An unlikely hit

Jews constituted the moving force and were the entrepreneurs behind 'Black Baseball.'

Jackie Robinson: the first player to break the color line. (photo credit: US Library of Congress)
Jackie Robinson: the first player to break the color line.
(photo credit: US Library of Congress)
The air at the ballpark that day was crackling with excitement. It was 60 years ago that a friend hustled me out to see a game in the “Negro League” between the the hometown Atlanta Black Crackers and the visiting Birmingham Black Barons. That day, the few whites sat in the bleachers, while the blacks, the majority, filled the grandstand.
What I did not realize then, but know now after reading Prof. Rebecca Alpert’s book, is that American Jews constituted the moving force and the entrepreneurs behind “Black Baseball.”
Alpert has dug deeply to uncover the facts through interviews, newspapers, financial records, scrapbooks and sports archival sources. She lays out some stark contrasts between white and black baseball. From 1920 until the 1960s, there were two big leagues in American baseball, composed of eight teams each; 80 teams were involved in 11 Negro Leagues in black baseball (1887-1953), in addition to the 27 teams that played independently. If you had the money, you could buy a major league club for $400,000 in the 1920s. One of the best clubs in all Negro baseball during that period, the Hilldale Daisies in the Eastern Colored League, cost only $10,000.
Ed Gottlieb and Syd Pollock were two of the earliest Jews involved in black baseball. From the 1920s, they and many other American Jews with similar interests set the tone. The author notes “how a small group of Jews of different class and national backgrounds negotiated the process of becoming American in the first half of the twentieth century through their involvement in the segregated world of black baseball.”
Not only do we learn about the entrepreneurs, we also are enlightened about the Black Jews who were stars in the Negro Leagues, even though none of them ever made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Plummer brothers, for instance – H.Z., Judah and John – of Virginia’s Belleville Grays were outstanding baseball players and committed black Jews.
Both blacks and Jews should be appreciative of the pioneering work Alpert has done. Among the stories she relates is that of Satchel Paige, one of the greatest black pitchers ever, who was developed by one of the Jewish entrepreneurs and finally made it to the major leagues through white Christian owner Bill Veeck. She also tells the story of Josh Gibson, who was one of baseball’s best players.
Abe Saperstein, who transformed the Harlem Globetrotters into a notable independent basketball franchise, also had a Globetrotters baseball team. The outstanding and entertaining basketball center Goose Tatum was also an amazing baseball player.
The role of The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party, in forcing the integration of baseball is well documented in Alpert’s book. Nat Low and Bill Mardo, the sports editors of the paper in the 1940s, never gave up the call to break the color line in America’s lily-white sport. When Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and finally came up to the major leagues, it was the great Jewish athlete Hank Greenberg who made Robinson feel at home while anti-black venom was still spewing from the National League players. The baseball card created of these two, reproduced here, is most meaningful.
My own education about Robinson came in a different manner. In the spring of 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers came through Atlanta on their way north from spring training. There were a few exhibition games with our Crackers, and the star, of course, was Robinson.
I went to one of the games, lucky to have bought a ticket in advance. Almost 15,000 people turned out from Atlanta’s black community, and were thrilled as Robinson starred with two home runs, a double, a single and four stolen bases.
Right before the game, after batting practice, he signed a few autographs on balls and score cards. I had neither.
I put my hand forward, and he shook it. I will always remember the strength of that grip – unforgettable.