Commentary Magazine

This Jewish Sporting Life

Jewish Jocks:
An Unorthodox Hall of Fame
Edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy
Twelve, 285 pages

For the 50th-year reunion of the Senn High School class of 1955, each of us was asked to submit a few words about his life since graduation. Here are some of mine: “For 30 years I taught in the English Department at Northwestern University, and remain attached to the football coaching staff there, working exclusively with Jewish wide receivers, which leaves me lots of free time for my writing.” 

I’m not sure everyone got the joke, but joke of course it is, since, in the history of football there has probably never been a Jewish wide receiver. Wide receivers, especially in professional football, tend to be tall, slender, wiry black men. When catching passes either at the sidelines or especially in the middle of the field, they take a terrific beating. Jewish wide receivers are as rare as Jewish coal miners or, to return to football to complete my simile, as Jews in the front four. 

Was I playing into the stereotype about Jews being more thoughtful than physical? I suppose I was. Do I in fact believe in the stereotype? Here I am less sure. About Jewish bravery in the clutch, or crunch, there can be no doubt. Exhibit A: the Israeli army. The question is, are Jews willing to risk crippling themselves for mere sport? The answer, unsatisfactory as a generalization, is some are, some aren’t. 

As a boy athlete, I discovered I was one of those who wasn’t. I grew up in a neighborhood where for boys there were two possibilities, and two only: Be a decent athlete or be witty. Having an aptitude for science, playing piano or violin, performing well in the classroom—none of this cut it, not in the least. Talent, valor, excellence, these were displayed on the playground, and nowhere else. 

As an athlete, I lacked the essential quality of physical aggression. I knew I lacked it because Marty Sommerfield, a Jewish kid no larger than I with whom I went to grammar school, had it in excelsis. Marty would race into nearby street traffic after a foul ball; incur concussions while playing halfback without a helmet; never run away from a fight, even with boys 50 pounds heavier than he. Marty didn’t go on to athletic glory but became interested in science, and in high school won a Westinghouse scholarship to Swarthmore for work on enzymes. 

Every Jewish neighborhood had its great athlete. Philip Roth caught this nicely in creating his character Swede Levov in American Pastoral. A contemporary, Howie Carl (Hershey, to those of us who played with him), was a 5’8″ point guard with an astonishingly fluid jump shot. He held the record for total points scored at DePaul University until Mark Aguirre, who later played for the Detroit Pistons, came along. A terrific athlete two years younger than I named Ronnie Rubenstein played basketball for Louisville, then as now a college basketball power. He was also, at one point, the second-ranked racquetball player in the country. Running into the Rube at a Bulls game at the old Chicago Stadium after a 25-or-so-year hiatus in our friendship, his first words to me were: “Ep, can you believe it, the Bucks are six-point dogs?”

When I was eight years old, a man for whom my father worked asked me one Sunday if I preferred to join him in watching either Bob Feller pitch against the White Sox at Comiskey Park or the Bears play the Cleveland Rams with their star quarterback Bob Waterfield (husband of the movie actress Jane Russell) at Wrigley Field. I chose the Bears game, largely because of Sid Luckman, who was the first quarterback to master the T-formation and was tough, smart, and (best of all) Jewish. 

Today, if one wishes to speak of the three great Jewish athletes, that triumvirate often includes Luckman, the Detroit Tigers’ Hank Greenberg, and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax, with the swimmer Mark Spitz sometimes tossed in as a fourth. There have been other great Jewish athletes, but their numbers have not been myriad, and probably never figure to be. Applying strict standards, the Jewish Athletes Hall of Fame could probably be accommodated in a second-floor single at your local Holiday Inn. 

Tennis, the game upon which my own athletic passions were almost exclusively lavished in my last years in high school, had a few great Jewish players. Several years ago, I published an article on tennis in the Wall Street Journal, and received a call in response to it from Dick Savitt, who in 1951 won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon and was ranked second in the world that year. I mentioned in my article that Savitt and Vic Seixas were two Jewish tennis players who had come to prominence in an era when tennis in America was a country-club sport dominated by gentiles. Savitt ended our conversation by saying, “By the way, don’t ever tell Vic he’s Jewish. He doesn’t know.”

No great, or even prominent, Jewish golfers have emerged. In an interesting and intermittently amusing essay anthology entitled Jewish Jocks, there is a single piece about a Jewish golfer, a man named Corey Pavin, who in mid-career converted to Evangelical Christianity. Nothing shocking about this, really. There is something intrinsically un-Jewish, something essentially goyesque, about golf—about the clothes, the bucolic setting, the vast expenditure of time required to play a full 18 holes. 

