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  • Counter-Ethnicity and the Jewish-Black Baseball Novel:The Cases of Jerome Charyn and Jay Neugeboren

I

First, a brief look at sociology; second, a glance at the history of a genre; third, a view of two novels that twist the genre into a postmodern, parodic, antirealist form.

Jews play major league baseball? Well, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. And, recently, Mike Epstein, Ken Holtzman, Steve Stone. But surely Jewish boys were never supposed to become ballplayers: a worried father writes to Abraham Cahan's Forward in the early years of the century, "What is the point of this crazy game? It makes sense to teach a child dominoes or chess. . . . The children can get crippled. . . . I want my boy to grow up to be a mensch, not a wild American runner." And yet. One Lipman E. Pike in 1866 earned the title of the first American professional ballplayer. One of us. Before Koufax there were many pitchers—Scissors Mayer, Barney Pilty ("the Yiddishe Curver"), Harry Feldman, Saul Rogovin, Larry Sherry, Ed Reulbach (who won 181 games for the Cubs and Dodgers). Catchers: the Cubs' great Johnny Kling, the [End Page 49] Giants' Harry Danning; infielders: Buddy Myer, an American League batting champion in 1935, Al Rosen, Sid Gordan; outfielders galore: Benny Kauff who played for all three New York teams and had a lifetime average of .310, Amos Strunk, Cal Abrams, Goody Rosen, Morrie Aronovich.

In the early years of the game there was probably a higher percentage of Jews among major leaguers than among the population as a whole. Many changed their names or denied their ethnicity to protect their parents. For example, there were seven Cohens who played major league ball, but only one, Andy, retained his name, while the others became Kane, Bohne, Cooney. (Cohen hit a key double in his first game, leading one newspaper to publish this version of "Casey at the Bat": "And from the stands and bleachers the cry of Oy, Oy rose, / And up came Andy Cohen half a foot behind his nose . . . / And it wasn't any soft spot for a little Jewish boy." But little Andy socks the ball upon the nose; "Soon they took him home in triumph amidst the blare of auto honks. / There may be no joy in Mudville, but there's plenty in the Bronx.") Others tried to have it both ways, to satisfy a first generation Jewish family's need for professional or intellectual achievement and, simultaneously, to acculturate oneself into the American sports landscape. Thus, Al Shacht (3 years in the majors, 14-10 pitching record) fought his mother's desire to see him become a concert pianist and yet mocked the game he loved by becoming a baseball comedian, "the clown prince of baseball"—keeping one foot, as it were, on the more acceptable base of theater. Thus, Moe Berg (15 years in the majors as a catcher, .243 batting average) stayed with baseball despite his Princeton-Columbia-Sorbonne education, his many degrees in law and linguistics, his years as a master-spy for the United States. Why didn't Shacht become a real stage actor? "I was nuts about the game from the first time I heard the crack of the batted balls as they echoed up from Harlem." What was the cost? Berg's father, a Ukranian Jewish immigrant, never came to terms with his son's ballplaying—"Moe could have been a brilliant barrister, but he gave it all up for baseball."

Still, the value of baseball was clear as an acculturating force, as a way of assimilation particularly for Jewish immigrants who, unlike many other groups, came to stay, broke bonds with shul and shtetl —religion and community—and who found in baseball a center for an American religion, an American city. Cahan himself reluctantly accepted the importance of baseball and printed a diagram of the Polo Grounds with instructions, in Yiddish, as to how the game was played: "Der iker fun di baseball game, erklert for mit keyn sport layt"—the essentials of baseball explained to people unfamiliar with sports appeared in the Forward in 1909. In his 1965 novel Voices of a Summer...

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