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Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame

Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame

5.0 3
by Franklin Foer (Editor), Marc Tracy (Editor)

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2012 National Jewish Book Award Winner

JEWISH JOCKS: AN UNORTHODOX HALL OF FAME is a timeless collection of biographical musings, sociological riffs about assimilation, first-person reflections, and, above all, great writing on some of the most influential and unexpected pioneers in the world of sports. Featuring work by


2012 National Jewish Book Award Winner

JEWISH JOCKS: AN UNORTHODOX HALL OF FAME is a timeless collection of biographical musings, sociological riffs about assimilation, first-person reflections, and, above all, great writing on some of the most influential and unexpected pioneers in the world of sports. Featuring work by today's preeminent writers, these essays explore significant Jewish athletes, coaches, broadcasters, trainers, and even team owners (in the finite universe of Jewish Jocks, they count!).

Contributors include some of today's most celebrated writers covering a vast assortment of topics, including David Remnick on the biggest mouth in sports, Howard Cosell; Jonathan Safran Foer on the prodigious and pugnacious Bobby Fischer; Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson writing elegantly on Marty Reisman, America's greatest ping-pong player and the sport's ultimate showman. Deborah Lipstadt examines the continuing legacy of the Munich Massacre, the fortieth anniversary of which coincided with the 2012 London Olympics. Jane Leavy reveals why Sandy Koufax agreed to attend her daughter's bat mitzvah. And we learn how Don Lerman single-handedly thrust competitive eating into the public eye with three pounds of butter and 120 jalapeño peppers. These essays are supplemented by a cover design and illustrations throughout by Mark Ulriksen.

From settlement houses to stadiums and everywhere in between, JEWISH JOCKS features men and women who do not always fit the standard athletic mold. Rather, they utilized talents long prized by a people of the book (and a people of commerce) to game these games to their advantage, in turn forcing the rest of the world to either copy their methods-or be left in their dust.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
In recent years, a cottage industry has grown up around the Jewish athlete…Jewish Jocks represents the high end of this quirky pursuit…the book gathers 50 brief portraits from some of the biggest names in journalism and academia. Their essays follow no particular pattern, the common denominator being the exceptionally high quality of the writing. Jews are profiled in everything from broadcasting and management to fencing and bullfighting. It's an odd mix, but it works for two reasons. First, much of the Jewish influence in sports has occurred beyond the locker room. Second, let's be honest: the Jewish bench is far too thin to support 50 tales of athletic immortality.
—David Oshinsky
Publishers Weekly
This is an entertaining and enlightening collection of essays about the lives and exploits of many influential Jewish sports figures that gives the lie to the jokes about Jews and sports that have been told by everyone from Don Rickles to Jon Stewart. The 50 figures profiled by such writers as David Remnick and Deborah Lipstadt cover a wide range: Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman, who together “invented the quarterback position as we know it” for the Chicago Bears; Barney Sedran, ”the shortest player ever inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame”; and Howard Cosell and Marvin Miller. Dahlia Lithwick observes Sandy Koufax—perhaps the greatest Jewish sports hero ever, who stymied the New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle while leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the 1963 World Series. None of the essays are purely biographical or hagiographic—the authors consistently deliver fascinating insights into the highs and lows of Jews in sports. Ron Rosenbaum, for example, notes that what Arnold Rothstein, the mob gambler blamed for fixing the 1919 World Series, “reminds us about sport in America is that it has never been the pure refuge from everyday grimy and gritty realities like greed.” (Oct.)
Sports Illustrated
"Belies the cheap punch line [to] prove that the Jewish sporting tradition is as rich as it is varied. Jewish Jocks features notable writers in peak form."
Will Leitch
Jewish Jocks' ends up convincing you of its theme: The history of Jews in sports is, in important ways, the history of sports.
Wall Street Journal
From the Publisher
"Marc Tracy and Franklin Foer have compiled JEWISH JOCKS: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, essays on 'the most influential Jews in sports,' from athletes, coaches, and owners to broadcasters and statisticians. David Remnick, David Brooks, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jane Leavy, and Steven Pinker are among the heavyweight contributors. You'll laugh, you'll cry."—Publishers Weekly, Top 10 Sports Books Fall 2012

Editor's Choice: "Fifty well-written brief portraits."—The New York Times Book Review"

Jewish Jocks' ends up convincing you of its theme: The history of Jews in sports is, in important ways, the history of sports."—Will Leitch, Wall Street Journal"

A must for the bookshelf of any Jewish sports fan."— Kirkus Reviews"

Belies the cheap punch line [to] prove that the Jewish sporting tradition is as rich as it is varied. Jewish Jocks features notable writers in peak form."—Sports Illustrated"

A skillful collection... through its sheer comprehensiveness, JEWISH JOCKS also makes the argument that the Jewish athlete isn't an anomaly."—Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times
"A skillful collection... through its sheer comprehensiveness, JEWISH JOCKS also makes the argument that the Jewish athlete isn't an anomaly."
Will Leitch - Wall Street Journal
"Jewish Jocks' ends up convincing you of its theme: The history of Jews in sports is, in important ways, the history of sports."
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of essays about the most influential Jews in sports history. New Republic editor Foer (How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, 2005) and New Republic staff writer Tracy present a diverse collection of Jewish athletes celebrated by Jewish authors. Many of the 50 athletes included--e.g., Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Sid Luckman, Mark Spitz--will be familiar even to non-Jewish sports fans, while others--table-tennis star Marty Reisman, Nazi-era German fencing champ Helene Mayer, kung-fu instructor Harvey Sober and "the Ben Franklin of Competitive Eating," Don Lerman--will not. The list of contributors is also distinguished, with several Pulitzer Prize winners, Ivy League professors, novelists and even former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. The essays range from standard profiles to personal reminiscences. Most, but not all, of the athletes are American. In addition to Joshua Cohen's piece on Mayer, there is Simon Schama's fascinating essay about English pugilist Daniel Mendoza, David Bezmozgis' profile of Soviet strongman Grigory Novak and Timothy Snyder's piece on Austro-Hungarian author Max Nordau, whose speech to the 1898 Second Zionist Congress called on Jews to develop their muscles to overcome weakness. This theme of athleticism counteracting the stereotype of the Jew as weak victim runs through many of the essays, though it may be slightly undermined by the application of the "jock" title to Nordau and other nonathletes, such as gambler and 1919 World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein, Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich and broadcast legend Howard Cosell. Their inclusion on the basis of their significant impacts on the landscape of sports is, however, well-defended by Foer and Tracy. Other highlights include Jonathan Safran Foer on Bobby Fischer, Steven Pinker on Red Auerbach, Buzz Bissinger on Barney Ross and George Packer on Mark Cuban. A must for the bookshelf of any Jewish sports fan.

