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Play Ball

How baseball came to loom so large in the American Jewish imagination

Jenna Weissman Joselit
March 29, 2018
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
This article is part of Mantle, Shmantle—Long as We Got Baseball.
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’Tis the season, when talk in households across the land, including my own, turns to HRs and RBIs: the arcana of baseball. Though the men in my life are big fans of the national pastime, rooting for the Yankees through thick and thin, the sport holds little interest for me. In fact, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I attended my very first game, which featured the Staten Island Yankees. But even then, my reason for going was to show the colors for my friends, Phyllis and Stanley Getzler, who had purchased the team, rather than out of any burning interest in who was on first.

Throughout the proceedings, which went on and on and on, my flagging attention was drawn increasingly away from the baseball diamond and onto the bleachers, whose seats were filled by many yarmulke-clad boys and their fathers. When not on their feet cheering their favorite players or chowing down on kosher hot dogs, they were thoroughly, utterly engaged. That set me to wondering: How did it come to pass that baseball loomed so large in the lives of American Jews—American-Jewish men, that is.

For answers, I turned to history—or, more to the point, to the American-Jewish press of the past, whose antennae were keenly attuned to the community’s aspirations. Well before Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax became household names, cultural darlings of the American-Jewish community, American-Jewish newspapers trained their sights on baseball—encouraging boys not only to watch baseball but to play it themselves. From the late 19th century on, just as the game was taking hold of the nation’s imagination, their pages were replete with advertisements for “boys’ baseball suits,” whose “quilted wadded breeches, stayed and finished in the best possible manner,” could be had at Best & Co., for $3 apiece. Bloomingdale Bros., meanwhile, was pleased to inform the readers of the American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger of its complete line of baseball bats.

The American-Jewish press also made a point of showcasing the growing popularity of baseball within the organized Jewish community by reporting on the public occasions at which the game was played. Time and time again throughout the closing years of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th century, Jewish newspapers drew their readers’ attention to Jewish institutions such as New York’s all-male Hebrew Technical Institute or Newark’s Congregation Oheb Shalom where baseball, a game “dear to the youthful heart,” was pursued with vigor. As late as 1916, the press highlighted a “baseball dinner” in which competing YMHA teams from Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhoods participated with gusto.

Hardly the stuff of fast-breaking news. Then again, for a community determined to fit in, the sight of its sons wielding bats and running bases, especially under Jewish communal auspices, was newsworthy, indeed. That they were actively involved with the sport, not just collecting baseball cards, compiling stats or yelling from the stands like good fans, furnished proof—a validation—that America, and with it, the prospect of belonging, was within reach: The Jews were “safe,” not “out.”

To ensure that this message hit home, American-Jewish newspapers also reprinted the texts of speeches by noted educators on how profitably to spend one’s summer vacation. Intended for youthful ears, they encouraged adolescent Jewish boys to take up baseball. It “strengthens the muscles, sharpens the eye, and concentrates all the thoughts upon one fixed point,” advocated Dr. Hermann Baar, superintendent of New York’s Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and a popular sermonizer, in 1892. “Besides, if it is played with young men of gentlemanly bearing, it cannot but be highly beneficial to you.” Not every parent or teacher agreed with Baar’s assessment; some no doubt preferred their male offspring stay clear of such a frivolous, goyishe pursuit and instead study Torah or help out in the store. Baseball’s champions remained true believers. “Not to play or be interested in baseball really seems un-American,” Baar told his adolescent charges five years later, upping the stakes.

Speeches, newsy tidbits, and advertisements were well and good, but what really impressed the readers of American-Jewish newspapers, uplifting their spirits and affirming their belief in America, were feature articles about the Jews’ athletic prowess, especially on the baseball diamond. Once a “rarity,” today the Jews are prominent figures “in the field of play,” sports columnist Lawrence Perry told the American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger in 1921. “As a race, the Jew has lived a confined life. His professions and callings have not taken him into open spaces.” But that’s now changed. “Among all the supporters of organized baseball, there is no more loyal and constant supporter than the Jews. … [Baseball] is really their favorite sport.”

Not everyone, though, was quite as upbeat. Some American sports figures such as former Olympian Edward R. Bushnell believed that a certain “physical peculiarity” impeded the Jews’ integration on and off the field. When it comes to being a strong batsman, said he, it’s a known fact that “light-eyed men do far better than dark-eyed and since the Jews are generally dark-eyed, they cannot qualify in this important particular.” To add insult to injury, Bushnell also acknowledged that an “element of stupid and unreasonable racial prejudice” had much to do with limiting the opportunities for Jewish ballplayers. “The time may come when the Jew will be able to break down the prejudice in question, but, as it now stands, the average manager declines to experiment him with him as a team unit.”

If Henry Ford had his way, that time would never come. In the wake of the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which Arnold Rothstein, Abe Attell, and a coterie of other men with demonstrably Jewish names, New York accents, and suspect callings were held responsible for tarnishing baseball’s good name by “fixing” that year’s World Series, America’s preeminent tycoon laced into the Jews. Throwing the equivalent of a curveball, he claimed that they had turned baseball “into afternoon vaudeville,” or, worse still, had “killed [it] as a sport.” By his lights, the problem with the game could be handily summed up in three words: “too much Jew.”

Ford’s animadversions notwithstanding—or, perhaps, to prove him dead wrong—American Jews continued to play ball.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.