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Lessons From Losers

Forget the Olympics and going for the gold. Books about baseball show kids why it’s OK—even good—not to win.

Marjorie Ingall
July 31, 2012

Let’s all shut up about the Olympics and talk about baseball instead. Why? Because, in addition to the many reasons to think that the International Olympic Committee is vile, venal, and bad for the Jews, there’s this: The IOC decided to cut baseball from the 2012 Olympics. Granted, it’s a small sin compared to some previous ones, but baseball is a sport full of moral lessons it would behoove the IOC to ponder.

“There’s a pace to baseball that lends itself to thoughtfulness,” said Joshua Berkowitz, author of the new book Third Base for Life: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Baseball. “People who love baseball are able to sit back and observe; they’re not constantly looking for the next great action. Baseball is history and literature; football is more like a video game. There’s such beauty to the game, with the the field and the grass and the greens.”

Berkowitz’s book is about what he learned by coaching the Rashi Rams, his son’s Jewish day-school team in Massachusetts, in a Cooperstown, N.Y., invitational tournament of the best grade-school players in the country. (Berkowitz still isn’t exactly sure how the Rams made it there. Cooperstown Dreams Park keeps a few slots open for parks-and-rec teams; he suspects his stirring letter about the Rams’ desire to be the first all-Jewish team to play Cooperstown had something to do with the kids receiving a berth. “I may have also made us sound like somewhat better players than we were,” he admitted to me.) In the book, the ragtag team of young misfits needs to learn basic skills and come together as a team. They’re like the Jewish Bad News Bears … only with more losing. Spoiler alert: The Rams finish 96th out of 96 teams.

But the losing is what makes the book worth reading. (Well, that and Berkowitz’s obvious love of his son, Gabe, the team’s third-baseman and sometime pitcher.) The writing in Third Base for Life is a little stilted and awkward, but like a scrappy minor-leaguer, the book’s got heart. And the stories Berkowitz shares are relevant to all parents. Most of Rashi Academy’s parents don’t want their children to go to Cooperstown. They worry that the kids’ self-esteem will be crushed. They worry about finding enough kosher food. They worry about public humiliation. They worry their kids will get injured. (One does, breaking a tooth. Twice. The same tooth.) Berkowitz himself has to shake off his own memories of Little League; at 12, after dominating the game on the junior level, he hit the older division and discovered he was nowhere near as good as he’d thought he was. So he quit.

For the Rams, though, not quitting brings huge rewards. Berkowitz and his charges celebrate the small stuff: One good catch. One blistering throw. One stolen base. One strikeout of one of the best players in the game. When Berkowitz sees that one morning the Rams have changed their warm-up partners—proof of increased cooperation and social flexibility—he commends them. Ultimately, sticking it out, even as the team loses 12-0 and 16-0 and worse, becomes its own achievement. The kids are able to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience without tying it to winning. They even forge bonds with kids who may never have talked to, let alone played with, Jews before. One Ram joins a neighboring bunk in celebratory head-shaving, shaking off visions of his overprotective mom’s freakout at seeing him come home bald.

Every parent should internalize the book’s message that risk is its own reward. If you never let your kid fail because you’re terrified of destroying his confidence, you’re going to fail in your own job of raising a self-reliant, resilient kid. Berkowitz, a doctor of internal medicine on the North Shore of Boston, told me: “I’m not a psychologist, but my everyday observation is that parents today live through and for their children more than older generations did. It’s hard for them to let kids live their lives. People are afraid to let their kids’ feelings be hurt, which leads to every kid getting a trophy and no one ever losing, and that means we’re doing more harm than good to our kids. We make it hard for them to learn the skills they need to succeed in the world, to bounce back when they’re knocked down. If you constantly shield them from falling they’ll never learn to get back up.”