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Read an Excerpt

Jewish Jocks

An Unorthodox Hall of Fame


ISBN: 9781455516131

The King’s Pugilist

Daniel Mendoza (1764–1836)

By Simon Schama

Apparently, he was the king’s kind of Jew. For there they were on the terrace at Windsor, Farmer George and Daniel Mendoza chatting away (insofar as the king was given to chat) like old comrades in arms. No Jew had ever got this close to the royal presence, not in England, not even when he had chests of treasure to set at the feet of some maddened Plantagenet warlord. The king was not much interested in the common sort of Jew: the stooped sage, the sawing fiddler, or the paunchy Goldsmid. But that most curious and compelling improbability, a sporting bare-knuckle Jew, one who had knocked down the paragon Richard Humphries, the gentleman boxer himself—now, that was an altogether different story. Secluded as he was, and sometimes a little troubled in his wits, the king could still scarcely avoid the Mendoza circus. The Jew’s praises were sung on Drury Lane stages, and in common taverns. His swarthy face, broad chest, and burly limbs were painted onto mugs, engraved into rummers and tankards; there were even Mendoza medallions punched out by Thomas Spence circulating in the coffeehouses of the city. He was, in the words of Boxiana, “a brilliant star,” and there was no escaping his light, “The Light of Israel,” as his own people called him. Besides, the celebration of Mendoza the Jew was the only matter on which the king and the Prince of Wales could ever agree!

To tell the truth, Daniel, barely thirty, was already past his best when he and King George III exchanged the time of day. His triumph over Humphries had not come without cost to his person, and subsequent bouts with Bill Warr (won) and John Jackson (lost) had taken their toll. Never mind that Jackson had conducted himself most unsportsmanlike, gripping Mendoza’s curly black locks the better to subject him to a hammering. For all his prizes, the money had run from him like quicksilver, so he was obliged to turn publican at the Lord Nelson in Whitechapel, just as he had once been glass cutter, seller of tea, fruit, and vegetables—and would be any other thing too if it would put food on the table for his agitated wife and the six little Mendozas, with another one due to bow into the world. Well, he would be amiss not to make something of his encounter with Farmer George, and the Princess Royal begging him would he be so good as to let one of the princes aim a chubby fist at him so the boy could say that once he had landed a punch on the great Daniel Mendoza? Daniel stuck out his barrel of a chest and let the little fellow take a pat at him, and all parted, the prince and the pugilist, in uncommon good sorts.

Which was as well, for merriment thereafter would be in short supply as funds.

The Quality had been surprised, Daniel supposed, to find a Jew able to stand his ground and knock down the likes of Harry the Coalheaver and Butcher Martin, but then they had a straightened notion of what Jews, his sort of Jews at any rate, were like. Let them come to the Mile End Road and there would be no shortage of dark-haired lads ready to give the lie and pretty quick too to the commonplace that his race were nothing better than knuckle-cracking misers, wispy-bearded dotards, shuffling hawkers of oranges and rags with greasy ringlets falling down their faces. Was he not a Mendoza? The very name itself proclaimed his family’s wanderings from Spain through whatever sanctuary they could find until they fetched up in London. They weren’t all grand, the Sephardim, not all wigs and slippers sitting on their benches in Bevis Marks taking their ease under the brass chandeliers, treating themselves to a pinch of Turkey snuff between the amens. His kind of Sephardim had to know the ways of the street, otherwise they would be prey for all kinds of scoundrels: press gangs and the lousy seamen themselves; drunken rogues in the king’s scarlet; runners and excise men on the look out to rob and kick a Jew or two for the sport of it and go roaring on their way.

Well, he owned to a quick temper, but what of it? You wouldn’t last long on the Mile End Road if you didn’t know how to take knocks and give them back double quick and with interest too. His father, may he rest, had wanted to make a glass cutter of him; but however much he tried to keep shy of trouble, the insults came, and was he to stand there and let them fall on him like clods, and he just as meek as could be? Not him, not Dan Mendoza. So there were brawls and spoils and flying fists however hard he tried to keep his temper, at the fruiterer where the gentry thought they could chivvy the master’s wife or chuck her chin with impunity, seeing as she was of the Jewish persuasion. He saw them off well and good and didn’t he give the rascals a thrashing when they asked for it, though he was but barely more than five foot six, all trim and nimble as he had to be? He had taught himself to be David to all those ginned-up Goliaths, with his fists for slung stones, and to duck and dip and sway and swerve when the adversary was bigger, which mostly he was, to know how to parry right quick and never leave his guard off his stomach. Balance was the trick of it, to draw a line in his mind straight down and keep centered, light on his feet; that’s the way, and he didn’t mind passing on his craft in his academy in Capel Court.

It was the stout porter who was the cause of him turning boxer. The fellow unloaded his chest at the tea merchant where Mendoza worked. Daniel was pleasant enough to offer him the price of a tankard for his pains, at which he took mighty offense, shouting for double, and grievously threatening the tea merchant cowering behind his scales. Since he was so eager for a settlement, Daniel proposed a reckoning outside with himself, and so they set about it, very much to the stout porter’s disadvantage, who had supposed he would minister a thrashing to the boy as if trampling a beetle under his boot. A crowd had gathered, among them Mr. Richard Humphries no less, who was so taken with the sixteen-year-old lad’s bantamcock spirit and the startling power of his blows that he stood second. And thereupon began their famous history.

Mr. Humphries was praised for gracefulness, his cool under a rain of blows, however heavy, the sudden force of his leveling right; Mr. Humphries the cynosure of the Quality, darling of the sporting gentry, even of the prince himself; the bookkeeper’s pet, not that Daniel had anything but respect for him. It was to Humphries that he owed the bouts that had first brought him to the public’s attention, that had won him his five-guinea purses. It was Humphries who had stirred the native confidence he had in his ability, so that it blossomed into something more: a sense that he might possess true and subtle intelligence of the fighter’s craft.

So he let himself be brought along by Mr. Richard Humphries, through two fights with Tom Tyne, until his mentor brought him too close under his wing and proposed he be trained in an establishment in Epping Forest that, Daniel was mortified to discover, was nothing but a resort of license and dissipation—in sum, a bawdy house. From that day their understanding ended, but what began was something more notable: a contention all England hung on.

For this was a time when Britain was famished for heroes, since the king was, by fits and starts, not of sound mind and the prince a fat lecher and the late American war a base humiliation. The growling, riotous public wanted warriors and distraction. The manly art of pugilism gave it both—though Mendoza once saw two women boxing and thought it unseemly, but not so much that he didn’t offer himself as second to the better of them.

He was like the thousands who saw him except in the one respect that was his draw: he was the Jew. He was novelty, a surprise, quite other than the parade of hulking soldier boys, tapsters, butchers, and grooms, sandy-haired blue-eyed brawlers who staggered broken-brained about the sawdust and the blood. Had Humphries taken him on because he had thought to profit from his difference, or because he had seen something new in boxing: a lad who used his wits as much as his fists? Or perhaps he had known the two matters were part and parcel: the Jew of cunning; the Jew who stooped to conquer, his uppercut (whoever had seen such a thing?) a shot from below and yet never a foul; a Jew who stood his ground whatever was thrown at him, waiting for the Coalheaver or the Butcher to slacken and tire before delivering the fatal blow like a snake from its nest? Surely, at least Humphries had known how the public would love a tournament of fair and dark: the Gent and the Hebrew, the erect and the supple. Now they would get what they wanted.

