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  • Jews and Baseball: Volume I: Entering the American Mainstream, 1871–1948
  • Randy Roberts
Jews and Baseball: Volume I: Entering the American Mainstream, 1871–1948, by Burton A. Boxerman and Benita W. Boxerman. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2007. 222 pp. $39.95.

What is an American? How do you become one? The answer to the first question, of course, is that an American is a construct, an idea and an ideal that has been evolving at least since the first English settlers landed in what became Virginia and Massachusetts, and probably even a long time before then. How do you become one? Well, as they say, "When in Rome do as the Romans do." And when in America do as the Americans do. And what exactly do Americans do? That's a $64,000 question. But as the preeminent cultural historian Jacques Barzun once wrote, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Now I'm not sure exactly what Professor Barzun meant by that statement, but I'm certainly not going to argue with him.

Maybe Eric Rolfe Greenberg made the connection between being an American and baseball even better than Professor Barzun. In his beautifully realized novel The Celebrant he traces the relationship between the very real Christy Mathewson and a fictional family of Jewish jewelers. "Baseball," says one of the novel's figures, "is totally artificial, creating its own time, existing within its own space. There is nothing real about it." In that sense, then, baseball is very much like the ideal America, a multifaceted, constantly evolving construction that exists in its own time and its own space.

For Jewish immigrants to America baseball has occupied a particularly hallowed place. Baseball achieved its status as "America's Pastime" in the late-nineteenth century, approximately the same time that hundreds of thousands of eastern European Jews were arriving at Ellis Island in search of a new and better life. Baseball and eastern European, orthodox Jews must have seemed a most unlikely combination. One had the look, sound, and energy of an America on the make; the other had clothes, languages, and traditions that were decidedly not American. But the sons and grandsons of those immigrants embraced baseball, an act of audacious will that announced, "I am an American."

All of this is an attempt to explain the origins of Jews and Baseball: Volume I: Entering the American Mainstream. As Martin Abramowitz notes in his foreword to the book, "It's no surprise that Solomon Schechter, the long-time chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the leader of Conservative Judaism, told his students that if they wanted to be successful rabbis, they needed to understand baseball!" (p. 1). Absorbing baseball, you see, was for three generations of immigrant Jews a way of assimilating into America, a way to become American. It is not surprising, then, that Jews not only learned how to play the game, they tried to understand the meaning of the game. The classic [End Page 192] baseball novel, for example, was virtually invented by such Jewish novelists as Bernard Malamud, Mark Harris, Eliot Asinof, Philip Roth, and Eric Rolfe Greenberg.

Jews and Baseball chronicles the relationship from 1871 to 1948, or from the year the first Jewish player, Lipman Pike, appeared in professional baseball to the end of Hank Greenberg's playing career. But the Boxermans take a wide-lens look at their subject. They are interested in Jews who were baseball journalists, baseball owners, baseball officials, and baseball statisticians, as well as baseball players. Their approach is essentially chronological and biographical. Brief—three or four sentence—biographies of long-forgotten players or writers are mixed together with longer discussions of the careers of more important figures. Their approach is inclusive, not selective, and as such tends toward the encyclopedic rather than narrative.

Altogether, Jews and Baseball is solidly researched and nicely written. The chapters that detail the careers of such players as Moe Berg and Hank Greenberg are fairly predicable, but other chapters on baseball owners and journalists, men such as Barney Dreyfuss, Emil E. Fuchs, Dan Daniel, and Shirley Povich, plow fresh ground. Although the...


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