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A large, ambitious, and deeply personal work, this book attempts to define the Jewish-American experience through the prism of baseball. With sections organized around decades, American Jews and America’s Game ranges from the 1930s to the present. Original face-to-face interviews, conducted in venues as disparate as Rancho Mirage, Phoenix, Manhattan, Cooperstown, Boston, Baltimore, Kissimmee, and Tel Aviv, provide the core content. Telling photographs, many taken by the author, burnish the commentary. Baseball’s attraction for Jews, the varieties of Jewish baseball experience, anti-Semitism, evolving Jewish identity, relations between the generations, and the future of American Jewry receive significant attention. Passionate and determined, Larry Ruttman, attorney, adult education teacher, regional writer, and baseball enthusiast, commenced the five-year mission that culminated in American Jews and America’s Game after the age of seventy.
Ruttman’s visceral connection to the subject matter colors the presentation. By contrast, in The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It (1966), the most acclaimed oral history of the game, editor Lawrence S. Ritter defers to the voices of his interviewees. Save for his preface, elimination of certain material, and some sequential rearrangement, Ritter, largely confining his role to that of catalyst and compiler, displays editorial restraint. Conversely, Ruttman mixes verbatim interviewee quotations with his own informational narrative, opinion, and encomiums.
Alternative approaches might have either simply reproduced the actual transcripts of Ruttman’s interviews or separated author commentary from subject responses by beginning each section with a brief introduction to provide context. At times, Ruttman’s voice potentially imposes his own perspective on responses, leading one interviewee, then Congressman Barney Frank, to interject, “You asked me a question, and I have given you the answer. If you don’t like my answer, don’t suggest an answer—that’s not good journalism” (p.62)! Nonetheless, Ruttman’s praise for Frank, as it does for several of his subjects, borders on hyperbole: “Barney Frank will be a first-ballot shoo-in for the Congressional Hall of Fame” (p. 64).
Partisanship and format aside, Ruttman’s interviews, fifty in total, merit commendation for scope, respondent selection, and content. Ruttman employs surrogate interviews for the two most notable Jewish ballplayers, the late Hank Greenberg and the very private Sandy Koufax, and he teases insight from the latter’s classy telephone interview demurral. The volume also limns several other major leaguers, including Al Rosen, Steve Hertz, Ken Holtzman, Art Shamsky, Ron Blomberg, Elliot Maddox, Brad Ausmus, Gabe Kapler, David Newhan, Kevin Youkilis, Craig Breslow, Sam Fuld, and Ian Kinsler. While the beliefs and/or parentage of some of the preceding raise the perennial question of who is a Jew, the roster of interviewees omits Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun and Cy Young Award recipient Steve Stone. Ruttman presents sessions with the commissioner of Major [End Page 178] League Baseball, Bud Selig, as well as with two former executive directors of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr. Major and minor league team owners and executives, sportswriters, scholars, memorabilia collectors, fans, and a rabbi also find representation in the volume.
Sometimes Ruttman’s less celebrated respondents provide the most revealing insights. Tiby Eisen and Anita Foss recall the congruence of gender and sport in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Veteran umpire Al Clark candidly discusses the misjudgments that led to his banishment from baseball and imprisonment as well as his subsequent redemption. A father-son dialogue with Ross Newhan and David Newhan, respectively a sportswriter and a major leaguer, elicits a father’s thoughtful reflections concerning his son’s identification with Messianic Judaism and Jesus. From the vantage point of adulthood, Jeffrey Maier, fan-turned-aspiring-baseball-executive, considers the impact of an action by his twelve-year-old self, deflecting a Derek Jeter fly ball away from the outstretched glove of an opponent and into...