“Perhaps few men have disregarded training more than I have,” Mendoza wrote in his Memoirs twenty-eight years later, so it is unlikely he abandoned tea despite its “being of a nervous quality.” Nor did he have much need to sweat off the pounds as others did. At a hundred and sixty he was already light for the fight, a middleweight up against a beefy heavy. They would fight according to Broughton’s Rules, promulgated in 1743 and just seven of them, mostly concerned with who was on the stage, how many umpires (two), how the purse was divided (two-thirds to the winner), and that “no Champion be declared beaten unless he fails coming up the line in the limited time or that his own Second declares him beaten.” As for foul blows the Rules had little to say other than “no person is to hit his Adversary when he is down or seize him by the ham, the breeches or any part below the waist.” That left a lot of the body as fair target, including, to Mendoza’s later cost, the hair. And throwing, wrestling-style, was expected.

The world seemed to know of the bad feeling between the two former friends, for much of it attempted to crowd into the Hampshire paddock on January 9, 1788, to see them have at it. “No sporting kid that could muster the blunt [money] was absent,” recounted the dean of boxing writing Pierce Egan, “distance was out of the question and weather was no object… within an hour previous to the battle the assemblage collected together in one spot was truly astonishing and irresistible.” The price of admission was half a guinea, and since some of the proceeds went to the fighters, toughs with shillelaghs were hired to evict “intruders.” It didn’t work. So many pressed against them “that the door keepers were soon lost by the violence of the torrent and thousands never gave themselves any trouble as to the expense of admission. All was noise, uproar and confusion.”

Humphries arrived first onstage, glamorous in fancy flannel drawers and white stockings spangled in gold, acknowledging the plaudits with “genteel deportment.” Mendoza’s appearance by contrast was “plain and neat,” and in his corner was Team Jew from Whitechapel: David Benjamin as his second, Mr. Jacobs as his bottle-holder, a Mr. Moravia as his chosen umpire. It had been raining and the boards of the stage were slippery. After “elegant” exchanges of thrusts and parries, “one of the richest treats ever exhibited in this noble and manly art,” Mendoza landed the first blow, but on the recoil slipped on the boards. In the rounds that followed, the Jew seemed to triumph, knocking Humphries down six times, throwing him too. A great deal of cash suddenly switched bets, inadvisably as it turned out. Later Mendoza would complain that, close to exhaustion from the pounding, Humphries extended the agreed-on thirty-second break between rounds on the pretext of tying new shoes, and there was no question that a potential knockout blow was caught by Humphries’s second but disregarded. The escape made him bolder and he threw Mendoza, smashing his nose and cutting his forehead. Humphries “put in a doubler upon the loins” of Mendoza (contrary to the Broughton Rules), followed by “one in the neck.” Falling, Mendoza sprained his ankle and in the twenty-eighth minute of the fight conceded. He had lost but had won admiration for his “quick hitting” and close fighting. That didn’t worry Humphries. “Sir,” he wrote to a friend, “I have done the Jew and am in good health.”

Mendoza for his part felt he had been cheated of victory. And he lost no time letting The World have his account of it. The fighting words between the two men continued for weeks, every installment delighting the pleasure of the country, which now divided between them. “The newspapers teemed with anecdotes concerning them; pamphlets were published in favour of pugilism and scarcely a print-shop in the Metropolis but what displayed the set-to in glowing colours, and portraits of those distinguished heroes of the fist.” He was not, one wag had it, “the Jew/That Shakespeare drew.” What was already noticed was that, as Egan’s Boxiana had it, “DAN was most undoubtedly a new and prominent feature in pugilism,” inaugurating the rope-a-dope (just exactly as Ali would do), tiring his opponent, and then moving in for the kill. “Mendoza was considered one of the most elegant and scientific Pugilists in the whole race of Boxers and might be termed a complete artist.”

Six months later Humphries appeared without warning at Mendoza’s boxing academy in Capel Court. Daniel was ill and in mourning for the death of a child. Humphries leapt into the ring and taunted him for ducking a second bout, Mendoza replying, “You cannot suppose I am afraid of you,” but insisting he was too sick to fight at present but as soon as he was restored to good health would be pleased to give his adversary satisfaction. It was all delivered lightly, but Mendoza was smoldering with rage at being humiliated in his own academy. He knew the song:

My Dicky was all the delight of half the genteels in the town

Their tables were scarcely compleat unless my Dicky sat down

So very polite, so genteel, such a soft complaisant face

What a damnable shame to be spoil’d by a curst little Jew from Duke’s Place.

They met again while revolution was stirring across the Channel, in May 1789, at Stilton, Huntingdonshire, in a pavilion erected just for the rematch. Perhaps this time Mendoza had indeed been in training, since from the start he had the better of it. In the first round Humphries threw a fierce facer, but Mendoza stopped the punch on his arm and returned it with a blow that leveled his opponent. Nothing after that Humphries could do made any impression. In the twenty-second round Humphries fell without a blow being landed. Broughton’s Rules declared this a move foul enough to lose the fight, but Humphries’s side insisted he had stopped a blow before falling. “Tongues were in full and violent motion”; a riot nearly broke out. Mendoza declared the fight was over, Humphries that it should go on, so the Jew swallowed his principles, resumed, and knocked the Gentleman down over and over until at length he did fall without a punch, losing the bout. One of Humphries’s eyes was closed, his lip and forehead lacerated. Mendoza had a cut cheek but nothing else, although he had darted away from low blows to his stomach.

“It was the opinion of the amateurs,” Boxiana declared, “that Mendoza displayed the greatest science… that hitherto determined spirit seemed now moderated by steady and decisive judgment and the skill and fortitude he displayed were truly entitled to respect and attention.” In a third and last match the following autumn, the betting odds were all on Mendoza’s side, and they grew steeper as the fight progressed; it was clear, as the Jew stopped the Gentleman’s stomach punches and returned them with facer after facer, that they had suddenly become unequals. Whenever Mendoza landed a punch, Humphries went down, and eventually he stayed down.

Now the newspaper bards complained that the Jew was altogether too tough:

You may as well do anything most hard

As seek to soften (than which what’s harder)

His Jewish heart.

Mendoza was just twenty-four. But as happens, fame swallowed him alive and spat him out a different man. He was taken advantage of, sent to tour in Scotland and Ireland, engaged by Astley, the circus showman. The champion Jew was a sorry accomplice in his own decline, abetted by drink, spendthrift flamboyance, his vanity flattered by the unscrupulous. His wife implored him to stop fighting, if not for her sake then for their brood, which had expanded to eleven. He never had enough patience with his academy, which closed down; the sites of his exhibitions of the manly art became ever less prominent and he resorted to a succession of occupations to keep the wolf from the door—process server, caterer, recruiting sergeant, sheriff’s officer—the work getting ever more tawdry until he was arrested for debt and thrown into prison in Carlisle. His creditors would not leave him in peace. Shylock and Antonio had reversed roles, he noted in his memoir: “the Christian was the unfeeling persecutor—the Jew the unfortunate debtor.”

