Story of the Dreyfus boys, how one was convicted and the other exonerated

A shared last name, both facing serious accusations, from different backgrounds on different continents. A look into how a difference in background affects the outcome of their life stories.

Alfred Dreyfus (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Alfred Dreyfus
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
We present to you the stories of two men named Dreyfus(s) – Alfred and Barney. Though biologically unrelated both were born of Jewish families, Alfred in Alsace and Barney in Baden, within the same historical era (1859 and 1865, respectively).
Alfred remained in France, where his deep patriotic love of his country of birth and its army led him to a career as a military officer with a special knowledge of artillery. Barney emigrated to the United States, became a very successful businessman and then subsequently the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball franchise.
Although contemporaries, the life trajectories of these two famous Dreyfus(s) boys turned out dramatically differently and serve well as a paradigmatic illustration of the contrast between European and American cultures in terms of dealing with ethnic, religious and class differences, particularly within the context of their respective experiences as Jews facing serious accusations in non-Jewish societies.
Alfred was convicted while Barney was exonerated.
Alfred Dreyfus in Europe
The story of Alfred Dreyfus is well known to students of history and is the subject of a recent movie by Roman Polanski. He was born to a Jewish family in Mulhouse in Alsace, France, on October 9, 1859. He moved to Paris in 1877 to enroll in the École Polytechnique military school, an elite military institution, graduating three years later, and then attended the artillery school in Fontainebleau to receive more specialized training as an artillery officer. In 1892, Dreyfus left the war college and moved to a new post at the French Army’s General Staff headquarters, where he was the only Jewish officer.
In 1894, Alfred was arrested and falsely accused, by Armand Mercier du Paty de Clam, of communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy. He was not defended by his army companions. The day before the ceremony a tailor came to Dreyfus’s cell and removed all the buttons and stripes from his tunic and trousers and sewed them back on with a single stitch. His sword was filed nearly in half to make it easy to break with a single gesture. On the morning of January 5, 1895, thousands of troops were massed in the cobblestone courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, just across from the Eiffel Tower, to watch Dreyfus’s humiliation. An agitated, noisy mob waited outside.
Dreyfus was led into the center of the courtyard, where he stood at attention. An adjutant of the Republican Guard walked up to him and, with a quick and sharp movement, broke Dreyfus’s sword across his knee and cut the buttons and military insignia off of Dreyfus’s uniform. A general pronounced: “Dreyfus, you are unworthy to bear arms. In the name of the people of France we degrade you.”
Through all this, Dreyfus shouted, “I am innocent. I swear I am innocent. Vive la France! You have degraded an innocent man,” but his words were drowned out by the howl of the mob, screaming “Death to the Jews,” in a scene evocative of pogroms and auto-da-fés. Dreyfus was found guilty and imprisoned on Devil’s Island, a malaria-infested rocky piece of land off of the coast of South America.
Although Dreyfus was subsequently pardoned, his trial pushed a previously assimilated Viennese journalist named Theodor Herzl to despair of the possibility of any true Jewish acceptance in Europe and to write Judenstaat (The Jewish State), and to become a fierce advocate, perhaps the father, of political Zionism.

