This essay appeared in Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American, the companion book to an exhibition of the same name that launched at the National Museum of American Jewish History in 2014. In the following year “Chasing Dreams” embarked on an extensive national tour; it is currently on view in two locations: a popup exhibition at The American Jewish Historical Society in New York City and a fuller representation, complete with artifacts, at The Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA. As chief consultant to the exhibition I am grateful to curator Josh Perelman and the staff of the museum for permission to publish this story, in some measure a personal one, on the web for the first time.
Fight or flight. That is how a Jew, like anyone else, deals with adversity in life or in that charmed realm that is our present subject, baseball. Contemplating prejudice, one may perceive a rich range of responses—modulated, grayed, complex–hardly binary, it would appear. A plausible, if unsustainable, third alternative may also exist: sitting on the fence in hope that the threat will pass. In real time, though, it all boils down to fight or flight.
Both are honorable choices. Neither victory nor defeat will confirm character; one does what seems possible in the moment. When a Jewish baseball player changed his name in 1905 it was a sensible response to a rabidly anti-Semitic fan base, especially in the rural minor leagues. So was, in later years, challenging a dugout heckler to a fistfight, declining to play on Yom Kippur, or most potently, letting results talk.
Ostracized over centuries, Europe’s Jews gravitated to the occupations permitted them. As immigrants to these shores they at first did the same. How could they know that in America, as in baseball, anything—yes, anything—was possible?
Like other minorities, Jews turned adversity on its head, making of it a fuel for performance and the glue of a faith and a people. As Jews ventured into mainstream culture, perhaps from a “disreputable” profession like theater or sports—in both of which they were “players,” i.e., not themselves—they might be forgiven if they forgot for a moment that they were Jewish. Until the very recent past, however, they could be certain that the world would remind them.
Chasing Dreams—the title of the exhibition that inspired this book—is in large measure a Jewish tale, but it is also the story of all the outsiders who struggled to claim a rightful share of the American Dream, only to find their grip slipping on a traditional, distinct identity. As an immigrant boy myself, born in a displaced persons camp in 1947 to Holocaust survivors, I wished for nothing more fervently than to be one of the gang. Still, I was unwilling to let go entirely of that feeling of being odd, singular, special. Baseball eased the transition, permitting me to be that contradiction in terms describing each member of an American minority: the same but different. As a game emphasizing individual accomplishment within the context of unified effort, baseball offered a model of how one might become part of the team … how an outsider might be an American. To the tempest-tost of Europe, like me, baseball seemed fair: effort would be rewarded no matter where you came from.
What goals were sought by Lipman Pike and Andy Cohen? Barney Pelty and Erskine Mayer? Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax? The very same ones pursued by Jackie Robinson and Minnie Minoso, Hank Aaron and Ichiro Suzuki, Roberto Clemente and Shin-Soo Choo. A level playing field, with respect on and off it.
Issues of inclusion and exclusion plagued baseball from the start: men vs. women (in England both had played baseball separately and together in the 18th century), then gentlemen vs. laborers, then native-born vs. immigrants, then amateurs vs. professionals. Later it became a way to discourage women, Jews, and Hispanics of light skin color, and ultimately a door was closed to African Americans after it had, tantalizingly, been left open in the 1870s.
English immigrant Henry Chadwick, the only writer inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (all the other writers are in a separate category) wrote in 1876:
What Cricket is to an Englishman, Base-Ball has become to an American. . . . On the Cricket-field—and there only—the Peer and the Peasant meet on equal terms; the possession of courage, nerve, judgment, skill, endurance and activity alone giving the palm of superiority. In fact, a more democratic institution does not exist in Europe than this self-same Cricket; and as regards its popularity, the records of the thousands of Commoners, Divines and Lawyers, Legislators and Artisans, and Literateurs as well as Mechanics and Laborers, show how great a hold it has on the people. If this is the characteristic of Cricket in aristocratic and monarchical England, how much more will the same characteristics mark Base-Ball in democratic and republican America.