To escape the debtor’s prison Mendoza came out of retirement. It was 1806; the nation was fighting for its own life against Napoleon, and a greater darling of the people, Horatio Nelson, had come and gone while Mendoza was running a pub with the admiral’s face on the hanging sign. There were new heroes of the ring, among them blacks like Bill Richmond and the great Tom Molineaux. But the crowds, told to go and see the boxing Jew, came in some number to Grinstead Green. Mendoza slugged it out against Harry Lee through fifty-three rounds of agonizing punches and throws, two old boys desperate for a measly purse, staggering around the stage. Lee eventually was the first to collapse. It was Daniel’s thirty-third fight, but not quite his last. That came in 1820, when Mendoza was fifty-six, taking on Tom Owen, a Hampshire innkeeper a mere six years his junior, and coming off so badly that he never tried it again.

Mendoza lived for another sixteen years, and was forgotten long before he died at the age of seventy-two. Except, that is, in the East End, which was still producing Jewish boxers: the brothers Belasco, Israel and Aby, who refused ever to take on another Jew; Dutch Sam Elias, who at five foot five made Mendoza seem a giant in people’s memory but was feared nonetheless as “the Man with the Iron Hand”; Ikey Bittoon, known as “Old Ikey” and definitely not to be confused with Ikey Pig, who never did make the crowds chuckle at his nickname. Some were good, the Belascos were perhaps great, but none, they said on the Mile End Road and in Stepney Green and Whitechapel, were like unto Daniel.

Mendoza died penniless, but the Hevra took care that he was buried in the Sephardi cemetery in Mile End Road. He is honored by a plaque on a freshly and beautifully renovated site plumb in the middle of Queen Mary College. One hundred and twenty years after he was interred, my father, Arthur, and I were sitting up the road at Bloom’s salt beef restaurant when, in mid-kreplach, Arthur dropped his spoon and nodded his head at a gray-haired gent with smooshed-in shnozz sitting quietly on his own slicing his way through a plate of tongue. “Come on,” said Arthur, “let’s pay our respects.” He was a great ringside man, my dad, and would drag me to Wembley Town Hall for the bouts amid the fug of cigar smoke and the rowdy hoo-ha and he would pal around with the great fight promoter Jack Solomon.

“Who is he?” I asked. “Kid Lewis?”

“Kid Lewis?” Arthur snorted, all incredulous. “That schlemiel joined up with Mosley before he saw the light! That’s the other Kid, the good one, Jackie boy, Kid Berg.” The Kid, born Judah Bergman, who went to America and laid Kid Chocolate and Mushy Callahan low, before he was through himself in 1939. We went over, my father treating Kid Berg like they’d grown up together, and the quiet man with the sideways nose stopped eating his tongue, took a sip of lemon tea, and smiled as he received the noisy accolade.

“What a lamb,” I said as we went back to our table.

“You should have seen him,” said Arthur, “the best since Mendoza, or so I like to think. Not a lamb my boy, a shtarker. Every so often, you know, it can’t hurt to have a shtarker in your corner, can it?”

“No, Dad,” I said, “it can’t.”

Philosopher of the Muscle Jews

Max Nordau (1849–1923)

By Timothy Snyder

The fin-de-siècle was not for wimps. It was a Europe that we recall as decadent and introspective. The certainties of scientific progress were giving way to subjective investigations of the self. Assimilated European Jews such as Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka led the way through the dark chambers of self-exploration haunted always by uncertainty. But for most Jewish Europeans, the sense of crisis as the century turned was less intellectual than physical. As confidence in peaceful liberal progress gave way to riotous tribal politics, what future was there for the Jews among their Christian neighbors? By the 1890s much of Jewish Europe was under attack, and neither assimilation nor the ideas of the assimilated provided much hope. It was the iconoclastic dramatist and polemicist Max Nordau, himself one of the outstanding European aesthetes of the fin-de-siècle, who saw that Jewish Europe could only be defended by physical means. Muscle would have to be added to mind, café habitués would have to learn calisthenics, and a new sort of Jew could transport the best of Europe to a new homeland.

Jewish Europe meant above all eastern Europe. In the late Middle Ages the Jews of western and central Europe had been expelled, and found their way east, to the Polish kingdom. The Jewish population of Poland grew alongside the Polish state, as it became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the largest state in Europe. Jews suffered when that state suffered, and prospered when it prospered. The basic exchange, tax revenue for personal security, worked fairly well. But then old Poland was partitioned out of existence by neighboring empires, and most Polish Jews were suddenly under the rule of the tsars. Russian rulers came to see Jews as the source of the empire’s problems, even believing in the blood libel. The pogroms of 1881 in the Russian Empire were even worse than they appeared: Russian revolutionaries blamed the government for the pogroms, and the government blamed the revolutionaries, but the instigators were the Christian subjects of the empire. If the state would not provide security, Jews would either have to leave—or find a new way to defend themselves.

Even Max Nordau’s enlightened homeland, Austria-Hungary, was darkening. In 1900 there were about two million Jews in the Habsburg monarchy, as compared to about five million in Russia. Under the rule of the Habsburgs, Jews enjoyed individual rights, and hoped that a liberal monarchy promised them a secure future. But as the political system became democratic, politics became national. When drought came in the late 1890s to Galicia, the Polish-Ukrainian-Jewish district Austria had taken from old Poland, peasants suffered, blamed their Jewish neighbors, and pogroms began. Jews from Galicia emigrated in the hundreds of thousands.

For a while it seemed that the cosmopolitan capitals of Austria-Hungary, Vienna and Budapest, would remain a safe redoubt for Jews who identified themselves with the monarchy. But even in Vienna, the promise of liberal politics could not be fulfilled. Democracy came to represent ethnic prejudices as much as economic interests. Karl Lueger was elected mayor in 1895 on an anti-Semitic platform. Most urban Jews believed that political anti-Semitism was a passing phase, but a few began to see the deeper danger.

By the 1890s the Jews of Vienna and Budapest had done far more than their share to create Europe’s culture. As journalists or artists or scientists traveled the continent, they imagined that enlightenment would endure in the western European cities that they idolized, above all Paris. But men such as Theodor Herzl, a liberal Viennese journalist and a central European dandy, were shocked by the Dreyfus affair. In 1894 a French officer of Jewish origin was found guilty, on the basis of fraudulent evidence, of spying for Germany. If the institutions of the admired French Republic could not be trusted to protect fully assimilated Jews serving their country in the army, what next? Herzl had the answer: Jews would build their own perfect European state, tolerant and socialist, cosmopolitan and enlightened, but in Palestine. It was this idea, expressed in Herzl’s 1896 book The Jewish State, that made him famous, but if he was to propagate the idea he would need allies. The most important of these was Max Nordau, a writer far more famous than Herzl himself, indeed a man who seemed to thrive in notoriety.

Nordau, like Herzl, was a cosmopolitan author born in Budapest. He had made his name by raging against the abandonment of scientific reason. His prose was florid and hyperbolic, but his case was simple and conservative: it was a mistake to abandon enlightenment. The acceptance of “conventional lies” of society, which included religion and indeed the Bible, had led, quite literally, to the “degeneration” of Europeans. Nordau believed that errors of mind were organically connected to infirmity of body.

