Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 11, 2013

Choosing the Chosen Jocks

Marc Tracy discusses how the figures of varying athletic abilities in the book Jewish Jocks were selected.

Max Lakin

The perception of Jews and athletic incompetence was hardly in doubt when I was in grade school and lobbing bricks off netless rims in Queens. The unique pain of pickup ball for the bar-mitzvah set receives some balm with Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, a survey of the Chosen in sport, edited by Marc Tracy and Franklin Foer of The New Republic.

Marc Tracy
"We wanted to give a complete picture of the Jewish sports experience, and this required writing about bad people."

Marc Tracy

The collection doesn't exactly challenge a certain gulf between Jewishness and athleticism, but it highlights a Jewish contribution to modern sport that otherwise tends to hum along in the background. Which means that while canonical heavies like Greenberg and Koufax make their appearance, Jocks is in little danger of slipping into a psalm for the glory of Semitic physicality. (Though there is a bit of that, too: As essays by Simon Schama on Daniel Mendoza, Buzz Bissinger on Barney Ross, and Foer on Benny Leonard remind, there was a stretch where boxing was so replete with menacing Jews that gentile fighters were feigning payis to gain support).

The thesis, then, is that the Jewish Jock, like the modern Jew himself, is not a monolith, so jockdom here often shifts to those for whom athleticism was beside the point. We get ignoble characters, like Bobby Fischer (still searching) and Arnold Rothstein (washed of HBO varnish). And we get mensches, like Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, whose father was a deli man and whose success Steven Pinker traces to a particularly traditional sense for commerce—like an Orchard Street schmata magnate.

Gelf shared a few thoughts with Tracy on the roots of the Tribe's uneasy relationship with the sporting life. The following are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited.

Gelf Magazine: The book does a lot to dispel the idea that Jews and sport are anathema. Why do you think that stigma is accepted as natural order to begin with?

Marc Tracy: It's accepted as natural order because the traditional diasporic Jewish identity involves a people who, due to historical and cultural and religious factors, get by on their wits and guile rather than their physical prowess—and this is something Jews actually take pride in. A successful Jewish athlete generally and especially a successful Jewish athlete about whom there isn't anything particularly "Jewish" in that sense—Hank Greenberg, for example—defies that. What Frank Foer and I tried to show in our book is that there are plenty of great Jewish athletes who also had recognizably "Jewish" traits (the great boxer Daniel Mendoza essentially invented the uppercut, for example), and ones who didn't, and also that there were and are great non-athlete Jewish sports figures, many of whom found in that model of diaspora Judaism things that, it turned out, had a lot to offer the sports world, particularly in modern times, whether it's the sixth man (thank you, Red Auerbach); broadcasting innovations; or fantasy sports.

Gelf Magazine: As you just mentioned, the term "Jock" here is loose, and includes not strictly those Jews who pitched six and went home to light a menorah, but also those coaches and owners and—metatextually—sportswriters, who influenced professional sport. So we get figures like Howard Cosell, not known for winning any sets against Borg. What was the goal in widening the playing field, as it were?

Marc Tracy: Right—or as we put it, some guys who maybe could not round the bases. Part of the goal, of course, was just to create a more interesting book with a wider variety of types of characters and essays. But it is silly to conceive of the world of sports as solely consisting of the athletes, and we wanted our book to reflect that, too. The famous quote, which I've seen attributed to Red Barber, is that the three most important figures in baseball history were Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Marvin Miller. That's one athlete whose most important accomplishments were inside the game itself; one athlete whose most important accomplishments were outside the game itself (although Jackie was of course a great ballplayer); and one non-athlete whose most important accomplishment was outside the game itself. Incidentally (or, rather, not entirely incidentally, we'd argue), Miller was Jewish; we have an essay on him by Dahlia Lithwick.

Gelf Magazine: Also included are several crooks, villains, or otherwise middling characters, like Art Shamsky, whose Topps card found its way to the back of New York's collective deck; and Arnold Rothstein, hardly any Jewish mother's role model for her son. Did you deliberately avoid hagiography?

Marc Tracy: There is a tendency, when writing about sports, to write only uplift. There is a tendency, when writing about Jews, to write only about good Jews. We wanted to give a complete picture of the Jewish sports experience, and this required writing about bad people like Rothstein and, most of all, Bobby Fischer. (Also, Mark Spitz does not sound like someone I'd want to talk to at a party). A guy like Shamsky or Harold Solomon is a little different—those essays are as much about the experiences of the writers (David Brooks and Larry Summers, respectively) as the athletes themselves. Which is to say, those essays are also about the Jewish fan—another crucial archetype Jews helped give to the world of sports.

Gelf Magazine: And of the subjects who actually played a sport, we get excellence in ping-pong, frisbee and competitive eating. One expects Fran Drescher to show up for triumph in hairspray. Is this a tacit validation of that over-trod Airplane! joke?

Marc Tracy: It is not! We could have filled those spots up with baseball and basketball players and boxers. It is just an effort to draw a more complete picture—and, also, to create a more enjoyable book. Also, I think they add to our thesis of Jewish excellence and innovation in sports—ping-pong-er Marty Reisman, as profiled by Howard Jacobson, played a particularly Jewish version of a great sport; and of course it was a Jew (who used to dress up as Moses) who first mastered competitive eating.

Gelf Magazine: I'm sure you get no shortage of Monday Morning Quarterbacks haranguing you about who you left out. Is Jocks meant to be a compendium? Who else would you have liked to see included? Where's Greg Goldberg?

Marc Tracy: Oh man. I have never learned about so many Jewish athletes as I did after the book was published. I could give you 50 names I would like to have seen included: Amy Alcott, Abe Saperstein. Regarding Goldberg, we almost included Bernard Malamud for writing The Natural. But we do have another Goldberg, the wrestler, written by another Goldberg: Jeffrey. And we have a hockey player (Mathieu Schneider). Is hockey goalie the most Jewish position in sports? I am pretty sure it is. Or backup quarterback.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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