Jewish Baseball Players: Yentl at the bat, part 3: Jewish women & baseball

In the male-dominated world of baseball, Rebecca Alpert is an outsider. Amongst the first to be ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Dr. Alpert, professor of religion emerita and former department chairwoman at Temple University, has grappled with questions of Jewish identity. As a married mother of two children, she divorced her husband and came out as a lesbian. In Philadelphia, breaking with her mother’s allegiance to the Brooklyn Dodgers, she morphed into a Phillies fan. Historian, public intellectual and social activist, Rabbi Alpert has shared insights about Jewish baseball in her publications and lectures through the years, focusing on the intersection between religion, race, sexuality and sport.

Alpert’s 2011 book, “Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball” announced a singular perspective in its title. “Out of left field” is the vernacular for the unexpected and idiosyncratic. The book is about the lesser-known connections between Jews and Black baseball. In this work, Alpert’s focus – eschewing triumphal well-trod narratives – is most definitely not on the usual set pieces featuring such eponymous figures as Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Jackie Robinson. Instead, she follows the trail of less celebrated, even relatively obscure, protagonists, events and phenomena, including the Black Jewish players of the Belleville Grays. Her tone is analytic rather than exultant. 

Coming of age, Alpert heard from her family and Reform temple that the Major League Baseball debut of Jackie Robinson in 1947 represented a validation of American democracy, a victory facilitated by Judaism’s commitment to social justice. She later recognized, however, that continued inequality muted Black celebration of Robinson’s achievement. As Jews evolved from race to white ethnic group in the national culture, they failed to fully comprehend that anti-Black racism would prove far more intractable than American antisemitism. The common trajectory of Jewish assimilation and economic upward mobility did not prove normative for African Americans. For centuries, restrictions and prejudice had relegated European Jews to circumscribed spheres, sometimes as rent collectors, moneylenders and traders, positioned precariously between dominant elites and resentful workers. In the United States, numbers of Jewish shopkeepers and landlords appeared to retain attributes of that uncomfortable middleman status in Black neighborhoods. Unfavorable perceptions of the Jewish economic presence in their communities, according to Alpert, impacted the African American view of Jews in Black baseball.

Jews and Blacks viewed their shared baseball experience from sharply different perspectives. Documenting a substantial Jewish presence in Black baseball, Alpert rejects facile generalizations that fail to capture the complexity and nuance of the phenomenon. “Out of Left Field” posits three distinct roles played by the Jewish outsider in Black baseball: players, entrepreneurs and reformers.

As booking agents, promoters, league officials and team owners, Jewish businessmen occupied a central role in Black baseball. Jewish businessmen effectively promoted Black baseball, but their scheduling of barnstorming games ran counter to the establishment of stable Negro Leagues. With little commitment to ending Jim Crow baseball, they recognized that integration would ultimately destroy their income from Black baseball. Nonetheless, Alpert acknowledges Jewish reformers who supported the racial integration of baseball, including slugger turned General Manager Hank Greenberg, Daily Worker sportswriters, Pittsburgh Pirates owner William Benswanger and Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick. 

From other platforms, Alpert has given attention to Jewish ballplayers. Taking a somewhat contrarian stand, she argues that the decision of Detroit Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg to play on Rosh Hashanah amidst the 1934 American League pennant race was as important as his observance of Yom Kippur: “If he hadn’t played, I think there probably would have been a lot of antisemitism that rained down.” Intellectually assertive, Alpert takes issue with those who downplay the significance of Sandy Koufax giving Yom Kippur priority over pitching game one of the 1965 World Series as compared to a similar decision by Greenberg 30 years before during a time of more virulent antisemitism: “[W]hen you talk to a generation of Jewish men who grew up during the [Koufax] period, it mattered a lot. Jews… were seen at the time as not very masculine, as weak figures.” In her baseball writing, as in other areas of her personal and professional life, Alpert reflects choices of a Jewish woman of her generation.

Rebecca Alpert, Jane Leavy and Aviva Kempner possess the gifts to take the story of Jewish women and baseball to the next level. Thus far, the monumental baseball work of the three has focused on men despite the notable non-baseball work of Jewish women and Alpert’s brief piece on Tiby Eisen. A Leavy biography would bring the achievements and significance of Eisen the recognition it merits. An All-American Girls Professional Baseball League outfielder and manager, Eisen stole 674 bases, the second highest total in the circuit’s history. In her ninth decade, the indomitable Eisen was still running youth baseball clinics. 

Paralleling her treatment of the intersection of Jews and Black baseball, Alpert might illuminate the neglected connections between Jewish women and the game. Employing case studies, she could introduce a diverse range of neglected endeavors. Numerous topical possibilities beckon, including baseball maven, self-promoter and actress Helen Dauvray; New York Female Giants team organizer and pitcher Ida Schnall; All-American Girls Professional Baseball League stalwarts Blanche Schachter and Anita Foss; and New York Yankees color commentator Suzyn Waldman. An Alpert venture might examine the long and evolving participation of Jewish women in baseball as players, fans, family enablers, writers, broadcasters and filmmakers, from settlement houses and summer camps to professional leagues. 

A Kempner documentary on pitcher, coach and promoter Justine Siegal would engage Jewish girls, inspiring pursuit of their dreams. Surmounting scorn and derision, Siegal – armed with determination, ability and a Ph.D. – was the first woman to pitch batting practice to a major league team and serve as an instructional league coach within a major league organization. Founder of Baseball for All, Siegal asks, “If you tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else will she think she can’t do?” 

With Yentl at the bat, it is time for Alpert, Leavy and Kempner to chronicle the journey of Jewish women out of the bleachers. 

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.