Of course, Nordau failed to rescue these Europeans by teaching them their own ideas, and was shocked to find that some reacted to his writings by stressing his own Jewish background. Through Herzl, Zionism arrived at the more modest goal of rescuing Jews by teaching them to be men. Nordau had never regarded himself as a Jew, but like Herzl was forced by events to accept the definition that others thrust upon him. The first hints of his attraction to Zionism appear in correspondence with his Russian aristocratic lover, Olga Novikova, herself an incurable anti-Semite. First he complained to her of anti-Semitic insults. Then he asked rhetorically, in 1896, if Jews would be capable of colonizing Palestine. Soon he had come to the answer: they must become capable of such a feat, not only to gain a homeland, but to redeem themselves.

At the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, Nordau delivered an extraordinary address, calling for “muscle Jews” and a “muscular Judaism.” He remained true to his belief in scientific progress, just scaled down to the level of the individual body. As he said to Jewish athletes, “No one need be satisfied with the muscles they are given. Everyone can have the muscles that he wishes for. Methodical, persistent exercise is all that is necessary. Every Jew who believes himself to be weak can attain the musculature of an athlete.”

Jews were weak because of the ways they had been forced to live in conditions determined by Christians, Nordau claimed; they could overcome weakness by taking advantage of modern freedoms to make themselves strong. In turn, strong, confident Jews would renew Jewish history by mastering Palestine. Nordau believed that Europe was degenerated beyond redemption, and that a new “conventional lie,” political anti-Semitism, could not be defeated on its home territory. Jews could by force of will and muscle bring the best of their European past to colonies elsewhere.

It was Nordau’s idea of the muscle Jew that inspired Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, to identify Jewish strength with marching ranks of fit young men in uniform. Jabotinsky recruited Jewish units to fight in World War I, and created Jewish paramilitaries in interwar Poland with the thought of conquering Palestine when the time was right. Nordau also inspired tens of thousands of Jews, throughout Europe and America, to join gymnastics societies and to take up sports. His portrait, hung in locker rooms and gymnasiums around central Europe and around the world, became a kind of modern icon: depicting a white-bearded, almost saintly-looking older gentleman, it nonetheless suggested a future world of Jewish strength. Thanks in good measure to Nordau, Jewish life became, in the early twentieth century, sporting life. Nordau’s muscle Jews came into being: in the Israeli armed forces, following Jabotinsky’s hard political thinking, but also on soccer pitches, basketball courts, and baseball fields in Europe and then in America. Muscle Jews were meant to stand out, but some of them also fit in.

Tiny Baller

Barney Sedran (1891–1964)

By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

It took me a while to realize I was small. I had been a taller-than-average kid, and my mental image of myself was appropriately grandiose. It wasn’t until I was in my midtwenties, standing in a cluster at a party, that it suddenly dawned on me that the conversation was taking place about a foot above my head. “Good God, I’m short,” I said to myself in dismay. “When the hell did this happen?” The discovery was a blow to my self-conception, one I’ve never fully accepted. At a party not so long ago at which the unsocialized hosts subjected their guests to the barbaric practice of having them stand in their bare feet and recording their heights on the doorpost, I held my ground, insisting that my platform shoes were prosthetics that restored me to my nature-intended stature.

So it’s no accident that I happen to know the name of the shortest player ever inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. His name is Barney Sedran, born Bernard Sedransky on the Lower East Side of New York to Russian immigrant parents. He stood five foot four, which would put him just an inch below me, at least as I’m recorded on that blasted doorpost, measured in my three-inch-high platforms.

Back in the day when Jews ruled basketball—and lest you think those last three words are a misprint, let me repeat: Jews ruled basketball—Sedran played forward for City College of New York, wiping the floor with those hulking sad sacks from Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Penn, Columbia, Navy, and Army. Sedran represented a kind of basketball that was quintessentially Jewish: manically energetic, compulsively alert, upending expectations, and compensating for short—really short—comings.

Barney Sedran was born the same year as basketball itself, 1891. The game was invented by, of all people, a Canadian, but it quickly migrated to the cities, adapted by tenement kids. Rolled-up newspapers tied with string could substitute for a ball, and the lowest square of a hanging fire escape ladder could function as the hoop. Barney first learned the game at Hamilton Fish Park, on East Houston Street, along with a bunch of other sons of immigrants. The kid was fierce, a born shooter, but the team at DeWitt Clinton High School didn’t even let him try out, earning DeWitt, at least within the confines of this essay, the well-known sobriquet of Dimwit.

My sense of Barney is that he knew, even at this early age, that his real height diverged from the one you got by measuring him. His full height unfurled only when he was in motion. And I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t his immigrant parents who told him so; most of those shtetl-bred, shtetl-fled parents wanted their kids inside the dark rooms with the books, not running around and using their limbs as if they were gentiles. But Barney knew how tall he was, and he took himself over to University Settlement House on Eldridge Street, the oldest settlement house in the country, to play basketball there.

The settlement movement, a force for progressive change, established “settlements” that teemed with social services and self-betterment classes and clubs. Women could take courses in cooking and hygiene, men on their way home from work could use the public showers in the basement (few tenements had such amenities), girls could partake of the edifyingly Anglo influences of teatime, and boys, at this particular settlement house, could play on the roof under the direction of one of the most important figures in basketball history of whom you’ve never heard: Harry Baum.

Harry Baum came from Austria and was studying engineering at Columbia, where he played lacrosse. Hoity-toity lacrosse wasn’t for kids at the settlement house, but basketball was, and Baum set to work adapting the principles of lacrosse to help the runts he’d been assigned to coach. If you love watching the short rapid passing of basketball—the backdoor cut, the look-away pass, the constant action on offense—then you’re a fan of Harry Baum.

Baum preferred to coach the so-called midget team—all the kids were under 106 pounds—since these squirts hadn’t yet been ruined by bad habits. Importing from lacrosse, he taught them the strategy of man-to-man defense based on the principle of switching. He instructed them to be constantly on the move, whether they had the ball or not, and to keep their heads up, always looking for the open man. He developed a game that exploited speed, cunning, and subtlety rather than relying on such unrefined advantages as brute strength and redundant height. Intelligence, skill, and teamwork were unleashed to set aright the unsound discrepancies of nature.

Baum’s team was known as the “Busy Izzies,” or, according to other accounts, the “Dizzy Izzies.” You get the idea. Baum coached for five seasons, and during his tenure his midgets won five inter-settlement championships. He drilled his boys relentlessly so that they internalized his principles. The whole point of a good coach, he argued, was to make himself expendable. “I never made a comment during a game,” he said. “If a boy could not overcome obstacles of his own initiative, he would never be much good anyway.”

Barney Sedran, a runt among the runts, overcame and went on to play for City College. A sports reporter for the New York Evening Post described the “sensational midget” drifting around the court “like the ghost of an anemic tubercular.” City’s proletarian team, packed with diminutive dervishes, drilled at the settlement house, and captained by Sedran, became one of the strongest in the East.

