Jewish American heritage and baseball, part II: chasing dreams

By Bill Simons

In Part I of the Jewish American Heritage Month series, this column examined the baseball perspectives and experiences of panelists – former major leaguer Shawn Green; Justine Siegal, baseball pitcher and women’s rights advocate; and John Thorn, official historian of Major League Baseball – in a White House-sponsored webinar, “A Conversation: Jews and Baseball.” Part II concludes this series by engaging the baseball exploration of the concluding panelist, Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. In 2014, NMAJH mounted a groundbreaking exhibit, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American.” Through its companion book of the same name and an ongoing travelling exhibit, “Chasing Dreams” continues, as Galperin states, to employ baseball as a revealing platform for understanding Jewish American history. 

The “Chasing Dreams” exhibit depicts Jewish immigrants and their descendants employing baseball to reconcile dual ethnic and American identities. NMAJH Chief Curator Josh Perelman and Associate Curator Ivy Weingram partnered to create the “Chasing Dreams” exhibit. John Thorn, the chief consultant, and an advisory committee developed the exhibit’s interpretive narrative. 

Jewish Americanization through baseball constitutes the organizing vision of “Chasing Dreams,” as depicted by more than 130 material artifacts, including photographs, bats, balls, gloves, caps, jerseys, player cards, board games, newspaper articles, advertisements, letters, managers’ handwritten lineups, box scores, radio broadcasts, recorded interviews and film clips. Technology nicely juxtaposes traditional displays. 

Halls of fame recognize and celebrate excellence, typically focusing on individual achievement. Several Jewish sports halls of fame already exist, including the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, NY: the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya, Israel; and the Greater Washington Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. “Chasing Dreams,” by intent, is not one of them.

Nonetheless, the exhibit gives special prominence to the two Jewish players who rank amongst baseball’s all-time greats, Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. Artifacts and texts record their notable athletic accomplishments, choice of synagogue over stadium on the High Holidays and symbolic importance as role models to their Jewish contemporaries. Outside of the main exhibit area, a venue invites visitors to don a replica of Koufax’s number 32 jersey and throw soft faux baseballs from a “mound.” “Chasing Dreams” also includes lesser major and minor leaguers, as well as those who played in diverse settings outside of organized baseball, ranging from the sandlot to the Olympics. Owners, managers, coaches, umpires, scouts, executives, agents, broadcasters, writers, statisticians and fans also receive their due. 

“Chasing Dreams” contextualizes the relationship between Jews and other minorities, noting phenomena that range from fractious to cooperative. The exhibit documents the complex, multifaceted interaction between Jews and Blacks concerning the Negro Leagues and the integration of organized baseball. A mounted baseball diamond facsimile assigns on-field positions to Jewish entrepreneurs, promoters and sportswriters involved with Black baseball. Text emphasizes that with the coming of Jackie Robinson, the normative Jewish response, even by those who had profited from the Negro Leagues, was to support the integration of baseball. A vintage poster of the Jewish-sponsored Anti-Defamation League champions diversity by highlighting Robinson, Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio. 

Jewish women intermittently punctuate the exhibit. A photograph captures the verve and chutzpah of Helen Dauvray, a prominent actress and the wife of baseball star/union activist John Montgomery Ward. With a “genius of self-promotion,” Dauvray, explains the text, donated a trophy cup, “named after herself,” to the winners of the 1887 baseball championship. Another photo captures All-American Girls Professional Baseball League centerfielder Thelma “Tiby” Eisen swinging the bat with authority; the caption reveals that this daughter of Russian immigrants stole 674 bases in nine seasons. Visitors can listen to noted baseball author Jane Leavy discuss her grandmother and her love of baseball by activating a recording. Another audio features Justine Siegel, who broke a gender barrier by throwing batting practice for Cleveland in 2011. 

Eclectic and populist, “Chasing Dreams” casts a broad net, but it is not comprehensive, nor could it be. Bud Selig’s controversial tenure as commissioner and Ryan Braun’s tarnished achievements receive only limited attention. On an interpretive level, the question of “who is a Jew?” merits more overt consideration as it would clarify whether religious belief, parentage, ethnic consciousness, culture and/or other criteria provide the parameters for inclusion in the exhibit. Furthermore, given the rise of assimilation, intermarriage and acceptance, identity retention would appear to have replaced Americanization as the primary challenge of American Jewry, and thus necessitates deeper reflection. Nonetheless, the great strengths of the exhibit trump these caveats.

Regardless of one’s knowledge of baseball and American Jewry, it is impossible to engage “Chasing Dreams” without discovering new phenomenon as well as encountering cherished memories. A potpourri of recollections summons the sheer diversity of the Jewish baseball experience. Composer Albert Von Tilzer’s original sheet music for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” documents that some of the most distinctively American traditions of baseball ironically derive from ethnic sources. A photo of boys playing stickball in a compact backyard framed by apartment buildings shares the irresistible lure of the game to the children of immigrants. A newspaper account of a game between the Ku Klux Klan and “Hebrew” all-stars suggests that baseball competition had the capacity to both reflect and transcend group conflict. 

NCAA playoff-type brackets – matching Jewish ballplayers until Koufax bests Greenberg in a final pairing – evoke the distinctive argumentative style of Jewish discourse. The loud, but engaging, interactive station that entices “rookie” visitors to shag virtual fly balls epitomizes the brashness of Jewish humor and the chutzpah it took to chase the American Dream. 

“Chasing Dreams” and the webinar, “A Conversation: Jews and Baseball,” that brought it renewed attention invest Jewish baseball history with significance and interest. For fans and players, baseball is a pastime, entertainment and game, but for historians, archivists and curators, it also grants a valuable lens for capturing the dynamic between America and its ethnic mosaic. Jewish American Heritage Month 2022 merits kudos for recognizing baseball as an important component of the ethnic experience.