By Bill Simons
James Sturm’s graphic novel “The Golem’s Mighty Swing,” originally published in 2001, chronicles the travels and travails of the barnstorming Stars of David Baseball Club through the American Midwest of the 1920s. This mythical team of wandering Jews encounters menace in the Gothic American heartland. Compelling visual images limn Sturm’s illustrated text.
Ubiquitous utility poles punctuate the tale. As the Stars of David transverse hinterland roads, utility poles possess a Rorschach-like suggestion of human arms outstretched in a crucifixion position. During the 1920s, the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, with a strong Midwestern base, employed the cross against perceived threats to the traditions of white Protestant natives.
Other memorable Sturm drawings depict diverse Midwestern visages, encompassing the stalwart, the pathetic, the angry, the gullible, the ambitious and the exploitive. Through drawings of young hooligans, their faces innocent but their actions menacing a young Jewish ballplayer, Sturm suggests the potential for hate-fueled violence in the heartland.
Populated by bearded Jews of the American Diaspora, the homeless Stars of David travel by cramped, rickety bus across potholed roads in search of manna on the playing fields of the Midwest’s towns and small cities. For these Jewish ballplayers, conflict and contradiction are external and internal.
The Stars of David market themselves, in name, dress and grooming, as Jews for hostile and curious Gentiles. Their beards are donned to reflect contemporary stereotypes of Jews as aliens. Indeed, a shoe-polish beard is painted on Moishe Strauss, the team’s 16-year-old second baseman, whose face is yet innocent of a razor. In response to why she is in the stands at a game featuring the Stars of David, a plump middle-aged matron of the Midwest, a cross prominently hanging from her neck, proclaims, “I’m not here for baseball, but to see the Jews.” Wishing to view the horns of a Jew, credulous boys attempt to remove Moishe’s cap – by throwing rocks at this head.
Yet, despite their Jewish consciousness and commercialization of their ethnicity, the Stars of David generally exhibit little knowledge or interest in their ancestral traditions. They play on the Jewish Sabbath, and, oblivious to kosher dietary laws, “like the chop suey houses.”
Older brother to Moishe, Noah, a hard-hitting third baseman, is the team’s player-manager. Even as he leads his Jewish baseball tribe, Noah, rejects ethnic traditionalism: “My father… will always be a greenhorn. His imagination lives in the old country. Mine lives in America and baseball is America.” Yet, the Stars of David ply their trade in the land of the stranger by confirming Gentile expectations of the Jew.
In Sturm’s cautionary saga, Victor I. Paige, glib Gentile representative of Big Inning Promotions, persuades the Stars of David to transform esoteric Jewish lore into baseball vaudeville. Page convinces the financially-challenged Stars of David to publicize and dress their very large first baseman, Hershel Bloom, as a golem. According to legend and a popular contemporary film referenced by Paige, Jewish masters of Kabbalistic mysticism could create a superhuman creature, a golem, out of inanimate material. Although a golem initially serves its creator and protects the Jewish people, eventually the soulless golem grows more violent and is uncontrollable.
Bloom, the Stars’ faux golem, is comfortable with the promotion, and dons the creature’s costume. After all, he was neither Jewish nor Hershel Bloom; his real name is Henry Bell. Henry/Herschel is an African-American veteran of the Negro leagues, previously presented by the Stars as a dark-skinned Jewish descendant of one of the lost tribes.
In a company town, the Stars of David and their golem, advertised as a “Jewish Medieval Monster,” are scheduled to play the Putnam All-Americans in August 1922. Reflecting the heartland fear and fascination of the Jew, The Putnam Post Bugle editorializes: “Jews… stand not for America, not for baseball, but only themselves.” The hometown newspaper warns that, unless defeated, the Stars of David “will suck the money from this town and then they will leave.” The Putnam Post Bugle likens the upcoming ballfield contest to defense of the nation.
On the night before the game, Buttercup Lev, the Stars’ alcoholic off-speed pitcher, hitchhikes alone to a speakeasy. Neither Lev’s obliviousness to the Friday night onset of the Shabbes nor the town’s violation of Prohibition receive direct comment: Sturm apparently credits the intelligence of his readers at this and other junctures. Informed of Lev’s presence at the bar, local vigilantes, whipped up by demagogic bigotry, savagely beat Lev, immobilizing his left arm, amongst other injuries inflicted.
The next day, Lev’s anxious teammates, ready to board the bus to the ballpark and ignorant of the pitcher’s ordeal, await his arrival. Upon learning of Lev’s injuries, a teammate suggests not playing in Putnam. Paige retorts that the failure of the Stars of David to take the field will have serious legal consequences. A defiant Noah declares that the Stars of David will play.
The ballyhoo of nativism brings out a large and hostile crowd intent on seeing the Stars of David defeated by the hometown Putnam All-Americans. Ethnic slurs, threats, brushbacks, biased umpiring, a spiking and violent fan interference assault the Stars of David. When the golem retaliates with a beanball that bounces off the head of an opposition batter, Putnam players and fans mobilize for a virulent pogrom. The threat of the golem’s mighty swing momentarily frightens the fans turned mob. The other Stars of David pray for life and grab their own bats, ready to wield them in a battle of survival. Torrential rain, however, intervenes, bringing flooding, enabling the Stars to escape – and survive. The biblical Noah and his charges found refuge on an ark; manager Noah Strauss leads the Stars to safety by bus. The baseball Noah reflects on his team’s flight from Putnam, “Survival. Perhaps that is a victory unto itself.” Much of Jewish history is encapsulated in that observation.
“The Golem’s Mighty Swing” provides a compelling reconsideration of the Jewish encounter with American culture and the national pastime during the watershed decade of the 1920s.
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.