Both the editors and writers of the 50 brief essays in Jewish Jocks tend to treat the appearance on Earth of great Jewish athletes as slightly anomalous. Many of the essays aren’t about actual athletes but about support staff and executives: the basketball coaches Red Holzman and Red Auerbach, the boxing cut-and-corner man Whitey Bimstein, the union organizer Marvin Miller, the inventors of fantasy baseball and ultimate Frisbee, the sportscaster Howard Cosell, a few sports writers, the gambler Arnold Rothstein, and the competitive eating champion Don Lerman. As for the last named, Jews, one would think, ought to be a cinch to win competitive-eating contests after having trained in homes where throughout childhood not competitive but compulsory eating was in force: “Eat, tsutsik, eat!”

The usual suspects have brief essays devoted to them in Jewish Jocks: Luckman, Greenberg, Koufax, Mark Spitz, the American bullfighter Sidney Franklin ( Frumpkin), the gymnast Kerri Strug, the pro basketball player Dolph Schayes. Essays on Jewish practitioners of lesser-known sports—handball, fencing, women’s basketball, weightlifting, soccer, wrestling, martial arts, and ping pong—also find a place. Jewish athletic flops are covered. There is an entry on Adam Greenberg, the man who was beaned on his single time at bat in the majors and never returned; another on the yarmulke and tzitzit-wearing basketball prospect Tamir Goodman, who wasn’t good enough to play at Maryland; and yet another on a would-be slugger in the 1920s named Mose Solomon, who was supposed to be the Jewish Babe Ruth but turned out to hit more like the biblical Ruth. With a few exceptions—Ron Rosenbaum on Arnold Rothstein, Deborah Lipstadt on the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Olympics in Munich—the essays are written in a jaunty and jokey style. The title of the book could as easily have been Jewish Jocks as Told by Jokey Jakeys, for almost all the contributors are themselves Jewish. 

If Jewish Jocks has a theme, it is that Jewish athletes tend to be unusual, if not positively odd, both among Jews and athletes. What, after all, were they, nice Jewish boys and girls, doing spending their lives on fields and courts, in rings and gyms, and other sweaty surroundings? Often in these essays, braininess—at least what qualifies as braininess among athletes—is what differentiates the Jewish athlete. An interior lineman, who in the mid-1950s played for the University of Southern California and then for the Oakland Raiders, turns out in later life to be a personal-injury lawyer, specializing in athletic injuries. A Jewish martial-arts guru, said to break stones with his face, has the first name Harvey and the body and countenance of a CPA. 

The editors of Jewish Jocks, Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy—the former the editor of the New Republic, the latter one of the magazine’s staff writers—grew up in the same professional-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., went to the same synagogue, attended, as they write in their introduction, the same “progressive, heavily Jewish day school with a grasshopper as a mascot and no football team.” From the photograph of them on the book’s dust jacket, it would not be shocking to learn that such athletic glory as they might have won came not from smashing walk-off home runs, diving into end zones, or slam-dunking winning baskets at the game-ending buzzer, but instead from completing a flawless collection of baseball cards. What their book provides is for the most part a nerd’s-eye view of the Jew as athlete.

The one essay on tennis in the collection, written by Lawrence Summers, the economist and former president of Harvard, turns out to be about Harold Solomon, a man who played defensive tennis through his long career, specializing in returning his opponents’ drives with semi-lobs that wore them down, drove them nutty, and often ended in winning ugly victories. During the Connors-Borg-McEnroe era, in 1980, Solomon rode this dinker’s game to a number-five world ranking. Summers concludes that he was right “as a young man to latch on to Harold Solomon. His success teaches a lesson that transcends tennis and sport. Attitude and grit are more important determinants than natural ability.” Maybe so, but they are nowhere near as much fun as the exercise of pure talent and cool mastery. 

Throughout Jewish Jocks, Jewish athletes rely on craft, cunning, old-fashioned smarts through which they overcome deficiencies in size, talent, and brutish aggression. Benny Leonard, “the archetype of the brainy boxer,” in Franklin Foer’s words, was a striking case in point. In and around New York in the 1920s, boxing was a sport in which a great number of Jews competed; in Foer’s essay on Leonard, he cites the boxing historian Allen Bodner’s estimate that in the 1920s Jews made up roughly a third of all professional fighters. Foer writes: “Jews are often credited with putting the science in the sweet science. Even the brutes of the tribe couldn’t help but inject a little intellectualism into their craft.” Tell it, one wants to say, to such Jewish pugs as Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Kingfish Levinsky. Corey Pavin, we learn, “played ‘Jewish,’ if there is such a thing: He thrived on brains and craftiness rather than strength and bravado.” Did Pavin, one wonders, retain these qualities after his conversion to Christianity? 

