Baseball: The Jewish Field of Dreams

Acclaimed new book explores the never-ending love story between American Jews and baseball.

BALTIMORE – Tufts University professor Sol Gittleman teaches a course on baseball history, Philadelphia lawyer Howard Goldstein collects baseball items used by Jewish players, and Martin Abramowitz markets baseball cards of Jewish players.

They all take their place beside such past and present Jewish ballplayers as Al Rosen, Ken Holtzman, Art Shamsky and Kevin Youkilis – and many others – as chapter-length subjects of “American Jews & America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball,” a 2013 book written by Larry Ruttman, a retired Boston-area lawyer.

The book is sure to be read by American Jews who love baseball and wrap themselves in a bear hug of pride in their coreligionists’ presence – nay, prominence – in the country’s national pastime.

Those fans’ bookshelves would already feature such titles as Peter Levine’s “Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience”; Howard Megdal’s “The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-by-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players”; and Robert Slater’s “Great Jews in Sports.”

Writing in Sports Collectors Digest, Dan Schlossberg gave Ruttman’s book the No. 1 ranking among all nonfiction baseball works for 2013.

The book stands apart for focusing on the interviewees’ discussion of their Jewish and baseball identities, rather than their professional résumés alone, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Boston’s Brandeis University.

“I really found it surprisingly interesting because it was so different,” Sarna, who admits to not being a big sports fan, says of the book.

“Solomon Schechter thought that you need to know about baseball to be a better American,” says Sarna of the renowned Jewish educator, who died in 1915. “Here, [Ruttman] is saying you can learn about American Jews in baseball in order to be a better Jew.”

Ruttman, now 82, spent five years conducting interviews with a broad array of American Jews to better understand what drew them to the game, the role the sport and Judaism play in their lives, and baseball’s place in American culture. But the commentators aren’t just any old folks off the street; instead, they’re among the movers, shakers and opinion formers of baseball and the sports landscape.

Best pitcher of any religion

The 46 people profiled include Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig; team owners Jerry Reinsdorf (Chicago White Sox) and Stuart Sternberg (Tampa Bay Rays); team executives Theo Epstein (Chicago Cubs), Randy Levine (New York Yankees), Joel Mael (Miami Marlins) and Mark Shapiro (Cleveland Indians); players’ union leaders Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr; and journalists Murray Chass and Ira Berkow.

Along with several past and present MLB players, Ruttman also interviewed Thelma Eisen and Anita Foss, who played in the World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and Leon Feingold, a player in the even shorter-lived Israel Baseball League.

Sandy Koufax – one of the best pitchers of any religion – wouldn’t agree to be interviewed, but Ruttman appeared touched by the great left-hander’s telephoning him to explain. Instead, Ruttman interviewed Norm Sherry, a Jewish catcher who played with his pitcher brother Larry for the Los Angeles Dodgers, from 1959 to 1962, about his famous teammate. That chapter falls flat because it offers nothing on Koufax’s Jewish identity beyond the writer’s perfunctory mention of his famous decision to skip a 1965 World Series pitching appearance that fell on Yom Kippur. (By contrast, Ruttman’s interviews of Steve and Alva Greenberg reveal much about the Jewish identity and legacy of their late father Hank, a slugging first baseman and arguably the greatest Jewish ballplayer ever.)

Ruttman even interviewed Jeffrey Maier, whose claim to fame was attending a 1996 playoff game as a 12-year-old fan and interfering with a ball in play, resulting in a controversial Yankees home run.

Often, the ethnic angle is overplayed, like when Ruttman seems to badger Shamsky about his Jewish influences despite Shamsky’s having stated that none existed.

The result of Ruttman’s effort is less a work of literature than an oral history sprinkled with observations offered by a narrator who’s genuinely interested in the social, family and religious forces at play during the past century.

Ruttman poses a provocative question of some subjects, asking them to compare the long-term futures of baseball and American Jewry. That’s hardly standard fare in Jewish sports books.

Indeed, while reading the book over two consecutive Shabbat afternoons, I vacillated between hopefulness in Judaism’s survival in the tolerant, democratic Diaspora society that fosters such achievers, and utter gloom at American Jewry’s slide, even demise, in the coming century or so. For every Holtzman (he earned the most wins of any Jewish pitcher, surpassing even Koufax) – who married a Jewish woman and kept a kosher home – there are five interviewees who resemble Brad Ausmus (the Detroit Tigers’ new manager), who, like his parents, intermarried, or writer Roger Kahn, who says he’s Jewish ethnically but little more.

That’s not a challenge for American-Jewish-baseball, of course; it’s an American-Jewish challenge. And it’s a reality Ruttman readily acknowledges.

“One of the important themes of this book is the dwindling of community, and intermarriage and assimilation,” Ruttman tells Haaretz from his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, the town where he was raised and, in 1944, celebrated his bar mitzvah.

“I’m very proud of my Jewish heritage,” he says. “I think I’ve learned more about it – and about who I am – by doing this, because I’ve come across Jews from all walks of life.”

An exhibition on baseball and American Jews, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming Americans,” will be on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, from March 13 - October 26, 2014.

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AP