High-profile writers lend expertise, affection to Jewish Jocks compilation

November 15, 2012

Raise your hand if you, like me, are tired to the cliche about the thinnest publication being a treatise on Jewish sports heroes (or some riff thereon).

It is therefore with an understandable sense of pride that I recommend Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame.

While this collection of 50 essays isn’t just about baseball, there are several entries, both consisting of “the usual suspects” and a few surprises about the national pastime. I corresponded with some of the contributors, who were nice enough to share their thoughts about their subjects.

Jane Leavy, who wrote Sandy Koufax : A Lefty’s Legacy, considered by many (including me) to be the best bio of the Hall of Famer, continues to kvell about her favorite Jewish player in her essay, “The Best Bar Mitzvah Guest Ever.”

Some of the writer’s in Jewish Jocks were given their athlete as an assignment but as Leavy wrote in an e-mail,

It was my choice.  I guess, honestly, I felt a bit proprietary and I felt I had one more thing to say about what a mensch he is. Also enough time had passed that I felt it was okay to divulge this personal anecdote, which illustrates his ability to do what so many celebrities wouldn’t dream of doing.  First he shows up at her Bat Mitzvah, knowing how much his presence meant.  Then, he graciously slips away, driving home — five hours each way — rather than upstage my daughter at her party.  How elegant, how classy:  the reluctant star who would not interfere with her star turn.

On the other hand, Marc Tracy, who co-edited JJ with Franklin Foer, reached out to Robert Weintraub, author of The House That Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the First Yankees Championship, and the Redemption of 1923 for his topic, Mose Solomon, who played barely a few months for the old NY Giants (“Mose Solomon: The Hunt for the Hebrew Ruth”).

In my case, it was pretty straightforward.  Marc … had read my book….  In the narrative, which concerns the building of Yankee Stadium and the Giants-Yankees rivalry that informed the sequence of events that led to it, I write about John McGraw’s search for a Jewish player to goose attendance (which was suffering thanks to the Babe and his new digs across the Harlem River), the discovery of Mose, and his all-too-brief career.  Marc was a fan of the book and the Mose story, so he asked me to adopt his chapter of the book as an essay for JJ.

So I had already done the research long before the project.  While doing it, I discovered much I didn’t know about Mose.  All I really knew about him was his nickname, “The Rabbi Of Swat,” which I think was drummed into my head in Hebrew school when I was eight-years-old.  But I didn’t have any idea about the cynical nature of his being brought to New York, nor his instant popularity, despite the fact he hardly played.

Mark Leibovich, a reporter for The New York Times, contributed an essay on Cubs’ GM Theo Epstein (“The Baseball Genius Who Didn’t Save the World”):

Frank let me choose between Theo and Kevin Youkilis, who was then with the Red Sox, because he knew I grew up near Boston and loved the team. I picked Theo, who has always interested me as a local kid who achieved his dream job, and became a hero in the process. I only knew the basics of his background: that he grew up in Brookline, came from an accomplished Jewish family (dad a novelist, grandfather wrote Casablanca), went to Yale and loved the Red Sox. I had never met him before.

I did a fair amount of research in that I spent some time talking to Theo and his family. My biggest surprise is that Theo agreed to talk to me at all, given how guarded he typically is with his public profile. I was also surprised at how self-aware he was about his own choices, or at least how open he was about them: particularly vis-a-vis his angst over not having done anything more “substantial” with his life.

I was pre-disposed to liking him, partly out of gratitude (he helped end the Red Sox World Series drought!) and partly from watching how he conducted himself in such a high-scrutiny/high-hysteria job over many years. I came away liking him even more.

David Margolick, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and author of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling , and a World on the Brink offered his thoughts on Al Rosen in “I’m Not Greenberg.”

I think I was probably given a choice of several people, and since baseball interests me more than other sports, I chose Rosen. Happily, because, though I was dimly aware that he’d been a great player, I didn’t know the details — I’m not an Indians fan, and he played before my time — and I was happy to learn them.

I’m always pleased to break new ground rather than plow over all the familiar stuff, so Rosen’s relative obscurity was an additional inducement. Also, Rosen is still alive, so I had the chance to speak with him, which was a great treat. I did a fair amount of work; I had my former colleague at The New York Times pull the clips on Rosen from the Times‘ morgue, and read over many of them. I read an oral history he’d given many years ago, and spoke to him at considerable length. He’s a wonderful story teller with a crystal-clear and precise memory. He’s also extremely intelligent and well-spoken, which one doesn’t always get writing about this world. Ditto that he didn’t only go through the motions or tell the same old stories. I got the feeling that he was interested in our discussion and dug deep to come up with his answers. He was a perfect gentleman. That might have been the greatest and most pleasant surprise, along with his numbers, and how spectacular a career he’d have had had he not gotten hurt.

As you can tell, I very much enjoyed the experience and left it convinced Rosen was exemplary for more than his statistics.

Dahlia Litwick, who covers law and the courts for Slate.com, took up Marvin Miller, the first head of the Players Union, in “Three Strikes and a Walkout.”

Actually Miller was assigned to me and despite a lifelong love of baseball (Montreal Expos!) and a background in the law I didn’t know much about Miller at all. I actually did a bunch of research including reading up on Curt Flood and reading the court opinions.

I think for me the big surprise was the contrast between this kind of dandy-looking, self-confident Miller and the fear he instilled, the way he was characterized as a thug and a bully. I thought that was fascinating and spoke to something interesting about powerful Jews.I also can’t believe the passion the fight over his place in the baseball Hall of Fame engenders — that fight is en fuego.

I loved writing this because it made me think a lot about the role of law and lawyers in convincing those who are being exploited that they are — in fact — being exploited.

Other baseball contributors include:

  • Ron Rosenbaum on Arnold Rothstein
  • Ira Berkow on Hank Greenberg
  • Jonathan Mahler on Daniel Okrent (one of the founding figures of fantasy baseball)
  • David Leonhardt on Bud Selig
  • Stephen J. Dubner on Adam Greenberg

I’ll add their thoughts as they arrive.

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