Jewish jocks no joking matter

Sandy Koufax 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Sandy Koufax 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
In one of the opening scenes of the film “Airplane,” an elderly woman asks a flight attendant for some light reading. In turn, the stewardess hands her a leaflet of “famous Jewish sports legends. While the number of Jewish athletes in professional sports is relatively small in comparison to the number of total athletes, Jewish athletes have accomplished a lot over the history of sports.
In 1983 I wrote a book called “Great Jews in Sports,” 100 profiles of the greatest Jewish sports figures of all time, a book, thanks to its timing, that has become one of the most popular Bar Mitzvah gifts for American Jewish youngsters. Back in those days few authors or reporters took an interest in creating lists, of Jewish athletes or anyone else. Aware of the standard joke from the 1980 hit movie insinuating that the smallest book in the world was about Jewish athletes, these scribes thought the subject too trivial to memorialize. So did I. Indeed, when the editor-in-chief of Jonathan David Publishers, Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch, proposed to me that I write a book about Jewish athletes, I grimaced. After all, I had already written two biographies – one in 1977 on Yitzhak Rabin, the other in 1979 on Golda Meir – and so I boastfully thought of myself as a “serious biographer.”
Chronicling the lives and careers of Jewish sports figures seemed as if I had been demoted from major league baseball to the minor leagues.
Rabbi Kolatch assured me that “I would make a lot of money from the sports book.” Figuring that was not a bad thing, I grudgingly agreed. It turned out that the rabbi/businessman had sharper instincts than I had: The book became the most popular tome on Jewish athletes. “Great Jews in Sports,” is now, I say with boundless pride, in its 30th year. During those 30 years I have written numerous books on American business figures (only Wall Street hedge fund guru George Soros and Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz were Jewish, if you are wondering). But no book of mine has resonated more with my readers than “Great Jews in Sports.” From the fairly large sampling of those who have bought the book, it seems to me that thousands of Jews under 50 years of age either know the book, have received it as a gift, or given it as a gift, and may still even have a copy in his or her library.
My quick – and erroneous – dismissal of Jewish athletes as a topic worthy of a book came, in part, from my grandfather Sam Israel, who, every time Sid Gordon (the great National Leaguer of the 1940s and 1950s) came to bat, reminded me that “Gordon is Jewish.” Eventually, I admit, I grew tired of him making the Gordon-Jewish connection. I dared not ask my grandfather how Sid’s religious heritage could have been related to his hitting a home run. But I no longer dismiss the topic of Jewish sports figures as insignificant.
It had been the conventional wisdom that few Jews had noteworthy sports careers and certainly Judaism had traditionally eschewed a sports culture. Sports in antiquity were even linked to pagan worship. Added to that, Jewish parents in the modern era encouraged their children to become lawyers, doctors, teachers, and engineers. Yet, as we see in the pages of “Great Jews in Sports,” it has been the “rebels” against the traditional Jewish pursuits that have achieved so much in sports.
And slowly I began to recognize these Jewish achievers. The fact is that Jews have been making one achievement after another in the sports world dating back to the nineteenth century. Yet their achievements have not been given the acclaim they deserve. Apart from one encyclopedia of Jews in sports published in the 1960s, no author had tackled the subject – until my publisher proposed the idea to me in the early 1980s.
Dismissing the encyclopedic approach as not all that entertaining and with each profile too brief to fully appreciate the full story of that Jewish sports star, I decided to select the 100 greatest Jewish sports figures and write their full stories in 1,200-word profiles, making sure to highlight their attitude toward Judaism.
I also wanted to devote a special section to the Maccabiah Games.
After all, these quadrennial Games, which are being held again in July 2013 in Israel, are the ultimate tribute to the Jewish athlete. They are the occasion when Jewish athletes come together and compete against one another with the ultimate goal to cast a spotlight on their achievements as Jews involved in sport. And so in “Great Jews in Sports” I devote a few pages to each of the Games and then refer to those Jewish athletes who did especially well at the Maccabiah Games. Among those I mention are: Israeli tennis star Shlomo Glickstein, Israeli swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg and Israeli track star Esther Roth.
The task of choosing the 100 greatest Jewish sports figures would seemingly not be so momentous a challenge. How hard could it be to come up with 100 Jewish sports stars to write about? Yet, as I began 90 my research into the subject, I quickly learned that the “Airplane” joke was wrong, that there were in fact so many Jewish athletes throughout history that it would prove hard to narrow the field down to 100.
