A spotlight on the athletic achievement of Jewish Americans
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Now that we’re heading toward the All-Star game, here’s a quick quiz: Who wrote the unofficial anthem of America’s favorite pastime, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”? (A) A 1920s Brooklyn Dodgers fan; (B) Cole Porter; (C) a Jewish guy named Albert Von Tilzer who had never been inside a baseball stadium.
If you guessed “C,” you have a clue to the fascination of “Chasing Dreams,” this spring’s exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) on 5th and Market Streets in Philadelphia. An installation featuring Jews in baseball is not an oxymoron but, honestly, baseball has to be 45th or 50th on the list of things Jews excel at—not because they’re bad at it but because they’re so good at so many things (if one may say this without being censured for reverse racism). Even boxing and basketball would have been richer veins to mine.
You want to talk about Nobel Prizes? Jews have garnered 22 percent of them. (They make up less than 0.2 percent of the global population.) A “Greatest Jewish Ballplayer” bracket on one wall, designed by father of fantasy ball Daniel Okrent—a Jew—diagrams “great, good, decent, or barely adequate major league Jews,” and in parenthesis Okrent notes, “it’s not as if there were thousands to choose from.” (This nimble blend of chutzpah and humility marks the NMAJH presentation.)
In the late 19th century Cubans passionately took to baseball, but the love of Jews and the sport was more like the Hapsburg marriages of royal mutual advantage. The YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association), started in 1854 to help Jewish immigrants, took a decidedly practical and cerebral approach to Americanizing their children through athletics. It’s great fun to read in the Aug. 27, 1909, Yiddish language daily newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward, excerpts of “The Fundamentals of the Base-Ball Game Described for Non-Sports Fans”:
“To us immigrants, this all seems crazy, however … if an entire nation is crazy over something, it’s not too much to ask to try to understand what it means. … two parties participate in the game. Each party is comprised of nine people. … One party takes the field and the other party takes the role of the enemy. … One of the team’s nine members stands between the pitcher and the catcher (quite close to the catcher) with a thick stick (‘bat’) and, as the ball flies from the pitcher’s hand, tries to hit it back with the stick before the catcher catches it.”
Everything in the Jewish museum was in minor key. Like a mixed media artwork, the experience of “Chasing Dreams” was made poignant for me by the tour of a South Florida Jewish day school whose fresh-faced fifth graders got a soft-peddled introduction not only to baseball but to unspeakable brutalities of life. Museum guide: “Do you think Lipman Pike [third baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1860s] had a hard time?” Students: “Yes.” Guide: “Why?” Students: “Because he was Jewish.” Guide: “But if you’re chasing a dream you just keep going.” The children listened politely, but then one was distracted by a life-sized poster of Jackie Robinson, and they gaily moved on.
Anti-Semitism still reared its head half a century later when the much-lamented sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee in 1921 unleashed a tirade against Jews in the Dearborn Independent. It was supposed that Frazee was Jewish because of his involvement in the New York theater scene as agent, director, and producer. In fact, Frazee was Episcopalian.
Five Cohens preceded Andy Cohen in professional baseball, but they all changed their names till the New York Giants’ second baseman decided he “had done pretty well up to then as Andrew Jackson Cohen and … would continue under that name.”
Time fails us to tell of Hall of Famers “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg (in 1934 he refused to play in a pennant race on Yom Kippur) and Sandy Koufax (in 1965 he declined to pitch on Game 1 of the series on Yom Kippur) and a certain third-rate catcher named Moe Berg who in 1934 accompanied Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Japan as an undercover spy for the U.S. government. (See Marvin Olasky’s column on Berg in WORLD, Feb. 23, 2002.) Which, whatever else you want to say, ain’t chopped liver.