Baseball book minyan: Ten great titles on Jews and the national pastime

By Bill Simons

We Jews are people of the book and of the bat with an affinity for both scholarship and baseball. Beyond rooting for our home teams, we pay special attention to Jewish players on other teams. Our diamond is six-pointed. Something is missing this season, however. From Little League to the major leagues, baseball is, at this writing, shuttered by the coronavirus. Let’s find compensation in great literature about the intersection of Jews and baseball. A baseball book minyan, 10 volumes on Jews and the national pastime, follows. 

“Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American,” edited by Josh Perelman, is the book to read first. The anthology spans the whole course of Jewish baseball from Lip Pike, the 1870s pioneer Jewish major leaguer, to contemporary times. An all-star team of journalists, scholars, novelists and players contribute observant and interesting essays – most original and a few classic reprints – that cover the gamut of the Jewish baseball experience. The Jewish Daily Forward’s 1909 explanation of baseball to Jewish immigrants is priceless. Seven of the essays are by or about women, including entries by barrier-breaking pitcher Justine Siegal and Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.  

“The Golem’s Mighty Swing” by James Sturm demonstrates that the graphic novel has come of age as literature. The tale concerns a fictional Jewish baseball team, the talented Stars of David, who dramatize their Jewishness to attract curious fans. The Stars, challenging local town teams, barnstorming the Christian – and often antisemitic – Midwest of the 1920s. The golem of the title, evoking the creature of Jewish mythology fashioned from inanimate material, is actually a massive former Negro Leaguer who plays for the Stars. In the novel’s climax, the Stars of David, under the leadership of their playing manager, symbolically named Noah, just barely escape an American pogrom and a torrential flood. 

“The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg” by Nicholas Dawidoff is a compelling, albeit critical, biography of probably the most brilliant and enigmatic individual to ever play Major League Baseball. The son of Russian immigrant Jews, Berg was an implacable foe of the Nazis. For 15 seasons, he was a “good field, no hit” catcher. Berg was also a linguist, attorney and America’s top atomic spy during World War II. Charged by the OSS with monitoring German physicist Werner Heisenberg, Berg carried a pistol in case circumstances necessitated the assassination of Heisenberg as well as cyanide to preclude his own capture.

“Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” by John Rosengren is the definitive biography of the Jewish Hall of Fame slugger of the 1930s and 1940s. Greenberg’s home run exploits strongly resonated in the consciousness of the second-generation Jewish Americans who came of age amidst the rising antisemitism of the Great Depression and World War II. Exhaustively researched, candid in interpretation, fully contextualized and well written, Rosengren affirms and augments the case for Greenberg’s status as a central figure in baseball and Jewish-American history. Greenberg’s relationship with Judaism threads through the biography, including the Detroit Tiger superstar’s dilemma over whether to play on the High Holidays. 

“Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball” by Rebecca Alpert tells the little-known story of Jewish involvement in Black baseball in the years before Jackie Robinson integrated MLB. Jews played three distinct roles in Black baseball – entrepreneurs, reformers and players. Alpert introduces Jewish booking agents, promoters, league officials and team owners who occupied a central role in the Negro Leagues. Significant support for baseball integration came from Jewish sportswriters, including Daily Worker pundits. And Black Jewish ballplayers, recounts Alpert, found their most notable representation in the Belleville Grays, a team sponsored by Temple Beth El in Belleville, VA. 

“The Chosen” by Chaim Potok is an outlier amongst our baseball book minyan. Only the first chapter concerns bats and balls, and the game is softball. In 1944, the penultimate year of World War II, two very different Jewish school teams compete on an asphalt diamond in Brooklyn. The star batter on the Chasidic squad, Danny Saunders, hates the largely assimilated players on the opposing Modern Orthodox team, particularly its pitcher Reuven Malter. From Danny’s bat, a ferocious line drive smashes into Reuven’s face, nearly blinding him. This violent act is the genesis of a sacred friendship rooted in divergent spiritual and temporal journeys.  

“Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy is a revealing and engaging biography of baseball’s Übermensch, an impeccably mannered, movie-star handsome and cerebral athlete. At his peak, Koufax was arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history. With a blazing fastball, a wicked curve and pinpoint control, the Dodger Hall of Famer ace notched 97 wins, against only 27 losses from 1963-66. Leavy deftly deciphers Koufax’s pitching mechanics, personality and Jewish identity. An arm injury required pitching through severe pain, necessitating retirement from the game at age 30. Leavy provides a dramatic account of Koufax’s refusal to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series on Yom Kippur, a decision that became legendary in Jewish annals. 

“Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League” by Aaron Pribble examines the Mideast’s only professional baseball league and the author’s own role in it. Save for one sabra, the Jewish ballplayers came from the Diaspora, primarily the United States. There were also Gentile players. Inadequate financing doomed the six-team Israel Baseball League to a single season (2007). A pitcher, Pribble led the IBL in ERA. He recounts his romance with a Yemenite Jewess and concerns about an alleged terrorist attack. For Pribble and other IBL players, visiting historic, religious and contested sites heightened their Jewish consciousness. 
“Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary” by Robert F. Burk makes a compelling case that the insurgent Hall of Famer ranks among the most significant labor leaders. Growing up in a Jewish home and subject to antisemitism as a collegiate, Miller early on developed a strong commitment to social justice. Prior to Miller, professional baseball was dominated by team owners. As executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (1966-82), Miller converted the union into an agent of transformative change. Under Miller’s leadership, players gained significant input on terms and conditions of their work, along with substantial increases in salaries and pensions, as well as the deconstruction of the coercive reserve clause. 

“For the Good of the Game: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball” by Bud Selig with Phil Rogers is a candid, colorful and informative memoir by MLB’s first and only Jewish commissioner. Along with Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Selig, as acting commissioner and commissioner, had the longest (1992-2015) and most impactful stint at the helm of MLB. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Selig has always strongly identified with his ethnic roots. His foremost failing was delaying action against player steroid use. As commissioner, Selig presided over team and division expansion, created the wild card and introduced interleague play, resulting in his election to the Hall of Fame. 

Enjoy this Jewish baseball book minyan!

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic 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.