If no generalizations about Jewish athletes are safe, a few strong trends may be noted. Franklin Foer remarks that with the social mobility that set in for Jews after World War II, the numbers of Jewish boxers lessened considerably. In his essay on the Met outfielder Art Shamsky, David Brooks, who owns a set of cards put out by the American Jewish Historical Society, notes that between 1871 and 2003 the number of Jews who played in the major leagues is 142, which averages out to only a little more than one for every year baseball has been in existence. In Robert Weintraub’s article on the hapless Mose Solomon, John McGraw, then manager of the New York Giants who was looking for a Jewish sensation for the Jewish fans in New York, is quoted claiming that “Jews stay out of baseball because there isn’t enough money in it.” 

Doubtful whether this was ever true, but it certainly isn’t true today, when the major-league minimum salary is $480,000, with some players making as much as $25 million per year. Money doesn’t come up in the pages of Jewish Jocks, but money is of course increasingly what all sports are about. A journalist once approached the television producer Don Ohlmeyer saying that he had a question. “If your question is about sports,” Ohlmeyer replied, “the answer is money.”

And so the answer to most questions about contemporary sports remains. Why do players take steroids? How is it that more players nowadays protect themselves by going on disabled lists with even minor injuries? Why do professional athletes seem to perform most proficiently at the end of their contracts? What makes sports unions the last of the strong unions in the United States? Why are the hockey and pro-basketball seasons so long? The answer is, in every case, money.

The money is there in good part through television contracts. But it is also found in the spiraling cost of tickets to sports events. Fans are at heart economic masochists, or perhaps damn fools is more precise. I speak as one of them. I buy two box seats to a Chicago Cubs game at mid-season, park my car in a lot near Wrigley Field, have a sandwich, a beer, some peanuts, and I have a $300 afternoon at the old ball park. Not that I long to do so, but I could attend the opera for less. 

Along with the increased price of going to sports events, the ethnic demography of the sports is radically changing. In baseball, where blacks once constituted roughly a third of all major-league players, that number, when last reported, was down to 8 percent. The percentage of Hispanic players—from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua—is up, and Asian players are becoming more common. Professional football and basketball rosters, meanwhile, remain predominantly black, with the majority of the minority of white players in pro basketball coming from Eastern Europe, Spain, and Italy. 

Your simple Jewish chauvinist—that would be me—searches for Jewish athletes playing major sports and finds fewer and fewer of them. A Chicago Bears offensive tackle with the Italian name Gabe Carimi turns out to be Jewish. A top-20 female tennis player named Shahar Peer is an Israeli. Aly Raisman was a key figure on the past year’s U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. Perhaps the most successful Jewish professional athlete now going is Ryan Braun, the left-fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers known as the Hebrew Hammer and the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2011. No Jews I know about currently play in the National Basketball Association.

A few years ago, the Chicago Bears had a quarterback, now with the Washington Redskins, named Rex Grossman. His father is an ophthalmologist in Bloomington, Indiana. Grossman went to the University of Florida, where he was a consensus All-American and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. The name Grossman, the physician father, the mention of Florida—my Jewdar went whirring away, strongly suggesting that he could be a member of the tribe. Grossman had an off-and-on career with the Bears, but in 2006, he led the team to a 13–3 record. In the Super Bowl, alas, he was responsible for five turnovers and seemed unable to do anything right. The Bears went down to the Indianapolis Colts in a dreary 29–17 defeat. Grossman, it turns out, is not Jewish. A good thing, too, else after the Super Bowl there might have been pogroms in the streets of Chicago. 

American Jews who were themselves never first-class athletes—me, again—are perhaps unduly delighted to have great Jewish athletes on the scene. These athletes suggest a complete assimilation in the culture of the country. They help smash the stereotype of Jews as chiefly cerebral in their gifts. They are a source of pride in demonstrating that there is no realm in which Jews cannot excel. They are a salutary reminder that, as the man said, the Jews are like everyone else, only more so.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein, a frequent contributor to Commentary, is the author, most recently, of Essays in Biography.

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