Jews and black baseball

Rebecca Alpert's writing style may not appeal to average fan.

baseball cartoon 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
baseball cartoon 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Baseball is a hardy perennial subject for publishers.
Those interested in Jews in baseball or African Americans in baseball have a wide range of books to choose from. But Rebecca Albert’s "Out of Left Field" is the first attempt to combine both groups in one study.
Albert, a professor of Jewish and Women’s Studies at Temple University, looks at the social and economic forces in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s that brought together blacks and Jews who owned or promoted blacks-only baseball teams. Such teams dated back to the late 1880s. Until 1953, when black baseball dissolved after integration, there were 80 teams involved in 11 different leagues, and another 27 that played independently.
They played mostly in cities along the eastern seaboard, but also in the Midwest.
Albert focuses on seven Jews who were involved in black baseball, and treats them as representative of the larger number involved. The most exotic was H.Z.Plummer a black Israelite, who managed and promoted a black amateur baseball team of observant Jews sponsored by the Beth El Temple of Belleville, Virginia, in the 1920s. It suffered double discrimination.
It was rejected by Jews because of the players’ skin color, and disdained by African Americans because of their religion.
The other six Jews were businessmen who viewed black baseball as a money making enterprise. However, unlike its white counterpart, black baseball was never economically solid. Players were sometimes exploited and often underpaid.
Given the harsh economic circumstances of the period, black and Jewish owners treated their players much the same. Nevertheless, it was not uncommon for Jewish owners and promoters to be “held up to a higher standard” in the black press. One of these Jews was Syd Gottleib, a promoter of black baseball in Pennsylvania, whom the Pittsburgh Courier often vilified primarily because of his religion.
Probably the most influential Jewish entrepreneur was Abe Sapperstein, the man synonymous with basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. He was the all-American huckster who saw baseball for what it was: entertainment for the masses. He took vaudeville and minstrelsy out of the music halls and introduced them to baseball in the form of “clowning,” sometimes with incredibly bad taste. One touring team he promoted were the Ethiopian Clowns, who played in African-looking outfits and white facial make up.
But he also had an eye for talent, using the likes of the pitcher Satchel Paige to boost attendance. He was influential enough in the white baseball establishment to organize games between white and black teams (the black teams won more often than not).
He even once packed 30,000 fans into Yankee Stadium to watch a black baseball game when Joe DiMaggio and company were out of town.
Albert notes that these Jewish entrepreneurs were not infrequently the subject of anti-Semitic slurs for their business practices, but stresses that they provided employment to athletes who otherwise would have been unemployed or working in menial jobs. Most importantly, they showcased many black baseball players to white fans and to major league scouts and managers, who recognized that some of these black athletes were big league material.
The author also highlights the role three Jewish sports writers, inspired by a sense of social justice, played in campaigning for racially integrated baseball. They urged this in their articles for the Daily Worker, a communist paper in New York City with a limited readership, and through letters and personal approaches to the baseball bigwigs.
Albert shows that the Jewish entrepreneurs and sports writers in baseball played no small part in providing the exposure and legitimacy for blacks to be accepted into the mainstream of white baseball in America. Unfortunately, however, the book does not say how many black players came to the major leagues via Jewish-owned teams.
Baseball is a sport given to legends and myths. Albert, unfortunately, creates some of her own in a writing style which may not appeal to the average baseball fan. She tells the story of an accidental playing field collision in May 1947 between Hank Greenberg, the Jewish home-run king, and the pioneering major league black player Jackie Robinson. Greenberg apologized and said, “Stick in there. You’re doing fine. Keep your chin up.”
Later, he said that he “identified with Jackie Robinson” because he had faced bigotry of his own.
Albert overloads the significance of this incident to exaggerated hyperbole. “This dual role of the Jew, as one who identified with oppression of blacks based on his own experience and who saw an opportunity to counter this oppression became paradigmatic of the way Jews recounted their role in the Robinson story. Although the reality was much more complex, the memory of this one encounter between Robinson and Greenberg remained central to the myth of black-Jewish relationships as seen through the lens of baseball.”