Chadwick’s vision of baseball as a model democratic institution would have to wait for the turn of the century to be fully articulated, and for Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey to be fully realized. But his belief that baseball could be more than a game—could become a model of and for American life—has proven true. As Robinson ringingly titled his 1964 book, Baseball Has Done It.
The outsider experience as it has played out on the ball field and in the stands has been a great experiment in equality, the goal of the continuing great experiment that is America itself. Like liberty, baseball lifts a lamp to the entire world. It is a meritocracy more nearly perfect than the nation whose pastime it is, and as such can be both inspiration and scold. “Second only to death as a leveler,” wrote Alan Sangree of baseball in 1907, forty years before Jackie Robinson set foot on a major league field.
After a brief era of good feeling in the 1870s and 1880s when African-Americans and a single Cuban-born American played alongside whites at the highest levels of baseball, people of color were explicitly barred. Irish immigrants had had a relatively easy progress through the baseball ranks, for while they regularly endured attacks on their faith and their allegiance, they at least could sidestep the American obsession with skin color.
So too with the Jews, who, while they participated in baseball to no great extent in the nineteenth century, were never barred or banned. Indeed, Jews began to play the game quite early on (Seaman Lichtenstein, with the New York Base Ball Club of 1845); act as umpire (David D. Hart, with the Knickerbocker Club one year later); lead the first professional league in home runs (Lipman Pike each year from 1871 through 1873); and own a major-league club (Aaron S. Stern of the Cincinnati Reds, beginning in 1883). And yet, by 1905 only ten Jews had played in any of the major leagues.
Unflattering explanations were offered. The Indianapolis News noted in a November 2, 1903 headline: “FEW HEBREWS, SPORT LOVING THOUGH THEY ARE, PLAY BASE BALL.”
“One thing that puzzles me,” says Barry McCormick [infielder with the Chicago Cubs], “is why Jews don’t play base ball. The only Jew in the game today, as near as I can recollect, is Kane, the pitcher, whose right name is Cohen. Back in the ’70s there was a crack Jewish player, Lipman Pike, and Ed. Stein, Anson’s pitcher, was a Hebrew, I believe. Somehow or other, the Jew does not play ball. He is athletic enough, and the great number of Jewish boxers shows that he is an adept at one kind of sport, at least. I see Jewish names in the foot ball elevens and Jewish boys making good in track teams. Jewish gentlemen of means back the ball clubs, and are good, game backers too. Yet the athletic Hebrew does not play ball. Why is it?”
In the month before McCormick’s remarks, the Pittsburgh Pirates, owned by Barney Dreyfuss, a Jew, had been defeated in the first World Series of the modern era. That Dreyfuss had been the driving force behind the institution of a championship series between the National League and its upstart rival, the American League, has been monumentally important and won for him a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Another Jewish owner of the same period, Andrew Freedman of the Giants, was infamous for his highhanded treatment of players, issuing fines that the other owners had to make good so as to avoid lawsuits against the National League. Indeed, Freedman was so roundly hated that his fellow owners responded only half-heartedly to an anti-Semitic remark hurled his way by Baltimore Orioles’ outfielder Ducky Holmes, who formerly played for Freedman in New York. (Before a July 25, 1898 game, Holmes, responding to razzing from his former teammates, shouted across the diamond, “Well, I’m ——- glad I don’t have to work for a sheeny no more.”) Freedman ordered his men off the field, forfeiting the game to Baltimore, despite his own players’ sympathy with Holmes (or antipathy toward Freedman). Holmes was suspended, Freedman was fined. When the suspension was rescinded but the fine was left to stand, intramural conflict followed, boiling over into a war that gave birth to a rival, and saved baseball from destroying itself.
So if they were not barred from the field or the front office—or the press box or the radio booth—what has been the Jews’ particular adversity in baseball, the special obstacle with which they had to contend? Hatred. Jews were distrusted or despised not merely because they were different but also because they seemed recalcitrant about giving up their identity. In The Century of September 1921, Herbert Adams Gibbons offered:
This clannishness would eventually break down were it not for the deliberate efforts of Jewish leaders who are determined that Israel shall remain an imperium in imperio. If the Jews persist in maintaining a distinct ethnic consciousness and an exclusive community life, anti-Semitism will thrive in America as it has thrived in Europe. The American nation, itself the result of fusion, will not tolerate without protest a foreign element in it.
