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American Jews & America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball by Larry Ruttman (review)
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Reviewed by
Larry Ruttman. American Jews & America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. 510 pp. Cloth, $34.95

To describe American Jews & America’s Game as a tome would be no overstatement. The five-hundred-plus-page volume offers a who/what/when/where/why of Jewish participation in the national pastime. Happily, author Larry Ruttman does not restrict his reportage to famous Jewish ballplayers. Yet another account of Hank Greenberg’s Jewishness or Sandy Koufax’s grandeur, while not unwelcome, would be a been-there-done-that endeavor. While Ruttman does offer profiles of those two Hall of Famers, he also relates the stories of other Jewish major leaguers, from such high-profile players as [End Page 153] Al Rosen, Ken Holtzman, and Kevin Youkilis, to Steve Hertz, he of no hits in four big-league at bats, who eventually became a successful high school and college coach.

Ruttman adds women ballplayers to the mix, via Thelma “Tiby” Eisen and Anita Foss of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (aagpbl). Some of his other subjects need no introduction: Marvin Miller, Bud Selig, Theo Epstein, Roger Kahn, Murray Chass, Donald Fehr, Jerry Reinsdorf, and Andrew Zimbalist. Congressman Barney Frank recalls that, back in the 1950s, “I was a Yankee fan, and it pained me that there were no Jewish Yankees” (57). Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz notes, of his Brooklyn childhood, “We wore yarmulkes in the house, but on the street it was baseball caps, it was baseball gloves” (80), and “Of course, I had no doubt that I would eventually replace Pee Wee Reese as the shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers” (81). Some are biologically linked: baseball scribe Ross Newhan and his big-leaguer son David, whose different approaches to religious practice make for a fascinating read. Additionally, Ruttman charts the baseball experiences of a rainbow of Americans whose names may not be recognizable. They include Sol Gittle-man and Jeffrey Gurock, university professors; Howard Goldstein, a lawyer and Jewish baseball memorabilia collector; Michael Paley, a rabbi and scholar; Leon Feingold, Israel Baseball League player of the year; Marvin Goldklang, a minor-league team owner and minority owner of the New York Yankees; and Darren Harrison-Panis, a fledgling baseball executive and team owner.

Ruttman reports on his subjects’ backgrounds and the manner in which their Jewishness has affected their lives and careers. In this regard, American Jews & America’s Game is as much about American Jewish identity and the anti-Semitism that pervaded the country in decades past as it is about Jews and baseball, and this adds depth and dimension to each chapter. With the exception of Greenberg, who passed away in 1986, Ruttman interviews all his subjects; Greenberg’s story is told via conversations with those who are connected to him, starting with son Steve, daughter Alva, and Ralph Kiner. Meanwhile, Ruttman—in what he describes as “one of the most memorable conversations of my life” (129)—has a revealing chat with a reluctant-to-be-interviewed Kou-fax and fills out his portrait by conversing with Norm Sherry, the Dodgers catcher credited with helping to transform Koufax from prospect to ace.

Prior to reading a chapter on an individual with whom I was familiar, I asked myself: What will I learn about this person that I do not know? More often than not, Ruttman offers observations that transcend the obvious. For example, Ron Blomberg has his asterisk in baseball lore as the first-ever designated hitter. Predictably, he grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle. But he also is a product of the American South, and Blomberg describes the experience of [End Page 154] being not only a “southern Jew” but a Jewish athlete coming of age in a culture that was rife with anti-Semitism (243). On a lighter note, Elliott Maddox, an African American who converted to Judaism while in his mid-twenties, talks of his budding appreciation for Jewish-style cooking—and rugelach (a Jewish pastry) in particular. He also discusses how he came to be drawn to Judaism as well as his multifaceted relationships with Marvin Miller and Ted Williams...