Jewish Jocks: Grasshoppers vs. Giants


Jews have often regarded themselves within the realm of American sports not unlike the Israelite scouts who imagined themselves as small and insignificant as “grasshoppers” in comparison to the Canaanites who seemed to them as giants.

Famously, there were two Israelite scouts who disagreed with all that self-loathing, and now there are two terrific writers, Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy of The New Republic, who make the case that, hey, we Israelites are one tough grasshopper, and if you want to make something of it show up at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in lower Manhattan on June 12 at 7 p.m., where Tracy, Mark Singer of The New Yorker and Rich Cohen, author of “Tough Jews,” will be discussing it. The program is free ([646] 437-4202).

Tracy e-mails, “We’ll be discussing sports both mainstream (football and basketball) and not (handball) to help trace how the story of sports in America is, in large part, the story of Jews in sports in America.” Not only on the field but off the field.

“For example, in football, a sport not particularly associated with Jews,” Tracy continues, “the modern quarterback position was essentially invented by Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman.”

And away from the field, Tracy makes the case that it was Jews “who created the modern players union; the journalism and broadcast apparatus, which turned sports into a full-fledged mass culture spectacle; and fantasy sports which transformed the experience of fandom.” That’s right, we Jews can go one-on-one with anyone when it comes to fantasy. Rotisserie baseball, as fantasy sports was originally known, was first explained by writer Daniel Okrent to his friends in the La Rotisserie Francaise restaurant in 1979.

The beauty of “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame,” is precisely that, it is unorthodox. Instead of golly-gee tribalism, editors Foer and Tracy (winner of the National Jewish Book Award for anthology) turn 50 names — ballplayers, broadcasters, trainers, coaches — over to some top writers for brief essays that bring the Jewish sports genre into the 21st century: David Remnick on Howard Cosell; Howard Jacobson on ping-pong’s Marty Reisman; Jane Leavy on Sandy Koufax; David Brooks on Art Shamsky; Jeffrey Goldberg on wrestler Bill Goldberg; Buzz Bissinger on Barney Ross; David Margolick on Al Rosen.

And terrorism, the scourge of this young century, now that we have pat-downs at the gates to stadiums, and no backpacks allowed at marathons from now on, is here, too, with the 1972 murder of the 11 Israelis killed by Palestinians in the Munich Olympic Village and airport, hours later. Historian Deborah Lipstadt writes about that.

And if you’re more grasshopper than jock, well, you could always fix the World Series (like Arnold Rothstein, who has a chapter) or edit a book. Foer and Tracy write that they came from the same Washington neighborhood and day school that didn’t have a football team but had “a grasshopper for a mascot.” And if you put your money on the Canaanites over the grasshoppers, you lost.