But despite these glory days, after Sedran graduated he faced the amassed forces of know-nothing heightism. He was determined to make the transition from amateur to pro, but coaches and players snickered when he showed up to try out. His old teammate from the settlement days, Max Friedman, known as Marty, had skipped college and gone pro. Marty, by the way, stood at five foot seven. He was playing for a team up in Newburgh, New York, and invited Sedran and several other of Baum’s boys to join him there, where, using Baum’s “scientific principles,” they captured the championship of the Hudson River League in 1912, with Sedran leading the league in baskets made. Roving from one team to another—often playing simultaneously on two or three (and in two or three games a day)—Sedran and Friedman eventually became known as the “Heavenly Twins.” Throughout the 1910s, Sedran was one of the highest scorers in every league in which he played, usually assisted by Friedman.

Baum’s boys may have brought the novelty of intelligence to the game, but professional basketball of the 1910s wasn’t exactly a model of high-mindedness. It was played in a “cage” of chicken wire or rope to keep the ball moving, and defensive players could “check” ball handlers by “directing” them into the sides. By the end of a game, players were often gashed with rope burns and cuts. Only a perfect arcing shot that didn’t ricochet on the hoop counted as scoring. The backboardless baskets were held on a single pole, and proactive fans could reach through the cage and knock the pole so that a perfectly set-up shot didn’t make it in. Fans also weren’t averse to sticking lit cigars or rusty nails through the links, or a strategically placed foot to send a dribbling player sprawling.

Barney Sedran played professional basketball for fourteen years, and in his day was said to be its highest-paid star. When he retired at the age of thirty-four, he turned to coaching in the new American Basketball League. He was so effective at implementing the brainy principles of his settlement house mentor that the Wilmington Blue Bombers, whom he coached from 1940 to 1944, actually succeeded, in the 1940–41 season, in trouncing the transcendent Harlem Globetrotters.

Barney Sedran, all five foot four of him, was one of basketball’s greats and an inspiration to a squirt like me. Someday I might even be ready to face down the tormentors taking insipid measurements to meaningless values at the doorpost. Fixing them with my steely gaze, I’ll tell them that on February 11, 1914, Barney Sedran, playing for the Utica Indians against the team from Cahoes, scored a personal best of 34 points: 17 baskets, most of them from 25 to 30 feet away—long three-pointers in today’s wimpy National Basketball Association. And he did this by putting the ball cleanly through a hoop that had no backboard, while caged inside chicken wire, perhaps to the jeers of beer-fueled fans calling out, as they were known to do when Baum’s boys played, “Kill the Christ-killers.” And then, holding the greatness that was Barney Sedran in my mind, I might just be emboldened enough to step out of my platform shoes.

Mama Said Knock You Out

Benny Leonard (1896–1947)

By Franklin Foer

For a generation, boxing was dominated by an intimidating figure capable of inflicting immense and lasting damage: the Jewish mother. Her reign began early, when young boys lied about the contents of the satchels that they hauled from their tenements to the gym—“just library books, Mama.” If a young man acquired sufficient skill to fight for a purse, and possibly attract some notoriety, he often disguised his name so that it contained not even a trace of his ethnicity. Morris “Moishele” Scheer assumed the nom de guerre Mushy Callahan Jr.; Arthur Lieberman hid himself as Artie O’Leary. Maybe their mothers would never learn about their careers in the ring and would never come to feel the shame and life-sapping anxiety of having a son who boxed.

Benny Leonard was born Benjamin Lanier in 1896. In his first professional fight, at age sixteen, he pulverized an opponent named Ah Chung, who was, of course, really named Rosenberg. It was the beginning of perhaps the greatest career in the history of the sport. Leonard claimed the lightweight title in 1917 and didn’t let it go until 1925. The authoritative Bert Sugar rated him the sixth greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time—one spot behind Muhammad Ali and two clicks ahead of Jack Dempsey.

The champ had his own large raft of mama issues. He had so successfully kept his mother, Minnie, in the dark that she didn’t discover his career until she saw a bus that bore the sign BENNY LEONARD, OUR CHAMPION pull up to their building to whisk him off to a fight. It took a moment for the shock to set in, before the self-pity streamed from her: “He’s shaming us… and not even with his real name.” His father, Gershon, reacted more philosophically. After Benny returned home later that night with thirty-five dollars in winnings, Gershon confronted him. “You got that for the fight?” When Benny didn’t answer, his father asked, “When are you going to fight again?”

Of all the fistic mama’s boys, Leonard was the most slavishly devoted. He only scheduled his fights within a narrow geographic band, refusing itineraries that carried him away from his mother for longer than a night. After each bout, he would rush to the phone to reassure her that nothing terrible had happened to him. When he retired from boxing in 1925 at the age of twenty-eight—still the champ, and without any serious challengers looming—he cited his desire to spend more time with his mother.

This devotion was a good part of the reason that he became the first Jewish sports hero of the mass media age—“the White Hope of the Orthodox,” as the columnist Heywood Broun called him. Leonard had everything a nice Jewish family could want from a champion. He was well groomed (he boasted that his opponents could not dislodge even a strand of his black hair) and well spoken (he once challenged Bertrand Russell to a debate). His image stood as the refutation of the immigrants’ anxiety that boxing would suck their children into a criminal underworld or somehow undermine the very rationale for fleeing to the Golden Land. With his wholesome success, Benny Leonard legitimized boxing as an acceptable Jewish pursuit—and even more profoundly than that, he helped make sports a perfectly kosher fixation.

The Jewish boxing renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s emerged from a small, troubled tract of real estate. Lower Manhattan, crammed with so many recent arrivals from so many different countries, was rife with low-grade tribal warfare. Jewish kids like Benny Lanier—puny and untrained—were ill-suited for these battles, which featured such munitions as baseball bats and snowballs packed around coal.

On a trip to the grocers, a gang accosted little Benny. Hoodlums stole the quarter that his mom had sent him to the store with and kicked him as he made his way home. “Why is it the other kids always wipe the streets with you?” his uncle Max asked as Benny limped silently into the apartment. “I’m going to take you to the Silver Heel Club on Saturdays and you’ll get a little boxing instruction there.”

At Silver Heel, Leonard studied the nuances of boxing so attentively that he quickly compensated for his physical deficiencies. By his bar mitzvah, the lore of Benny Leonard had already begun to take hold, stories about how he had fended off Italian thugs as they attempted to trash a shul, or Irish ones as they hassled some nice lady.

Over his career, the tales would grow taller, as the tailors and salesmen of Brownsville and Harlem told and retold the Great Bennah’s comic-book exploits on behalf of the Jewish people. On a train ride to Chicago, he watched a large, ill-mannered man enter his compartment and menacingly ask, “Is there a Jew in this car?” As the story goes, Leonard would have crushed the man, except for the steadying hand of his manager, who assured Benny that the man must be drunk. But when the man returned, he repeated his exhortation, only with greater fervor: “Is there a Jew in the car?” Leonard could no longer contain himself and rushed toward him. “Yeah, I’m a Jew,” he said. “You wanna make something of it?” To which the man replied, “Thank God, now we have a minyan.”

Jews are often credited with putting the science in the sweet science. Even the brutes of the tribe couldn’t help but inject a little intellectualism into their craft. Benny Leonard was the archetype of the brainy boxer, and a bit of an obsessive. He sat in the gym for hours, even at the height of his fame, carefully observing unknown fighters, searching for minute insights into strategy and mechanics. His technique—his transference of weight, his feints, his timing, his judgments about distance—was relentlessly honed and therefore impeccable.