Since Third Base for Life offers up good ethical teachings for parents (and IOC members), I started thinking about Jewish baseball books that offer similar lessons for kids. (To keep the list short, I’ll stick to books that are still in print and easy to find.) Berkowitz is a big fan of the Chaim Potok classic The Chosen (he’s read it three times), another story of unlikely friendships, different attitudes toward religion, and complex relationships between fathers and sons. Me, I’d choose The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings by Alan Gratz. It was on my best Jewish children’s books of the year list in 2009, and it’s really stuck with me. It’s the history of baseball in America, or maybe the history of America in baseball, as told through multiple generations of one Brooklyn family. Most of the players are male, but there’s a terrific girl character (a 1920s math whiz-slash-bookie named Frankie). The novel shines in both characterization and plot; it touches on both the best and ugliest bits of American and sports history. (IOC, take note.) Every chapter could be a novel, but the book miraculously doesn’t feel too crammed. (For kids in grades 5-9.)

I also adored Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick, published a couple of months ago to starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It’s the story of Peter Friedman, an 8th-grade star pitcher who destroys his elbow and has to figure out a new, nonathletic identity. He has to cope with starting high school, having a crush on a girl in his photography class, figuring out how to tell his best friend (the star catcher) that he’ll never pitch again, and dealing with the failing mental faculties of his beloved grandfather. Funny, honest, kind. I cried, dammit. (Grades 6-9.)

Babe & Me by Dan Gutman is a terrific choice for younger kids, particularly sports-crazed boys who aren’t big readers. It’s the third book in a series about a boy named Joe who has the magical power to hold a baseball card and be transported to the year the card was printed. In this installment, Joe travels to the 1932 World Series to find out whether Babe Ruth really pointed to the bleachers before slamming a homer there. Joe’s neglectful father comes along, hoping to make a bundle by bringing autographed baseballs back in time. He also hopes to alert FDR to the impending Holocaust so he can save his extended family. (This may sound flippant and insensitive, but it works in the context of the book.) Things don’t work out as either Joe or his dad had hoped, but they return to the present with a better understanding of each other and the hope of improving their relationship. The Babe’s a great, nuanced character, and there’s plenty of burp and fart humor to keep boys engaged. (Grades 3-7.)

I think we try to convince ourselves that non-book-loving boys will go for sports biographies, but such books usually come off as spinach: virtuous, nutritious, but not so tasty. Two picture books for older kids buck that tendency: Lipman Pike by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Zachary Pullen, and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by André Carillho. Both have trippy illustrations and tell delicious stories (Koufax had to learn to rein in his all-over-the-place arm; Pike outran a horse and became America’s first professional baseball player in the 1800s). Both these books are grand slams. (Grades K-3.)

For straightforward storytelling that will appeal to little kids with a strong sense of right and wrong (that is, most of ’em), try When Jackie and Hank Met by Cathy Goldberg Fishman, illustrated by Mark Elliott. Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg met in 1947 when they collided at first base; though the crowd urged them to fight, they opted not to. The book tells their parallel stories of overcoming prejudice. (Grades K-3.)

God, Gold, and Golems by James Sturm (author of Adventures in Cartooning, the best children’s book about the subject there is) offers three short graphic novels about the American Dream. One, the Golem’s Mighty Swing, is a strange, nuanced, and hypnotic story about capitalizing on other people’s anti-Semitism and racism. A down-on-their-luck Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David allows a creepy sports promoter to hire a player from the Negro Leagues to pretend to be a golem to attract audiences … and weirdness ensues. (Young Adult)

About the B’nai Bagels is the only book on this list besides The Chosen that was around when I was a kid. As an anxious, dithery, self-conscious Little Leaguer, I loved it. Yes, the language is dated, but the themes of coping with an overachieving sibling, a big-personality parent, the stress of an impending bar mitzvah, and the ethical dilemma about whether to keep a damaging secret are timeless.

If you want to go deep, librarian and former Sydney Taylor Awards chair Kathe Pinchuck has put together a terrific resource for both kids and adults: Baseball and Jews: A Bibliography. And why wouldn’t you want to go deep? Books that combine Jewish ethics, familial love, and baseball are a way better way to while away the dog days of summer than watching fakey-fake heart-tugging, overcoming-adversity narratives on NBC.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.