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Nine Notable Jewish Baseball Books for Kids

And only one is about Sandy Koufax

Marjorie Ingall
April 06, 2016
Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images
Cuban children play baseball in Havana, on March 16, 2016. Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images
Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images
Cuban children play baseball in Havana, on March 16, 2016. Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

Every day this week—Major League Baseball’s opening stretch—we will feature one story on The Scroll about baseball. Today we offer a roundup of nine terrific baseball books for all kinds of young readers. They’re in no particular order, so you could argue that they’re all worthy of batting clean-up.

1) Four years after I first reviewed it, I continue to love The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings by Alan Gratz, a collection of linked short stories about the history of baseball in America (or maybe it’s the history of America, via baseball). It’s a tale of change and continuity, told through multiple generations of one Brooklyn family. We first meet Felix Schneider, a 10-year-old German immigrant who roots for the New York Knickerbockers. Then we get to know his descendants, including Walter Snider, batboy for the New York Superbas who tries to combat Major League racism in 1908; Frankie Snider, a gal math whiz who in 1926 teams up with a fellow Brooklyn Robins fan to con a con artist; Kat Flint, star of the All-American Girls Baseball League in 1945; and Jimmy Flint, who’s trying to cope with Cold War anxiety and with the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn in 1957. Every chapter could be a whole novel, but the book never feels overstuffed. (Get it for kids in Grades 5-9.)

2) Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Zachary Pullen, introduces kids to pioneering 1850s Jewish ballplayer Lip Pike. Back when baseball was a sport called “base,” and anti-Semitism was overt and not the least bit genteel, Pike became the country’s first pro ballplayer. (He earned $20 a week, a princely sum, playing for the Pennsylvania Athletics, even though some of his teammates felt that as a Jew he’d be sure to throw any game against Brooklyn.) The art is hyperreal and fun. (Grades 1-4.)

3) Every time I talk about Jews and baseball, someone yells at me for not mentioning The Chosen. I’d argue that The Chosen is not actually a book about baseball and not actually a children’s book. It’s a book about the conflict between tradition and modernity and between fathers and sons…and it’s for grown ups. But fine, here’s your farshtunkiner Chosen.

4) You know what actual modern kids will actually like? Curveball: The Year I Lost My GripJordan Sonnenblick’s book, which got starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It’s about an 8th-grade star pitcher named Peter Friedman, who blows out his elbow and tries to create a new identity for himself in high school, while also coping with a crush and with his grandfather’s declining health. It’s funny and sad and it feels true. Sonnenblick has a great voice. (Grades 6-9.)

5) I could not make either of my own kids like Rosie in Chicago: Play Ball!, but screw them, they don’t adore baseball the way I do and if left to their own devices, they’d eat fluorescent Passover fruit slices voluntarily; they know nothing. Anyway, Rosie in Chicago: Play Ball! is part of a trilogy for beginning readers about a Jewish tween who moves from New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles in the early 1900s. (She experiences the labor movement in Alphabet City, the tensions between Russian and German Jews in Chi-town, and the birth of the movie biz in Hollywood. The girl gets around.) In this installment, she disguises herself as a boy to play ball with her brother’s friends. Out of print, alas, but there are a ton of used copies floating around online. (Grades 2-5.)

6) This one’s also out of print, but the art is so good I have to include Hammerin’ Hank: The Life of Hank Greenberg by Yona Zeldis McDonough, and illustrated by her mother, the amazing folk artist Malcah Zeldis. In the 1930s, Greenberg battled pitchers and anti-Semitism to become a superstar. I know you know. But the art, you guys, THE ART. (Grades 2-5.)

7)The Hero Two Doors Down by Sharon Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s daughter) tells the true story of Jackie’s Christmas in Brooklyn in 1948. Many of his neighbors weren’t excited to have a black family on the block, but Brooklyn Dodgers superfan Steve Satlow is beyond psyched. He helps the Robinsons decorate their tree, and when Robinson tries to return the gesture by bringing the Satlows a tree of their own, everybody has a grin and a little multi-culti education. The book isn’t heavy-handed, and young fans who dream of having an athletic megastar on their block will kvell. (Grades 4-7.) Sharon Robinson did a beautiful picture book version for littler kids (grades pre-K-3) called Jackie’s Gift, with gorgeous illustrations by E.B. Lewis. It’s out of print, but again, easily found online and in many libraries.

8) The other book that everyone says I need to talk about and that I never talk about is Pete Hamill’s Snow in August. Unlike The Chosen, it’s definitely a baseball book. But I’m gonna argue, again, that it’s not a children’s book, even though the protagonist is 11. Your fondness for it will also depend on your openness to kabbalah and mysticism alongside your Brooklyn grit. (Me? I’m down.)

9) And, of course, I gotta include a Sandy Koufax book. If you don’t already own You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Andre Carillho, in hardcover, mind you, with its lenticular 3-D cover and astounding, trippindicular, digitally manipulated illustrations, you are not a true Jewish baseball fan and your kids are going to wind up doing goyish sports like curling and dressage. (Grades 2-6.)

So there you have it. Nine books to keep your kids reading about Jews and baseball. And if they’re not into it, take ’em out to a ballgame.

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.