Leonard was a master at wearing down his foes with evasiveness. He learned his method from his great hero, Louis Wallach, also known as Leach Cross or, better still, the Fighting Dentist, a nickname that came from his study of oral hygiene at New York University. But Cross could have also been called the Fighting Psychologist. He developed an array of tricks—faking injury, staring at the ceiling—to lure his opponents into mental slip-ups. Leonard stole these tactics from Cross, whom he described as his “ring rabbi.” Fighting the great southpaw Lew Tendler in 1922, Leonard was on the receiving end of a body blow that left him temporarily partially paralyzed. To steal a moment of recovery, he pointed downward to his shorts and shouted, “C’mon, keep ’em up,” accusing Tendler of hitting below the belt, a fabricated charge that enraged Tendler, who proceeded to argue his case. This absurd interlude provided Leonard with enough of a breather to regain his full range of movement.

Tendler, the second greatest lightweight of the era, was also Jewish. He fought Leonard twice: an epic twelve-round no-decision in Jersey City, and then a Leonard win in a fifteen-round decision at Yankee Stadium. Their second fight drew 60,000 fans and a gate of nearly half a million dollars.

Such Jew-on-Jew action was hardly uncommon in this era. Ken Blady’s essential tome The Jewish Boxers Hall of Fame contains an appendix listing the occasions that the world title was captured in an intratribal matchup. Between 1910 and 1940, that happened ten times.

How could this have happened? It’s hard to exaggerate the provincialism of boxing at the time. The sport of the ghetto, it didn’t go much beyond it. It was concentrated in New York City, in the first state to fully legalize it. It was taught in the settlement houses as a low-cost means of giving poor kids some physical vigor and in gymnasiums that sprouted across the city. Any activity in the five boroughs, especially involving the lumpenproletariat, was likely to have a strong Jewish presence. They were, after all, more than 20 percent of the city in 1920, and when the historian of boxing Allen Bodner crunched the numbers he found that Jews constituted about one-third of all professional fighters that year.

Jews didn’t just step into the ring—they flaunted their presence in it. As anxious young men, boxers had changed their names to obscure their ethnicity, but as professionals they had every reason to highlight their Jewishness to attract a base of support. When Benny Leonard wore shorts emblazoned with the Star of David, it was a gesture of solidarity and defiance. When lesser Jewish pugilists like Harry Stone wore a yarmulke as he entered the ring or Jackie “Kid” Berg wore tzitzit, waved them above his head, and then hung them on the ring post, it was marketing. It succeeded: when Berg performed his ritual, he worked the crowd into a state of unmitigated frenzy.

The prospect of Jewish fans was so potentially lucrative that it inspired copycats. Salvador Mandala, born in Sicily, recreated himself as Sammy Mandell. Max Baer wore Magen David shorts just like Leonard; unlike Leonard, he was Catholic.

Such behavior would have been unimaginable without Leonard. Before his career, there were hardly any references to big fights in the Forward or the rest of the Yiddish press, even though there were quite a few Jewish champs who preceded him (Abe Attell, Harry Harris, Al McCoy). Leonard’s deeds forced boxing into the papers. Over the years, he made for a tremendous ambassador to the goyim. When the bishop of Chicago asked him to fight an exhibition on behalf of the Catholic Youth Organization, he happily obliged. His public statements never veered from his image of rectitude. Take, for example, his oft-repeated view of violence: “I don’t want to hurt the other guy. I want to stop him. But that doesn’t mean I am eager to cut him up and murder his self-respect.”

If you searched hard enough, however, you could find detractors. Ernest Hemingway hated his scientific approach, which he considered the stuff of sissies. He lampooned Leonard’s style in The Sun Also Rises with his depiction of the effete Robert Cohn. Henry Ford picked up the same line of argument in The International Jew: “Benny declares that he went into the ring without a scar and that he will leave the ring without a scar,” Ford wrote. “Why? Because he will let no one hit him. He will go a long way to avoid pain.” Perhaps it takes one of history’s greatest anti-Semites to find something weak and effeminate in a man who compiled an unmatched record of pounding Gentiles into the canvas.

Jewish dominance in the sport ended with the upward mobility that followed World War II. Benny Leonard’s late career took the opposite turn. He retired with one million in the bank, which at first he invested prudently—except arguably for the sum he used to bankroll the Marx Brothers’ show On the Mezzanine Floor. (Leonard desperately wanted to join the Marx Brothers onstage—not surprising given the theatricality of his feints.) But the stock market crash wiped him out. It hurt him so badly that he attempted a comeback in 1931, despite being in no physical shape to reenter the ring. Jimmy McLarnin, who made a career of thrashing Jewish boxers, destroyed him in six rounds.

To pay the bills, Leonard became a referee. Now he cut quite a different figure in the ring: his patent leather hair had receded; there was flab around the old frame. He was no longer the main attraction, just a man in a bow tie and shirtsleeves earnestly enforcing the rulebook, a humble coda to the era of Jewish champions. On April 18, 1947, he suffered a heart attack in the old St. Nick’s arena in Manhattan. He bounced off the ropes and then onto his face, the roundhouse his opponents never could deliver.

The Hunt for the Hebrew Ruth

Mose Solomon (1900–1966)

By Robert Weintraub

In June 1923, the New York Yankees announced the signing of a star from Columbia University named Lou Gehrig. Yankees manager Miller Huggins proceeded to congratulate his bosses on their acquisition of a Jewish ballplayer.

Huggins was wrong about Gehrig’s religion, but right that New York City’s three big-league baseball teams were looking for such a gate attraction. The cavernous Yankee Stadium had opened its doors two months earlier in the South Bronx; across the Harlem River in upper Manhattan, the New York Giants, who had kicked Babe Ruth and the Yankees out of the Polo Grounds, were lagging at the turnstiles; Brooklyn, stuck out in the boonies with a bad club, drew far fewer customers than either. In 1920, Jews totaled at least a fifth of New York City’s population, and sports, including Benny Leonard and Lew Tendler’s lightweight championship bout, had proven a reliable draw. “A home-run hitter with [a Jewish] name in New York would be worth a million,” John McGraw, the savvy manager of the Giants, told the New York Tribune. But there didn’t seem to be anyone worthy. McGraw explained the phenomenon bluntly to John E. Wray in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Jews stay out of baseball,” he complained, “because there isn’t enough money in it.”

McGraw was psychotically devoted to winning. He invented dozens of stratagems and innovations that are now commonplace, from the hit-and-run play to managing from the dugout (previously, managers stood on the baselines). He wished to sign black players, which was impossible at the time.

But McGraw was additionally a part owner who took a quarter of the team’s profits. So he turned his vast network of personnel men loose with the instructions to find him anyone both Jewish and passable. Scout Dick Kinsella found a young Jewish slugger who was tearing up the Class C Southwestern League for the Hutchinson (Kansas) Wheat Shockers. He had powered 49 homers and a .421 batting average that season. His name was Mose Solomon (often rendered incorrectly as Moses or Moe).