New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico wrote a decade later regarding basketball, a game Jews then dominated, that it “appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smartaleckness.”
These Jews were crafty, and they were obdurate. No matter how they may have longed for inclusion, exclusion was what bound them together. They would not cease to be Jewish any more than African-Americans would cease to be themselves. And that is why Jews were hated, I believe, more than any alternative explanation residing in the thousands of academic studies on the subject of anti-Semitism.
As an overserious boy I had asked myself, in the 1950s, that if the slaughter in Europe could happen and be permitted to happen, what made them hate us so much? Must it not be in some measure our fault? It is in a Jew’s nature to look in the mirror when trouble comes, but this was introspection beyond all reason. Though I ceased to ponder this question long ago, when I gave up boyish musings, I have taken comfort recently in discovering—at a sports auction site, no less!—an offering of a letter in German from Albert Einstein to a Mr. Braunstein, who had extended help to a Jewish refugee. Einstein wrote:
Dear Mr. Braunstein, I feel I must thank you especially for the important help that you were willing to lend your namesake. The person is well worth it in every regard, as I have come to learn through reliable information. Judging by our enemies, we Jews must be a very remarkable little people. That is not usually so obvious! I send you my friendly greetings, Yours, A. Einstein.
Chosen. Distinct. Exclusive. Scheming. Flashy. Smart-alecky. At least others were worse. And with each insult or assault came affirmation that we were indeed a very remarkable little people.
So if we were so sure of ourselves, so cocky, why did five ballplayers named Cohen change their names before entering the major leagues? Blacks did not routinely change their names to avoid detection. As David Spaner wrote in Total Baseball:
In 1980, Dorothy Corey Pinzger, the widow of Edward Corey, who pitched for the White Sox in 1918, explained her husband’s decision. “The name was changed from Cohen to Corey due to the ethnic slurs….We have a clipping in the scrapbook which noted that in his appearance in one of the Midwest League games, Ed was loudly and continuously derided about his ethnic background from a few of the unintelligent fans. The clipping further noted that the greatest majority of the fans were ‘good sports,’ but just those few harassed him. The name was changed by this method: The H in COHEN was dropped and the R inserted; likewise the N was dropped, and the Y inserted, and the name became COREY.”
Sammy Bohne and Phil Cooney were also born as Cohen, as were Harry Kane and Reuben Ewing. Jesse Baker was born Michael Silverman. Henry Lifschutz became Henry Bostick. Joe Rosenblum became Joe Bennett. James Herman Soloman became Jimmie Reese. “There must have been at least half a hundred Jews in the game but we’ll never know their real names,” Ford Frick wrote in 1925. “During the early days of this century the Jewish boys had tough sledding in the majors and many of them changed their name.”
Around the time of Frick’s observation, something clickednd Jews began to be courted as box-office draws. Mose Hirsch Solomon—dubbed the Rabbi of Swat after hitting .421 with 49 homers for the Hutchinson Wheat Shockers of the Southwestern League—proved a short-term project for John McGraw’s Giants, washing out after only two games. Andy Cohen enjoyed more success playing The Great Jewish Hope in the late 1920s, lasting two seasons as the Giants’ regular second baseman. The Yankees, desperate to please their Jewish fans in the 1940s—their first Jewish player had been the one-gamer Phil Cooney—even persuaded Ed Whitner to use his stepfather’s name of Levy. “You may be Whitner to the rest of the world,” said general manager Ed Barrow, “but if you are going to play with the Yankees you’ll be Ed Levy, understand.”
Women had been courted as fans (even nonpaying ones) ever since the game’s dawn. Baseball management hoped that their presence would lend “tone” to the proceedings and keep a lid on the rowdies, in the stands and on the field. In fact, women played the game and were involved in management, beginning with St. Louis Cardinals owner Helene Britton. Jewish women, too, from a surprisingly early onset.
