Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame,
edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy
Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 304 pages, $27

What a strange book. You open the pages of a work called “Jewish Jocks,” subtitled “An Unorthodox Hall of Fame,” and you’re expecting maybe latkes. Instead, you get literary − not necessarily a bad thing for a book.

Honestly, I was expecting schmaltz, and what I got was sophistication.

Then again, when the book is put together by the editor and a staff writer from The New Republic, with an all-star lineup of writers, we should have been forewarned this was not going to be just a feel-good book detailing the home runs of Hank Greenberg or the strikeouts of Sandy Koufax, not to mention ‏something like‏ their being “true to their religion” by staying off the field on Yom Kippur.

Thus, we’ve got The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, on Howard Cosell; the novelist Sam Lipsyte on his father ‏(my old friend‏), the groundbreaking sportswriter Bob Lipsyte; Judith Shulevitz, Yalie and American culture critic, as she describes herself, on Mark Spitz. There are, in fact, 50 such pieces, and hardly a sports cliche in the bunch.

Despite the editors’ nod on the dedication page to “Sadie” and “Grandpa Bert,” this isn’t a nostalgic look for Jewish roots in our sports heroes. In fact, I would suggest that the title itself is misleading. For often in this fascinating collection, you will not really find a Jewish nugget. Oh, you might see the word “Jewish” describing someone − like, say, the founders of Ultimate Frisbee − but if you’re looking for some Hebraic sensibility that led to the codification of this “sport,” well, you won’t find it. Also, the criteria seems to be Jewishness as much as “jock.” Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner, and Marvin Miller, the key figure in bringing a union to baseball, are in these pages. And why not?

It has always struck me as interesting that we still kvell over Koufax’s decision not to pitch that day in the 1965 World Series because it was Yom Kippur. I don’t think that if it happened today, it would resonate the same way. In the years since, we Jews have become so mainstream that our need for a Jewish hero to cement our identity doesn’t cry out. In fact, three of the four commissioners of America’s major sports are Jewish.

In their introduction, the editors give you a wry clue as to what they and their book are about: “It’s our curveball, the only kind we know to throw...”  Clearly, tongue in cheek, if not on rye.

‘Go to Hell Cosell’

I particularly enjoyed Remnick’s cool take on Cosell, the sports announcer whom he describes essentially as an unhappy prophet. Cosell often spoke of his Jewishness, and often angrily, of how he believed others sometimes treated him because of his faith. Ironically, the man who attached himself to Muhammad Ali and helped bring America, screaming, into recognizing the champ, we learn here, screwed up his biggest story − the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. He was too drunk to go on camera.

And despite his bravado, Cosell was always looking for affirmation. Once, as a joke, I clipped out an ad from a Houston newspaper that was selling “Go to Hell Cosell” T-shirts. Oilers fans were angry that their team wasn’t on Monday night football. I sent the ad to Cosell, whom I knew from my years as a sportswriter, and asked if I could have the New York franchise for the shirts.

At 7 on a Tuesday morning ‏(he must have been up all night after a Monday night game, fingers poised to dial my number‏), my phone rang. “Jerry, this is Howard Cosell. How could you embarrass me like that? Don’t you know my secretary opens my mail?”

Meanwhile, I was bemused reading the highly regarded Simon Schama’s take on Daniel Mendoza, the late-18th-century English bare-knuckle boxing champion who was as much a novelty for his being Jewish as he was for his prowess. Schama, a historian, among his other gifts, spends part of his profile writing in an old English style, perhaps to capture the tenor of the times, but which made me feel as if I were walking through lard: “at which he took mighty offense,” and “the king was, by fits and starts, not of sound mind.”

But jump ahead a few centuries to Red Holzman, the mastermind of the Knicks’ two championships while he served as their head coach. If you’re looking for something Jewish in how those victories came about, good luck. Todd Gitlin, the Columbia University professor and author, does suggest that perhaps the New York City roots, of unions and collectives, had something to do with the team ethos, but doesn’t delve into it. But if Holzman was introspective about himself as a Jew, he never let on to those sportswriters who covered the team, and certainly not in this profile.

I loved the title of sportswriter Jane Leavy’s take on Koufax: “Best Bar Mitzvah Guest Ever.” As much as one can write the definitive work on this elusive figure, she did it with her 2002 book “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.” And I thought, “Wow, she got him to come to her kid’s simcha!” This really is a rumination on Koufax’s philosophy, though, not his Jewishness − and nothing at all about his being at the services, other than that he signed some autographs. Did he daven? I wondered.

