December 14, 2012

This book is full of tasty appetizers — a piece of gefilte fish, a slice of pickled herring. But there’s no chicken in the pot.

Editors Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy (both at the New Republic) have assembled brief portraits of 50 Jewish sports figures, from Barney Ross, war hero and boxing champion, to Sandy Koufax, perhaps the best left-handed pitcher ever. Since there are a lot more Jewish authors than athletes, they’ve put together an All-World team of contributors, from New Yorker editor David Remnick to Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.

Yet there are several flaws here. Many of the pieces are just too short to capture the true spirit of their subjects. And speaking of short, the writers can repeat themselves, pointing out over and over again that Jewish athletes make up for their physical deficiencies with cleverness and guile. Here’s Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on basketball pioneer Barney Sedran, who stood 5 feet 4 inches tall: “Sedran represented a kind of basketball that was quintessentially Jewish: manically energetic, compulsively alert, upending expectations, and compensating for short — really short — comings.” In fact, Jonathan Safran Foer says, chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer was “the quintessential Jewish Jock” because he was all brains and no brawn.

That’s not really fair. Some of the best Jewish athletes combined both qualities. Sid Luckman, writes Rich Cohen, blessed with the “mind of a Hebrew [and the] body of a Cossack,” was recruited out of Columbia, of all places, by the Chicago Bears to quarterback the first T-formation that revolutionized football. Ron Mix (his Russian-born father changed the name from Rabinowitz) was a 270-pound, eight-time All-Star tackle for the San Diego Chargers who went to law school in the off season and helped fellow athletes sue their former teams for feeding them steroids.

Even if I still felt hungry after reading this book, I learned a lot from it, and some intriguing themes tie these chapters together. One is the pride these authors take in rooting for their landsmen. Jews will always pick Moses over Pharoah, especially with a good point spread. New York Times columnist David Brooks says that watching outfielder Art Shamsky play for the “Miracle Mets” of 1969 “was like watching the Book of Exodus play out in front of you.”


’Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame’ by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy (Twelve)

Set against the stereotype of the small, smart Jew is the growing role that physical fitness played in an evolving Jewish identity. Max Nordau, a European Zionist and philosopher of the late 19th century, preached the virtues of sports training and said — presciently — that only by “force of will and muscle” could Jews plant and preserve a state for themselves in Israel. That tradition continues. I recently gave a book talk at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, and there were a lot more folks in the building working on their abdomens than their aptitudes.

Some Jewish athletes disguised their names to hide their true identity (Arthur Lieberman fought as Artie O’Leary), but as their place in American life grew more secure, they started using their religion as a motivational and marketing tool. “It drove me to do better,” said baseball slugger Hank Greenberg, “to prove that a Jew could be a ballplayer.” Pro wrestler Bill Goldberg joked, “My real name is Killer, but I wanted a much more menacing name, so I picked Goldberg.”

More than a dozen subjects in this book are not athletes at all: managers and owners, writers and broadcasters, trainers and teachers, and two notorious gamblers — Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series, and Jack Molinas, who organized a point-shaving ring in college basketball and was rubbed out by the mob. As Pinker writes in his essay on basketball coach Red Auerbach: “To ignore Jews’ success in the art of the deal would be to deny what made them historically distinctive.” So it’s fitting to include dealmakers such as Marvin Miller, who first organized baseball players into a union; Al Davis, the slick salesman behind the outlaw image of the Oakland Raiders; and Daniel Okrent, who created fantasy baseball but somehow violated tribal tradition by never making a dime from his invention.

My favorite story concerns Nancy Lieberman, a Queens girl who started taking the subway at age 13 to shoot hoops on the playgrounds of Harlem against very large black men. After a brilliant college and Olympic career, she was invited to play for the Los Angeles Lakers’ summer team. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com describes what happened:

“When Nancy arrived, Lakers trainer Jack Curran threw her a mesh bag that held her uniform and told her without apology that there was no dedicated ladies’ room. After Nancy found a semiprivate spot to change she returned in uniform and flung the jockstrap at Curran. ‘Yo, Jack,’ she shouted. Curran, the staff and the rest of the team turned around. ‘This thing’s too small. If you want me to practice today, I’m going to need something bigger.’ ”

She’s the quintessential Jewish jock. Slight stature, big mouth and the kishkes to back up her boasts.

bookworld@washpost.com

Steven V. Roberts , who teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University, is working on a book about immigrant athletes.

JEWISH JOCKS

An Unorthodox Hall of Fame

Edited by Franklin Foer
and Marc Tracy

Twelve. 285 pp. $26.99