit of myth mixed in.
Baseball slugger Hank Greenberg was stuck at 58 home runs the final week of the 1938 season, because opposing pitchers refused to give him a chance to break the great Babe Ruth’s record of 60. Look at the box scores, though, and you’ll see Hammering Hank actually had plenty of chances.
Allie Sherman, a diminutive Brooklyn College quarterback who became the football Giants’ head coach, adopted a Southern accent not to hide his Brooklyn roots, but because he thought that’s how tough football players sounded. And in the heyday of Jewish boxers, Max Baer — who wasn’t even Jewish — paraded around with a Jewish star on his trunks to bring in more fans.
Still, there are some moments I can never forget.
Forty years ago, I watched from the press row in Madison Square Garden as New York University played favored Manhattan College. One of the NYU hoopsters, leading his team to an upset victory, went to the free-throw line. Someone from Manhattan’s cheering section threw a cup of beer at him.
Promptly, the members of the NYU marching band shouted, “What the heck’s a Jasper?” a gibe at Manhattan’s nickname.
The Manhattan cheering section reply? “Arm the Arabs!”
“Does it always come down to this?” I wondered.
Two years earlier, I had been covering a game in Queens between St. John’s and Creighton University of Omaha. Creighton’s star was a native New Yorker named Jay Warhaftig.
Some fans yelled at him, and suddenly Warhaftig slammed the ball to the court, received a technical foul and was yanked from the game by his coach. Later, in the locker room, he was crying. I thought it was because his technical had led to a St. John’s spurt that resulted in a victory.
Instead, Warhaftig told me that several fans had been taunting him throughout the game, and at that moment they had said something antisemitic to him. They were sitting near his family. Frustrated, he slammed the ball.
I called my desk and told them what Warhaftig had said. The desk told me I should only describe the taunting as “cruel insults.”
In March 1968, I was writing a story about the suspension of two hockey players — Zeidel of the Flyers, and Eddie Shack, a hot-headed Bruins player. I learned that Zeidel, whose Romanian grandparents had been cremated in a concentration camp, had heard season-long antisemitic slurs yelled at him from several Boston players.
Zeidel said that one of the players screamed, after Zeidel had muscled a Bostonian, “You’re next for the gas ovens, Zeidel!” He wound up fighting with Shack, who wasn’t one of those who had taunted him but just happened to be on the ice.
I called the patrician National Hockey League president, Clarence Campbell, to discuss the situation. Campbell, an attorney, had been a prosecutor for the Canadian War Crimes Commission after World War II, and led the charges against a Nazi officer who had murdered Canadian prisoners of war. I asked Campbell about the antisemitism coming from the Boston bench.
“I find it hard to believe,” replied the former war crimes prosecutor, “it was anything more than baiting.”
And then came the moment in 1986, when I was at an event honoring Marty Glickman. He had been denied his place on the 1936 United States Olympic track team competing in front of Adolph Hitler. Marty believed that the head of the United States Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, ordered his removal, along with fellow Jew Sam Stoller, to placate his German hosts. The pair was replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe.
Now, 50 years later, the USOC had created its first Douglas MacArthur medal, and it was to go to an athlete who had been overlooked by the United States Olympic movement.
Marty was 80 years old and had enjoyed a long, successful career as a premier sports announcer. Finally he got a medal — but for the first time, I detected bitterness in him for the recognition coming so late.
I mentioned Glickman to my son Mike, who happens to own a pair of Jets season tickets. He recalled that at a game a few years ago, Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler, a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, was about to take the field.
“Kill the hook-nosed bastard!” a fan next to Mike shouted.
Not a very nice thing to say. But the goon was drowned out by 70,000 fans screaming at more important things — such as the game.
Gerald Eskenazi, a former New York Times sportswriter, is the author of “I Hid It Under the Sheets” (University of Missouri Press, 2005).