Barney Dreyfuss in the US
Barney Dreyfuss (Credit: Wikkimedia commons)Barney Dreyfuss (Credit: Wikkimedia commons)
Bernhard “Barney” Dreyfuss was born in Freiburg, Germany, on February 23, 1865, the son of Samuel Dreyfuss, a merchant, and Fanny Goldsmith Dreyfuss. Samuel Dreyfuss was a naturalized American citizen who had established a dry goods business in Kentucky during the 1850s but returned to Freiberg in 1861 because of ill health. Barney’s father advised him to emigrate to the United States and in 1881 he settled in Paducah, Kentucky. There he worked as a bookkeeper in the I. W. Harper Company, a bourbon distillery owned by his distant cousins Isaac and Bernhard Bernheim. Working long days and studying English at night, Dreyfuss experienced headaches and indigestion and was encouraged by a physician to get some exercise. He began to play the American game of baseball and especially liked playing second base, a position in the infield. Between 1884 and 1888, Barney Dreyfuss led a semi-pro baseball team in Paducah. Barney moved to Louisville along with the family distillery and there married Florence Wolf.
In 1898, Dreyfuss sold his interest in the Bernheim Distillery and bought the National League team Louisville Colonels. Barney was fascinated with both the game and business of baseball, initially in the organization of amateur teams composed of his distillery workers. He later purchased an interest of the Colonels, of the American Association, which went on to defeat the Brooklyn Bridegrooms for the pennant in 1890. In 1899, Dreyfuss acquired full ownership of the Colonels and half-interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates. When the Colonels were dropped from the National League of Organized Baseball in 1900, Dreyfuss shuffled the best players from the Colonels to the Pirates, creating a powerhouse team that won National League baseball pennants in 1901, 1902 and 1903.
There were occasional cartoons portraying Barney Dreyfuss as a stereotyped rapacious Jewish businessman possessively clutching his ballplayer, however, such cartoons were rare and did not block Dreyfuss’s life or career. In fact, Dreyfuss became a leading owner in negotiating with Ban Johnson, a Cincinnati journalist who headed the movement to create the new American Baseball League.
Dreyfuss’s 1901 team was one of his finest, handily winning the championship of their league. As this season came to an end, Dreyfuss proposed to Henry Killilea, president of the American League’s pennant-winning Boston Pilgrims, that their teams play a best-of-nine-game series. Dreyfuss thought that such a series would reduce tensions between the National and American leagues and generate fan interest, as well as make money. This was the first American “World Series.”
In 1919, after the Chicago White Sox scandal – in which players accepted bribes to lose the World Series – Dreyfuss played a central role in abolishing the largely ineffectual National Commission and establishing the one-man Commissioner of Baseball system. In January 1921, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis accepted the position, which he would hold for 25 years.
On September 3, 1921, Henry Ford, an unabashed antisemite, attacked Barney – as well as Chicago Cubs Jewish co-owner Albert Lasker – in an article titled “Jewish Gamblers Corrupt American Baseball,” arguing that Jews were plotting against the success of baseball and therefore against the success of America.
The following week, Ford published an article titled the “Jewish Degradation of American Baseball” in which he accused Dreyfuss, Lasker and a Jewish lawyer named Alfred S. Austrian of instituting a dictatorial governing structure of baseball under Landis, whom Ford suggested was duped into an arrangement that would allow the Jewish baseball executives to devalue the game as a pure American sport and transform it into a “mob center, hangout of disorderly and criminal classes.”
Organized baseball did not support Ford’s outburst of hate against Barney, who simply ignored Ford’s comments and went on with his life – so unlike what happened to Alfred in France.
In 1921, Dreyfuss and several owners managed to abolish the spitball and other pitches that relied on external substances. Dreyfuss that year also allowed fans to keep foul balls and arranged for the broadcasting of Pirates games. In 1925, Dreyfuss put together another team that won the World Series.
One of his star players, Hazen “Kiki” Cuyler, entered the Pirates’s office on a payday during the season and discovered that Dreyfuss had fined him $50 for failing to slide into second base. Cuyler turned on Dreyfuss’s son, Samuel, who was alone with him in the office, and called him, “vile names which reflected on his religion.”
When Barney Dreyfuss heard of this, he ordered his manager to bench Cuyler until he apologized. Cuyler refused and instead continued his abusive language. He did not play another game for the remainder of the season, including the World Series against the “Murderers’ Row” New York Yankees. The Pirates were swept in four games
Dreyfuss had a good eye for baseball talent, scouting and recruiting 12 members of the Hall of Fame and winning six pennants and two World Series titles. Forbes Field, which he built, was the first double-decker stadium.
Dreyfuss maintained his connection with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, belonging to Rodef Shalom Congregation and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.
At the time of his death, Barney Dreyfuss was vice president of baseball’s National League. Landis, the league’s commissioner, and presidents of both the National and American Leagues came to his funeral, as did executives from competing teams, and great players such as Honus Wagner and Deacon Phillippe served as honorary pallbearers.
A small stone monument to Dreyfuss was subsequently installed in straightaway center field at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. When the Pirates moved to Three Rivers Stadium in 1970, the monument was brought along and displayed in the stadium concourse. The monument has since been moved to the Pirates’ current field, PNC Park. Barney Dreyfuss was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 2008.

Vive la différence
Barney Dreyfuss, in many ways, fulfilled the proverbial American dream. He was an immigrant who helped centralize and professionalize Major League Baseball, adding diplomacy and good business sense to his love of the game. He died at the age of 66 in 1932 in New York City.
Alfred Dreyfus died at 75 in 1935 in Paris, 19 years after his official exoneration. Tellingly, Alfred’s granddaughter, Madelaine, was deported by de Clam’s son, the commissioner of Jewish Affairs for the Vichy Government, in 1944 to Auschwitz, where she perished.
France was a highly fragmented society. The French army was serious business and had little if any tolerance for idiosyncrasies or differences. Baseball has prided itself on being a “leisure activity” and has symbolized the very openness of American society, enabling the successful integration of Jews into American life that was not possible in socially rigid Europe. The French army can be seen as a symbol of this closedness.
The comparative lives of Alfred Dreyfus and Barney Dreyfuss seem illustrative of the very difference between Europe and the US, and may provide an answer as to why Jews have successfully integrated into American society, at least up to this point, without losing their identity. In Europe, this was not possible.