Women entered the playing arena at the Seven Sisters schools of the Northeast, at which Jews were less than welcome. In 1866, Annie Glidden, a student at Vassar College wrote home describing campus life: “They are getting up various clubs now for out-of-door exercise….They have a floral society, boat clubs and base-ball clubs. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it highly, I can assure you.” Ultimately, women’s baseball largely devolved from such high-toned clubs to novelty acts with a girlie-show air, generally in the form of scantily clad Blondes versus Brunettes, with exotic geographic locators applied to each.
Pulchritudinous Broadway stars like Helen Dauvray would be seen at the Polo Grounds simply to be seen, though they exhibited some interest in baseball and its handsome practitioners. Miss Dauvray went so far as to marry one of them, Giants’ shortstop John Ward. In 1887 she funded the first World Series trophy (the “Dauvray Cup”) and ornate gold pins for each member of the winning Detroit Wolverines. Born Ida Gibson, Miss Dauvray was half Jewish, her mother having been born Louisa De Young, brother of M.H. De Young, future editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Though nonobservant in her practice of the faith, she gave benefit performances in San Francisco for Congregation Shaari Zedeck on March 25, 1875, and Congregation B’nai Israel on July 15, 1875.
The first woman to play in Organized Baseball was not Jewish. On July 5, 1898, Lizzie (Stroud) Arlington, with the blessings of the president of the Atlantic League (a Class B minor league) Ed Barrow, later famous as the man who made pitcher Babe Ruth an everyday player, threw an inning for the Reading Coal Heavers against the Allentown Peanuts. She gave up two hits but no runs.
Women also played with professional traveling teams like the Boston Bloomer Girls (based in Kansas City, actually). Ida Schnall, a Jewish immigrant from Austria and famous swimmer, started up the New York Female Giants and her two squads, composed of Jewish and Gentile young women, played exhibition contests in 1913. Ida invariably pitched. In later years she would make an “aquacade” movie (Undine, 1916) that exploited her curves.
Women were never formally barred from playing in the big leagues (three women played in the Negro Leagues), any more than Jews were. The presumption may well have been that they wouldn’t be good enough, so why bother? Women still await their Lipman Pike, Hank Greenberg, and Sandy Koufax.
Fight or flight? Evading confrontation, eluding adversity—these were the tactics that made sense all the way up to World War II. There was a memorable fight in 1933 between second baseman Buddy Myer of the Washington Senators and the Yankees’ Ben Chapman, who, in 1947 as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies gained infamy for his taunting of Jackie Robinson. Chapman spiked Myer and then hurled a number of anti-Semitic epithets at him. Chapman and Myer’s fight spread to the dugouts and the stands. Myer’s father was Jewish and his mother Christian, and he never considered himself a Jew, but he never felt the need to correct press accounts of his Judaism and, anyway, he took offense at Chapman’s slurs. Only years after his retirement did Myer bother to state publicly that he had always felt he was German rather than Jewish.
Hank Greenberg fought in his own way. A formidable figure who could challenge an entire dugout, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger did his best work in overcoming adversity by letting his bat speak for him. Cleveland’s Al Rosen followed Greenberg’s path—though not averse to using his fists, he spoke loudest through his accomplishments. In 1953 he fell one thousandth of a point shy of winning the batting title that would have given him the American League Triple Crown.
Greenberg’s experience of dealing with prejudice intersected with Jackie Robinson’s struggles as a Brooklyn Dodger rookie on May 17, 1947. Robinson collided with Greenberg, finishing up his career as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman, on a close play and heard the catcalls from the stands. When Robinson reached first base again later in the game, Greenberg reportedly complimented him on his stoic demeanor: “Stick in there. You’re doing fine. Keep your chin.”
I was a month old, not yet an American, when this now legendary moment occurred. But by 1952, only five years later, I had become strongly attached to Robinson—he was still a big-league star, with a dazzling baseball card. Greenberg meanwhile had moved off center stage though still, unbeknownst to me then, a major figure in the game. Jews tend to go with the underdog for obvious historical reasons, and Robinson seemed to me a real hero. He was hated for no good reason. Jews know something about that.