Did he wear a tallis? What kind of singing voice does he have?

Then again, look back to this book’s title, which describes it as being “unorthodox.”
And so it goes: Dahlia Lithwick’s piece on Marvin Miller, the man who transformed sports as the head of baseball’s first effective union, tells us nothing of whether Miller’s Jewish experience changed baseball − but does tell the story well. Yet, in this, and so many of the others, I found myself thinking, “No wonder this happened − it’s because of his Jewishness.” That is, his Judaism probably made him, and the others in the book, sensitive to abuses of the past, to slights, to unfairness, and thus an almost central theme of Jewishness: How can we make this better?

There are times when even Gentiles hope a Jew makes it specifically because he is Jewish. Robert Weintraub writes a fascinating little story on baseball player Mose Solomon, whose major league career lasted all of a week, in 1923, and John McGraw’s search for a Jewish player to attract more fans to his Giants at the ancient Polo Grounds in Manhattan ‏(McGraw, the Giants’ manager, also owned a piece of the team‏). But even though Jews have made up about 2 percent of the United States population since the beginning of the 20th century, they rarely got above 1 percent among those playing Major League Baseball.

The most up-to-date story, written by “Freakonomics” best-selling coauthor Stephen J. Dubner, is so recent that its denouement happened after the book went to press. It is about Adam Greenberg, hit in the head in his first, and only, big-league at-bat − that is, until October. His first appearance was back in 2005, with the Chicago Cubs. Headaches followed, and the seeming end of his big-league career. But seven years later, after toiling in the minors, he was activated by the Florida Marlins. He struck out on three pitches, but received a standing ovation and teammates’ hugs.

But of that first, scary at-bat, Greenberg says in the book, “inherently, in all of us as a Jew − you get knocked down, you get up. You get knocked down, you get up. You keep pushing, keep pushing.”

The titles are provocative, and funny. Take “Hezbollah’s Favorite Wrestler.” That would be Bill Goldberg, who was billed simply as “Goldberg” in his heyday, a decade ago, as a pro wrestler. Writer Jeffrey Goldberg, no relation, talks about all those fans, in all parts of the world, who loved Goldberg ‏(the wrestler‏). The author recounts a meeting with a glowering Hezbollah guard while on assignment in Lebanon. The guard asked if Goldberg the author was related to Goldberg the wrestler. The guard showed off his knowledge of wrestling by announcing that Goldberg had defeated Hulk Hogan. His Jewishness apparently was more important to his Jewish fans than to non-Jews. And that may say something about how far Gentiles have come.

Americans probably are not aware of Eyal ‏(the Magician‏) Berkovic, whose story is titled “Soccer Sabra.” It is written by Etgar Keret, who brings his novelist’s and filmmaker’s sensibility to the piece. Berkovic was an outstanding player with Maccabi Haifa, then left for Europe, where he continued to make goals and antagonize teammates and fans − once even going into a Scottish crowd and giving them the finger. Magically, he escaped.

And Israelis will recall the Maccabi Tel Aviv hoopster they labeled “The Big Rabbi.” He was American-born Tamir Goodman, and in a sometimes biting story, Avi Zvi Zenilman describes him as the rare basketball player who wore a kippa and tzitzit both on and off the court. He never hit the heights. Although Goodman started out known as “The Jewish Jordan,” he has since adjusted to life as a businessman, propped in part by his faith.

My own Jewish experiences in more than 40 years as a sportswriter for The New York Times were few. But I did have a memorable one.

It was back in the 1970s, and the paper asked me to cover a Yankees game. That night was the eve of Rosh Hashanah. I wouldn’t normally have considered it. But the game started at 1 P.M., Yankee Stadium was a 40-minute drive away, and back then, baseball games lasted two and a half hours. No problem with being back for services at 6:45 P.M.

Guess what? The game was tied going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Up came Atlanta-born Ron Blomberg, whom I had always thought of as more Georgia than Jewish. He drove in the winning run. I rushed to the locker room to get a quote, and he told me if the game had gone into extra innings, he would have left to go to temple. The Times dubbed him “The Sundown Kid” in my story the next day, which Rabbi Myron Fenster read aloud at my shul.

The next time I saw Blomberg, he was wolfing down a ham sandwich. Still, I’ll always remember that he got me to the temple on time.

Gerald Eskenazi had 8,000 bylines as a sportswriter for The New York Times, and now lectures on the news media and sports.