Local authors’ book is great way to start the season

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Why is this baseball season different from all other baseball seasons? By an odd coincidence, our World Champion St. Louis Cardinals opened the 2007 Season the very same week on which Jews the world over celebrate Passover, prompting such questions as, “Is it kosher for Passover” to sneak a peek at the TV in between courses at a seder? Will ballpark hotdogs be available on matzo? In Jews and Baseball: Volume I: Entering the American Mainstream, 1871-1948, local Jewish authors Burton A. Boxerman, Ph.D., and his wife, Benita W. Boxerman, interestingly and compellingly chronicle the more than century-long love affair and involvement of American Jews and the National Pastime.

While the above-mentioned examples regarding Passover deal with relatively manageable issues, over the years, when Jewish Major League players have had to face such issues as to whether to play on the High Holidays, the dilemma was much more challenging for both the owners, players and teams. Perhaps the most celebrated Jewish baseball superstar was “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg, whose powerful bat came close to breaking Babe Ruth’s record long before Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds. When Greenberg was the major star player for the Detroit Tigers in the 1934 season, the Boxermans detail the challenge faced by Greenberg and the Detroit Jewish community:

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“During the pennant drive in 1934, Greenberg had to confront the Jewish player’s dilemma — whether to play on the Jewish High Holidays,” they write. “The Tigers faced the Boston Red Sox in a key game scheduled for Sept. 10, the same date as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the first of the High Holy Days in 1934. ‘The team was fighting for first place,’ Greenberg said, ‘and I probably was the only batter in the lineup who was not in a slump. But the Jewish religion has a tradition that one observers the holiday solemnly, with prayer … I wasn’t sure what to do.'”

The Boxermans report that Greenberg sought the opinions of local rabbis in Detroit. Rabbi Leo M. Franklin, a prominent Detroit rabbi said, “Mr. Greenberg must decide for himself whether he ought to play or not. In the last analysis, no rabbi is authorized to give or withhold permission for him to do so.” The Boxermans add that “Another Detroit rabbi cited Talmudic evidence that seemed to imply that Greenberg could play ball. Greenberg chose to follow this counsel. After Greenberg had made his decision, the newspapers ran the headline, ‘Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play.'”

The Boxermans make it clear just how pivotal Greenberg’s Jewish-related decisions were for his fellow Jewish ballplayers at the time and into the future. In later years, other Jewish players had to confront whether or not to play on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the latter of which is the most solemn of Jewish holidays. According to the Boxermans, Greenberg “was not particularly devout, but there are several reasons why Greenberg may have observed the Day of Atonement. One was a response to more than a thousand letters and telegrams chastising him for playing on the Jewish New Year, and urging him not to play on Yom Kippur. Another explanation was that his father, unhappy that his son had played on Rosh Hashanah, put his foot down about Yom Kippur. Finally, the Tigers had all but clinched the pennant by then. When Greenberg arrived at the synagogue that day, services stopped and the congregants gave him a rousing round of applause.” (pages l78-79).

Burton and Benita Boxerman bring solid credentials to undertaking the definitive two-volume history of Jews and Baseball. In 2003, they published Ebbets to Veeck to Busch: Eight Owners Who Shaped Baseball. Burton Boxerman, a Ph.D. in history, taught that subject at Ritenour High School for three decades, and Benita Boxerman works for one of the largest public relations firms in the United States, Fleishman-Hillard. The superbly written and impeccably researched first volume, covers the period from 1871, when Lipman Emanuel Pike played for the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, the precursor to the National League, starting with the Baltimore Lords and finishing with the St. Louis Browns in 1875, through 1948, the last season of Hank Greenberg’s remarkable career and the year in which the State of Israel was founded. Page 9 of the Boxermans’ book contains a vintage engraving of the classically handsome face of Lipman Pike, “the first Jewish professional baseball player.” A complete description of his career and of the many other Jewish ballplayers who would follow in the next decades and century make the book an enduring feast for baseball fans, especially those who are Jewish.

In addition to being a treasure-trove in information, from trivia to significant facts, the Boxermans discuss not only the players, but also the managers, owners, executives, writers, statisticians manufacturers and others “who helped forge a bond between baseball and an emerging Jewish culture in America.” Among the key reasons for baseball’s early appeal to Jews cited by the Boxermans are “cultural assimilation, rebellion against perceived Old World sensibilities, and intellectual and philosophical ties to existing Jewish traditions.” Paraphrasing an often jocular reference, the Boxermans clearly prove that “baseball has been very good for American Jews” and also that American Jews have been very good for baseball.

As the agreed-upon National Pastime, baseball, like the vaudeville stage or Hollywood, provided an “entry ticket” into the American mainstream, and the pervasive acceptance of baseball can be illustrated by some examples in American Jewish literature. In The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s celebrated book, and the film on which it is based, the two main characters, a Modern Orthodox young man and the son of a Hasidic Rebbe develop their complex relationship as a result of a baseball game injury. Bernard Malamud, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish novelist, penned The Natural, about the stunning career of a fictional baseball superstar which was brought to the screen in a film starring Robert Redford. Philip Roth in several of his novels, including Portnoy’s Complaint and Patrimony, writes lovingly of the ties Jewish fathers and sons have towards baseball, even linking together his father’s old baseball glove and his tphillin as leather symbols of his American Jewish character.

Not all of the Boxermans’ history of Jews and Baseball is bright and rosy like the gleaming career of Hank Greenberg. They devote an entire chapater to “Baseball’s Most Detested Owner,” Andrew Freedman, the German Jew who owned the New York Giants for seven years beginning in 1895, of whom the Boxermans write, “No other Jewish owner in baseball was the target for so much public controversy and so much overt anti-Semitism as Andrew Freedman.” Some of Freedman’s troubles were brought on by his own abrasive personality and bad PR decisions, such as cutting back on complimentary passes for former players, calling them “freeloaders.” In 1895, when Freedman bought the team, the Boxrman’s report it was a time “when most Americans found expressions of anti-Semitism quite acceptable.”

Indeed, even the aforementioned Hank Greenberg was sometimes the target of anti-Semitic slurs from the stands in home games as well as while he was on the road. Greenberg was able to shake off the barbs and compile one of the truly all-time great baseball careers. Greenberg “was without a doubt the first Jewish superstar and one of the greatest players ever to wear a major league uniform,” write the Boxermans, pointing out that he was the first of two Jews to be inducted in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and in 1938, coming within two home runs of tying Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs.”

Just in time for the first “crack of the bat” and the great hot dogs at the new Busch Stadium for 2007 (yes, kosher hot dogs are available), Burton and Benita Boxerman have published a highly entertaining, fact- and statistics-packed and fascinating chronicle of the love affair between Jews and baseball.

And the good news is that they are hard at work on Volume II, which no doubt will provide fans with a “Double-Header” of Jewish baseball lore. Both volumes will be essential for the libraries of baseball fans and anyone interested in Jewish contributions to sports and popular culture.

(Burton and Benita Boxerman will give a book talk on Jews and Baseball: Volume I: Entering the Mainstream, 1871-1948, at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 19, 2007. For information call 314-442-3720).

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