My parents and the Polish immigrants in their New York City social circle, unlike so many Holocaust survivors, told their grisly tales with an unnerving gusto: Max Linden, the jeweler, never tired of telling, over dinner, how he had lain overnight under a pile of corpses, waiting for the propitious moment to act upon the surprising intelligence that he, unlike everyone else who had been shot, was not dead. Thrilling as the story was to me as a very young boy, I soon could not bear to hear it, for all its undertones of dread, helplessness, and dumb luck.
This age of horrors and heroes, ended before I was born, shaped my parents so indelibly that it inevitably shaped me too, fostering fear, shame and, most damaging to a creative soul, a sense of overriding caution. Baseball became my real visa to America and to becoming (almost) one of the guys. Like the American West with its cowboys and Indians, baseball provided an institution with legends that could stand up to Nazis and Jews. And unlike America’s Western frontier, closed since 1890, in baseball heroism still seemed possible.
By my teen years Sandy Koufax had come into his own and, as Greenberg had done, made Jews proud to see one of their own proclaimed as the best. It is now hard to imagine, but when Koufax and the Dodgers left Brooklyn for California in 1958, the Holocaust was thirteen years past, not yet safely distant in the rearview mirror. Looking back now, nearly sixty years later, it may be hard for young Americans to grasp the resonance of a Jewish baseball hero at that time. No similar emotion attached to Ryan Braun when he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011; let us hope that America’s Jews never have reason to need a new hero as they needed Koufax.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rookie relief pitcher Larry Sherry became the hero of the 1959 World Series, winning two games and saving the team’s other two victories, I was keenly aware that he—like Koufax, who had lost a 1–0 thriller in Game 5—was Jewish. By the time of Koufax’s sudden retirement after the 1966 World Series, it seemed no longer important that he was a Jew; the principal storyline attaching to him was that he was a great athlete whose time in the sun had sadly been cut short.
This was Sandy’s success, and Jackie’s, and Hank’s. In the end the only question to be asked of those who followed was, “Can you play?”
And then came the murders at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. In case we had forgotten, we were Jews. Mike Epstein, the massive slugger of the Oakland A’s who had won the good-natured nickname “SuperJew”—in itself a sign of our people’s rising acceptance—donned an armband in remembrance of the slain Israeli athletes. So did Jewish teammate Ken Holtzman and outfield star Reggie Jackson, an African-American. When the A’s squared off against the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series a month later, Jackie Robinson was honored for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his breaking the color barrier. Nine days later he died.
With Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson had forced America to confront the falsehood that baseball could truly be a national pastime while intentionally excluding anyone. Although the baseball playing population of African Americans in the major leagues has diminished from a high of, in some published estimates, 28 percent in the late 1960s—actually it peaked near 20 percent in 1975—to perhaps 8 percent today, more people of color play the game in the major leagues than have ever done so before. If you count all dark-skinned people—whatever their nation of origin—the number is over 40 percent today, and the upward trend is inexorable. America is a nation of nations, and its emblematic game is enriched by reflecting that truth.
Recent years have seemed a golden age for Jewish players in Major League Baseball, with sixteen in 2013 alone. Beyond Greenberg and Koufax, Steve Stone won a Cy Young Award and Ryan Braun became an MVP. On May 23, 2002, Shawn Green established a single-game record for the ages, with 19 total bases on four home runs, a double, and a single, scoring five times. Kevin Youkilis became a Moneyball hero. It is today routine, rather than remarkable, for Jews to be baseball players—stars and supernumeraries just like every nationality or creed.
Is that a triumph? Yes, but it is also a challenge. What are those things that make Jews special—chosen, even—if not their outsider status? What will drive us to prove our people’s individual excellence, by ourselves or through our heroes? As a people forged in adversity, America’s Jews will have to find something else to supply the tie that binds. As in the past, baseball will be a help.