Jews and Baseball: A Reflection on a Longtime Love Affair

Walking down the street in my neighborhood a few years ago I was warmly greeted by the president of my synagogue, who cheerily introduced me to her new male companion. “You’ll like Rebecca,” she said. “She’s the one who gives those baseball sermons on Yom Kippur I was telling you about.”

The man smiled knowingly. I smiled as best I could, trying to suppress my desire to say what was on my mind, which was something like, “Goddamit, I gave a sermon about baseball exactly once, three years ago…”

And it wasn’t really about baseball, but about how the golden age of the black-Jewish relationship existed mostly in the mind of (white) Jews. I wanted to go on about how we as Jews saw Jackie Robinson as our icon, the symbol of our hope that bigotry was coming to an end in America. I wanted to tell him about the really complicated relationships between blacks and Jews that existed before the Robinson era, where Jews were mostly known to blacks as landlords, businesspeople who took advantage of them (especially in the entertainment industry), and families who hired them to do their domestic labor.

But my good instinct not to be rude or preachy overpowered my selfish need to be understood as a serious thinker, and I let it pass.

This was not an isolated incident, and I have exacerbated my own problem by finally publishing the book I’ve been working on for the past ten years, Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball. Along the way, I have also taught a “Jews and Sports” course, written several academic articles on Jewish baseball themes, and appeared as a talking head in a documentary, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story

I have even become a serious baseball fan again, having lapsed since my childhood. Although I never stopped following the game after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, for a long period of time I couldn’t figure out who my team really was. It was a geographic identity crisis as much as anything else; one must root for the home team, and I just wasn’t sure where home was. I rooted for New York and former New York teams—the Dodgers, Giants, Yankees, and Mets (my mother’s team)—all still had my affection, and to some extent still do. But I’ve lived in Philadelphia for forty years now, and have finally fully adopted the Phillies. It’s really hard to live in this city and not be in love with the Phillies in this era; they resemble the multiracial team of my childhood, only more so. And I am proud of what they have brought to this city in terms of their good works and charitable donations to schools and local environmental programs. I was delighted to learn that they have become the seventh team in Major League Baseball to respond to fan requests that they make a video for the “It Gets Better Campaign” in response to anti-gay bullying.

And they are fun to watch.

Although I do believe that my work uses baseball to teach about Jewish history and culture rather than the other way around, it’s not so easy to convince people—some Jews really see baseball as part of our religious tradition.

In my research I found sermons about how Cal Ripken’s work ethic/Joe DiMaggio’s perseverance/Lou Gehrig’s courage all represent Jewish values—not to mention the adoration lavished on Jewish stars Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax simply for their refusal to play ball on Yom Kippur.

One scholar wrote about how the diamond shape of the field is an example of the kabbalistic representation of the sephirot, the emanations of God. One congregant in Chicago for many years gave a sermon every Yom Kippur on the moral lessons his fellow worshippers could glean from the sad fate of the Cubs. You can find a wonderful debate between two young rabbis on whether the Yankees or the Red Sox are “more Jewish” on the internet, as well as the response of another rabbi (with which I would concur) that the Dodgers have more credibility on that score. Avoiding puns is the hardest part of writing about baseball, since sports expressions, like “score” permeate the language. More than one Jewish baseball book has “matzoh balls” in its title!

In truth, there is nothing very Jewish about the Phillies. The last two “Jewish” Phillies were a catcher in the 1980s, Mike Lieberthal, and the current General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. I put Jewish in quotes because although each has one Jewish parent (Lieberthal his father and Amaro his mother), neither is interested in claiming a Jewish identity, and both publicly proclaim that they don’t identify with the community despite their presence on the ubiquitous lists of Jews in baseball. (Yes, making lists of Jewish players is another Jewish passion.) Although you can point to some Jewish players on the old Athletics and Phillies teams, only one stands out for me. His name was Morrie Arnovitch, a religious Jew who played outfield in the 1930s, made it to an all-star game, and spoke out against segregated baseball.

To me the most important Jewish Philadelphian in baseball is Eddie Gottlieb, also a committed Jew, and a man I write about extensively in my book. He was the owner (with a black entrepreneur, Ed Bolden) of the Philadelphia Negro League team, the Stars. Gottlieb was also a major force in the Negro National League, and the only white man to serve as a league officer. But since he’s best known as the founder of the Jewish basketball team, the SPHAs, and owner and schedule maker for the NBA, baseball is always an afterthought when Gottlieb’s name comes up.

Despite the thin Jewish baseball connections in Philadelphia, and my own skepticism about the whole enterprise, I will attend Jewish Heritage Night at Citizens Bank Park later this summer. There I will eat a kosher hot dog, watch the fabulous mascot, the Phillie Fanatic, dance the hora and be carried around on a chair with his matching green furry bride holding handkerchiefs, listen to some local cantor and synagogue choir sing the Star Spangled Banner, and try to accept the fact that for me Judaism and baseball now belong together.

See here for RD’s interview with Dr. Alpert on sports, social justice, and the historical background of her newest book. –Eds.