I wanted to be very careful not only about who merited being called “great” but also who qualified as Jewish. I decided to apply the conventional definition of “Who is a Jew,” i.e., anyone who has a Jewish mother. However, I was so taken with a wonderful tennis player named Tom Okker that I chose not to adhere to that definition in his case; but, because his father was Jewish (his mother was not). I included him. Over the years I have come to regret his inclusion. I should not have made an exception but rather stuck with the definition I had used in every other case.
Much less of a challenge was coming up with 30 or 40 Jewish athletes (out of the 100 total) who, by dint of their fabulous success in their careers, just had to qualify: Sandy Koufax, the brilliant lefthander for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a no-brainer, so was Mark Spitz, the Olympic swimmer who won a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Boxing had its Jewish champions who could not be ignored – Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, and Maxie Rosenbloom. Gymnastics had Agnes Keleti. The NBA’s Dolph Schayes was a shoe-in. So was Olympic track star Harold Abrahams, whose story was immortalized in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Nor could one avoid including Hank Greenberg, the famous baseball power-hitter of the 1930s and 1940s; or Sid Luckman, the amazing pro football quarterback of the 1940s.
I am sometimes asked who was my favorite Jewish athlete or who was the greatest Jewish athlete.
Naming my favorite Jewish athlete has been easy – it was Sidney Franklin, a rather obscure personality whose claim to fame was being the first Jewish bullfighter.
Needless to say, no Jewish mother would have wanted her son to grow up to be a bullfighter. But Mrs.
Franklin had no choice. My choice of the greatest Jewish athlete of all time was much more difficult to make. For one thing, how does one compare a great baseball player like Sandy Koufax to a great track star like Harold Abraham? How could one compare a swimmer like Mark Spitz with a boxer like Benny Leonard? I answer the question this way: There’s no real way to single out one person as the greatest Jewish athlete since it’s just impossible to compare a baseball player with a tennis player and so on; but I can certainly say whom I think is the most popular Jewish sports figure and that is without a doubt, Sandy Koufax.
Whenever people asked me who would be included in “Great Jews in Sports,” the first name they thought of was Sandy Koufax. I had my own unfortunate, but amusing interaction with Koufax. Because of his great popularity I asked him to write the Introduction to “Great Jews in Sports.” He did answer me, but not warmly. After declining to write the Introduction, he demanded that I not include a profile of him in the book. Because the New York media had verbally abused him so badly to the point where some had accused sportswriters of being anti-Semitic, Koufax hoped that my book would simply disappear. He obviously grouped me together with the New York sports media, despite my being Jewish and despite my planning to glorify Koufax and the other 99 Jewish sports figures. Without Koufax to write the Introduction, I turned, as noted earlier, to Red Auerbach who graciously agreed to write the Introduction.
I find my writing “Great Jews in Sports,” and its broad success one of the great ironies of my life. I was not raised in a particularly observant Jewish home nor did I idolize achievers in any walk of life simply because they were Jewish. But, as it turned out, reviewers of “Great Jews in Sports” have pointed out that the book has inspired Jewish youngsters to become more Jewish, identifying so closely with those sports figure in “Great Jews in Sports.” I am pretty sure that was not my goal in writing the book but if others have found my writing to be an inspiration for Jewish kids to become more Jewish, I am obviously pleased.
Why did “Great Jews in Sports” become such a success? Several reasons come to mind. One, at the time it was published in 1983, it grabbed 100 percent of the market share for a book of that kind. No one else was writing on this subject. Two, by the early 1980s it had become much easier to show pride in Judaism in public; unlike the 1950s and 1960s when Western Jews still were reluctant to show such pride publicly.
Three, the book was a per- fect Bar Mitzvah gift ($30 or so). And four, people love lists and “Great Jews in Sports,” provided one of the first lists of Jews.
Fourth: every year or two I have worked with Jonathan David Publishers to update the book and thereby keep it current.
And fifth: Readers took the book and the list of the 100 greatest sports figures seriously, sometimes writing to me and insisting that I put this Jewish athlete or that one in the next updated version. Predictably, most of their candidates turned out to be relatives or friends. My wife Elinor and I have gone on to replicate “Great Jews in Sports” with other such “Great” books: “Great Jewish Women” (1994), “Great Jewish Men” (1996) and “Great Moments in Jewish History” (1998).
These books have resonated widely with Jews as has the sports book, “Great Jewish Women” proving an especially big success.
But I like to think that the most important reason for the book’s success is that, deep down, we Jews were sick and tired of hearing that “Airplane” joke for, through “Great Jews in Sports,” we now had proof that there more great Jews in sports than we knew what to do with, and that just maybe my grandfather had caught on to something when he made sure to point out when a great athlete was Jewish.