Jews in Baseball: Jews, Dodgers and Brooklyn: Before the diaspora

By Bill Simons

It was 1956. Growing up in Brooklyn, 9-year-old Nathaniel Silver rooted for the hometown Dodgers. And his hero was Gil Hodges, their slugging first baseman. When a bank announced that Hodges would sign autographs, Grandpa Jules, an immigrant, fatuously claimed to have played against Hodges in Russia and volunteered to take Nathaniel to the promotion. Arriving as the bank closed, Nathaniel was crestfallen. But Hodges, with a friendly wave, beckoned Nathaniel for an autograph and pretended that he remembered playing baseball against Jules’ Russian Bears. The grandfather asked the Catholic Hodges if he knew Yiddish, adding, “Well, you should know what a mensch is. Because that’s you.”

The preceding was a scene in the 1991 debut episode of the TV series “Brooklyn Bridge.” Although the vignette was fictive, Gil Hodges was a mensch and the dramatization spoke truth. A special relationship connected the Dodgers and Brooklyn Jews. Arguably, no baseball team ever forged a closer relationship with Jewish fans than did the Dodgers during their Brooklyn years. In other New York City boroughs, the Yankees and Giants had their Jewish adherents, as did Major League Baseball teams in other cities, but in Brooklyn the Dodgers drilled deep into the social fabric. 

Demographics played a role. Approximately 920,000 Jews resided in 1950 Brooklyn, a figure then greater than that of New York City’s other boroughs and, for that matter, any other city in the U.S. or the world, including Jerusalem. Brooklyn neighborhoods, typically defined by ethnicity, constituted urban villages. Jewish neighborhoods, amongst them Bensonhurst, Brighton Beach, Brownsville, Crown Heights, Flatbush, Midwood and Sheepshead’s Bay, connected large extended families, often bolstered by cousins’ clubs. 

From the opening of Ebbets Field in 1913 to the departure of the Dodgers in 1957, baseball animated Brooklyn. A venue of Americanization, the ballfield spoke the national vernacular. In Chaim Potok’s iconic novel, “The Chosen,” the sacred friendship between the son of a Chasidic rebbe and the son of a Zionist begins in antagonism on an asphalt diamond in Brooklyn. “The Boys of Summer” – memoir, history, paean – chronicles the centrality of the Dodgers to Roger Kahn’s own coming of age. 

My labor union compatriot Jo Schaffer related family folklore. Sometime in the mid-1930s, her mother, Rhea Sharefkin, hopped the Flatbush Avenue trolley to Ebbets Field, with infant Jo in a stroller, for Ladies Day. During pre-game batting practice, a line drive screamed into the stands, smashing Rhea’s jaw. When she came to, Rhea demanded season tickets. 
Baseball and its variants pervaded Brooklyn. The parks hosted sandlot and schoolboy games. On the streets, stickball was ubiquitous. Throwing the spaldeen, a pink rubber ball, against outdoor steps, enthusiasts played stoopball. Baseball cards were collected, and their inside “dope” memorized, but they were also “flipped” competitively. 

The Dodgers provided Brooklyn’s soundtrack. In her Brooklyn youth, retired SUNY historian Judy Wishnia remembers that you could walk by open windows, go into stores and take cabs without missing any of Red Barber’s Dodger radio broadcasts. 

In Brooklyn, the Dodgers were family. Fans encountered Gil Hodges buying milk at the grocery store and assigning lanes at his bowling alley. Ballplayer salaries were modest in those days, and many of the Dodgers resided – and had off-season jobs – in Brooklyn. Rifle-armed right fielder Carl Furillo might own the vehicle blocking your car in the parking lot. Ron Feldstein, former Temple Beth El of Oneonta president, shared a 1956 memory of Dodgers announcer Vin Scully jogging up an Ebbets Field aisle. At a Hall of Fame event in the 1990s, Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, called out warmly to Ron, formerly the little boy who was her Brooklyn neighbor. 

Ebbets Field encouraged intimacy, sitting less than 32,000 during the Dodgers’ final Brooklyn years. Jewish haberdasher Abe Stark offered a free suit of clothes to any batter who hit his ad, directly below the rightfield scoreboard, on the fly. The notoriety contributed to Stark’s election as Brooklyn borough president. Superfan “Howlin’ Hilda” Chester acquired celebrity by clanging a cowbell from her bleacher seat to encourage the Dodgers. 

Through the years, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a few Jewish standard bearers on the field, albeit no superstars, before the 1957 abandonment. Goody Rosen, a 1945 All-Star with a .325 batting average and 126 runs scored, patrolled centerfield at Ebbets Field (1937-39, 1944-46). Primarily a utility leftfielder during his Brooklyn seasons (1949-52), Cal Abrams’ Dodgers batting average peaked at .280 in 1951. A Temple Israel of Binghamton member and upholder of the High Holidays, Jake Pitler was the Dodgers first base coach (1947-57). Pitcher Ralph Branca, a 21-game winner (1947), ultimately learned that his immigrant mother was Jewish. A native of Brooklyn, the young Sandy Koufax, a rookie at 19, was inconsistent during his Ebbets Field pitching apprenticeship (1955-57), greatness coming on the West Coast. 

The associational foundations between Brooklyn Jewry and the Dodgers derived from shared sensibility. Prior to the 1940s, the “daffy” Dodgers were a generally hapless but loveable team, “Dem Bums,” replete with colorful, comical players and incidents, including once having three runners on the same base. Working-class, Brooklyn Jews related to their Bums more easily than to haughty, pin-striped Yankees. Even when the Dodgers achieved greatness (1947-57), Brooklyn perennially lost to the Yankees in the World Series – save for 1955 – leading to the aspirational lament “wait until next year,” the secular equivalent of the seder’s “next year in Jerusalem.”

Jackie Robinson’s reintegration of MLB rendered the bond between the Dodgers and Brooklyn’s liberal Jewish community implacable. Jewish sportswriters created much of the impetus for baseball’s great experiment and Jewish fans contributed the necessary support. Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, asserted that his generation of ACLU leaders were all Jewish, Brooklynites and Jackie Robinson-Dodger fans. At the 1947 Foner family seder, the youngest son, Henry, asked “Why is this night different from all other nights?”: the response – a Black man now plays for the Dodgers. 

Despite winning six pennants in their final Brooklyn decade (1947-57), the Dodgers fled to the manna of Los Angeles. Amidst the diaspora, many Jewish fans departed to the suburbs. 

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.