If it seemed too good to be true, it was. Those stats were inflated, courtesy of the local farm boys he played against. Then there was his glove: it was made out of kugel. Solomon committed 31 errors at first base before the Shockers put him out to pasture (which in baseball is called right field). There, he was, if possible, even worse. Perhaps he would have been a good designated hitter, but his fellow Jew Ron Blomberg became baseball’s first DH in 1973, not 1923.

Still, McGraw was unusually desperate. His bile toward the Yankees, his former tenants, only increased as the pinstripes outdrew the Giants once again and the two squads headed toward their third consecutive World Series meeting (the Giants had won in 1921 and 1922). McGraw’s loathing for all things Yankee would grow so great that during the 1923 Fall Classic, he had his Giants dress at the Polo Grounds, walk over the Macombs Dam Bridge to play, and then walk back afterward, so that they wouldn’t have to spend time in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse.

On September 9, 1923—Erev Rosh Hashanah—McGraw introduced the newest Giant to the press. “We appreciate that many of the fans in New York are Jews, and we have been trying to land a prospect of Jewish blood,” he explained. Solomon was anxious to return to New York, where he was born (although he grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the son of a successful scrap dealer). When the press heard of his slugging exploits, Solomon was instantly given the enduring nickname, “The Rabbi of Swat.”

A headline in the Boston Advertiser read: MCGRAW PAYS 50K FOR ONLY JEWISH BALLPLAYER IN CAPTIVITY. The Sporting News thoughtfully added that Solomon “has verdicts in several fistfights to his credit, having found it necessary to fight his way through because of reflections on his ancestry.” Fifty thousand dollars would have been a lot for a better player; McGraw had to outbid other clubs, which had caught wind of McGraw’s interest in Solomon and figured that if the brilliant manager wanted him, he must be worth something.

A good-looking, muscular twenty-two-year-old, Solomon instantly became the most talked-about player in town. Invitations to dinners and High Holiday functions deluged him. He was set up with the daughters of prominent Jews. He was often asked merely to walk around Jewish neighborhoods, shaking hands and giving batting tips to the kids. In that dizzying September, Solomon was out almost every night, meeting his responsibility to the community.

The bursting calendar prevented Solomon from vitally needed practice, and the premature iconic status turned him into a cynic. He wore the Giants uniform every game, but McGraw didn’t dare play him, especially in the pennant race crucible. (The Giants led the National League by a small margin throughout September.) Attendance shot up—McGraw was right about that—but the Jews in the crowd hooted the manager for not playing their boy.

Solomon finally saw some action on September 30, 1923, New York’s final regular-season home game—the Giants having wrapped up their third straight pennant by then. “As that appropriate line, ‘Solomon playing right field for New Yawk,’ wafted over the Polo Grounds from the announcer’s megaphone,” reported the Tribune, “the voices waxed jubilant.” Mose looked overmatched at the start, striking out on three straight pitches and then popping out weakly. But when he came up in the tenth inning of a 3–3 game, he lashed a double over third, knocking in the winning run. Now the Jews in the crowd went crazy. The “Hebraic Hitter” had done it!

But Mose didn’t see the field again until the season finale at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. True to form, he hit a pair of singles and made “an inglorious muff” in right. The Brooklyn crowd cheered loudest for Solomon.

McGraw wanted to keep Mose on his roster for the third straight Giants-Yankees World Series. When Solomon found out he wouldn’t be paid to sit and watch, he went home to Columbus and played what passed in those days for pro football. McGraw, outraged by this act of rebellion, sold Solomon to minor-league Toledo. After twenty-eight days and eight at-bats, Solomon’s time in Major League Baseball was complete.

For his part, McGraw continued to search for that elusive Jewish Babe Ruth. In 1928, he worked out a strapping kid from Monroe High in the Bronx. Here is McGraw’s report: “Henry (better known as Hank) Greenberg has been scouted by the Giants, and will never make a ballplayer.” Oops.


Whitey Bimstein (1896–1969)

By Douglas Century

July 16, 1947—Chicago Stadium was packed and sweltering for the middleweight championship fight between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano. Graziano was getting pummeled, the area around his left eye badly cut, right eye swollen completely shut, and the referee wanted to stop the fight. After the brutal third round, Graziano stumbled back to his corner, barking, “Get my eye open!” In sixty seconds, Whitey Bimstein proved his reputation as one of the greatest cutmen in boxing history.

Bimstein took out a silver dollar and pressed it against the injured eye, breaking the skin, and managed to reduce the pressure. Most fight fans had never seen anything like it before. “That was highly unusual—taking a coin to lance a hematoma,” boxing historian Mike Silver told me. “You’re performing surgery in a corner. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you take a tremendous chance of damaging the guy’s eye.” Graziano regained enough vision to continue the fight and knock out Zale in the sixth. The moment became entrenched in boxing lore, cannibalized by Rocky, in which Mickey Goldmill, Burgess Meredith’s gruff-voiced trainer with a heart of gold—a character loosely inspired by Bimstein—slices open a shut eye. Bimstein kept the silver dollar.

He had started out, like so many scrappy Lower East Side kids born at the turn of the century, as one of the fighters. In the years before World War I, he chalked up seventy or so pro bouts. “I fought anybody who weighed up to 125 pounds and ran like hell from those who weighed more,” he told Boxing Illustrated. According to the New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling, young Bimstein had too much passion for frankfurters and sweets, and did his roadwork at a walk so he could simultaneously hawk tickets to his own contests. (Liebling turned Bimstein into one of boxing’s most memorable and quoted characters, and went so far as to use a Bimsteinism as the epigram for his anthology Back Where I Came From: “A New Yorker doesn’t have to discover New York. He knows it’s there all the time.”)

After a stint in the U.S. Navy, where he gave boxing instruction, he transitioned from fighter to cornerman, pointing out that training others was less physically taxing and more remunerative. In a career spanning from the 1920s through the 1960s, Bimstein trained or seconded dozens of world champions. “Name the top fighters of any class, and it’s a dollar to a punch in the kisser that I’ve worked over them some time or another,” he said. These included the cream of Jewish prizefighters: Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, Lou Ambers, Ruby Goldstein, Kid Kaplan, “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom. His home base was Stillman’s Gym, immortalized by Liebling as “The University of Eighth Avenue.”

This spot, the Jewish cradle of modern boxing, had its origins in an exodus. The premier fight gym in New York had been Grupp’s in Harlem, but after Dutch-American owner Billy Grupp launched a drunken tirade blaming the Jews for World War I, a contingent of Jewish fighters, led by the great Leonard, stormed out. Virtually from scratch, they built the original Stillman’s nearby on 125th Street, then moved downtown to Eighth Avenue at 54th Street, a few blocks from the old Madison Square Garden.


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Meet the Author

Franklin Foer is editor of the New Republic and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at the New Republic. Previously, he was a staff writer at Tablet magazine; the blog he edited there, The Scroll, won the 2011 National Magazine Award.

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Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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diamonddon More than 1 year ago
A quick and delightful read. Well written pieces by top notch and interesting writers, many with a new perspective. I.e. Bobby Fischer by Jonathan Safran Foer, Jane Leavy on Sandy Koufax coming to her daughter's bat mitzvah, Olympians Kerry Strug, Mark Spitz, and, by Deborah Lipstadt: one of the Munich wrestlers.