By Bill Simons
As conveyed by Abner Doubleday mythology, the genesis of baseball is pastoral, creationist and Edenic. Not so football. Sportswriter Sally Jenkins observed, American football, “like the country in which it was created, was a rough... [hybrid] thing that jumped up out of the mud.” Football was and is a violent and brutal game as evidenced by the devastating epidemic of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Nonetheless, America is addicted to high school, college and, particularly, NFL football. Baseball, as well as boxing and basketball in earlier eras, has produced numbers of dominant Jewish athletes. Due in part to Jewish parental opposition, the numbers are less in football, but certainly serious fans with a knowledge of the gridiron’s past and present recognize the names Benny Friedman, Sid Luckman, Marshall Goldberg, Charlie Goldenberg, Sid Gillman, Allie Sherman, Randy Grossman, Marv Levy, Ron Mix, Jay Fiedler, Julian Edelman and Josh Rosen.
Elite collegiate and professional players become regional and national football heroes. Over the decades, however, most football games have taken place between high school, neighborhood, company and semi-pro teams. Before World War II, rudimentary equipment and ethnic antagonisms often added to the gritty nature of play. The experience of Jews who played football on the sandlots during the early decades of the 20th century is not well documented, yet is more typical than that of celebrated stars like Friedman, Luckman and Goldberg. The writings of James T. Farrell and the shared memories of Harry Bloom open a neglected portal.
Although not in the top tier of literary masters, Farrell, an Irish American writer, was an acute observer, bequeathing a sociological realism to his novels. Set in the lower middle class of the Chicago South Side during the interwar years, his “Studs Lonigan” trilogy, featuring a young Irish tough as anti-hero, provides a record of urban ethnic life, rich in detail. The world in which Lonigan lived was highly antisemitic. Farrell was chronicler, not apologist, of an Irish-Catholic antisemitism that then blamed Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus.
As a young man in the early 1920s, Lonigan played on the Fifty-Eight Street Cardinals, a neighborhood team with a nearly all-Irish roster – Sheehan, Nolan, Reilley, Kelly and Donoghue. In a game against the Monitors, the Cardinals encountered “Jewboy Schwartz,” a strong tackler and powerful running back, who ran for a touchdown, intercepted a pass and made the Irish look foolish. The Cardinals particularly disliked Schwartz because he was Jewish. They were determined to seriously injure Schwartz no matter what it took.
Near the end of the second quarter, the Cardinals tackled Schwartz, and there was a pile on. Weary Reilley intentionally jammed his knee into Schwartz’s groin. Despite excruciating pain, Schwartz continued to play.
In the third quarter after Schwartz returned a kick-off 20 yards, Reilley screamed to “put that Jew out for keeps.” Even after a flying tackle dumped Schwartz on his head, he insisted on staying in the game with blood pouring from his mouth and nose. Finally, five Cardinals slammed into a weakened Schwartz simultaneously, necessitating his leaving the field, barely conscious, on a stretcher. Reilley threatened Monitor opponent Jake Schaeffer: “And I’ll kill you too, kike!”
Before World War II, ethnic antagonisms surfaced on playing fields. Usually, the cheap shot came from opponents, sometimes from teammates. Jewish athletes suffered injuries, sometimes serious, precisely because they were Jews. There were real-life Jewish counterparts to Schwartz. One of them was Harry Bloom.
On March 11, 1986, I interviewed Harry, then a venerable and respected English professor at SUNY Oneonta, about his days on the interwar gridiron. Harry grew up in Minneapolis, MN. The atmosphere in his parent’s home was Jewish, but they were largely non-observant of religious ritual. By the age of 13, Harry had built a “private sphere” of activity – newspaper route, omnivorous reading and unsuccessful attempts to publish sports articles in pulp journals. And Harry played football, a circumstance not discussed with his parents, who never saw him on the gridiron.
A sturdy 140 pounds, Harry was one of the stars of the seventh-grade football team at Abraham Lincoln Junior High School. Although the student body was predominantly Jewish, they comprised only a minority of the football team. Slavs and a couple of Blacks rounded out the Lincoln squad. Like other starters of the era, Harry played both offense and defense. Roaming the secondary on defense, he frequently filled the left halfback slot on offense in a single-wing formation, taking advantage of his ability to drive left, earning Harry the nickname “Lefty.”
On a beautiful autumn day in 1932, Edison met the heavily Polish Thomas Jefferson Junior High School on a neutral field. Early in the game, Harry intercepted a pass and ran for a touchdown. A little later, he returned a kickoff 102 yards for a second touchdown, accounting for all of Lincoln’s initial scoring.
After his second touchdown, Edison players started calling Harry “Jewboy” and “Jew bastard.” They elbowed him, hit him when he didn’t have the ball, hit him from the side and hit him from the back. Edison wanted Harry out of the game.
When Harry was tackled, one player after another jumped on him. In the pile up, they damaged Harry’s leg. The pain was fierce, and the leg swollen. Immediately, Harry knew something was wrong. He could not walk. Two touchdowns had resulted in a broken leg. Harry’s sister Fanny screamed, “Ma’s going to ‘murdelize’ you.”
Harry recovered and played football again. He broke his nose in high school. With the passage of more than a half-century, Harry still vividly recalled that game with Edison.
A generation later in postwar suburbia, increasing numbers of Jews played schoolboy football with minimum incident. My cousin Johnny Simons, for example, was elected the first Jewish football team captain in the old town of Marblehead, MA. Down the line in Swampscott, another cousin, Lloyd Benson, blocked for NFL-bound running back Dick Jauron. As we move forward, the stories of “Jewboy Schwartz” and Harry Bloom merit remembrance.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.