“Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball”
By Cindy Mindell
Dr. Rebecca T. Alpert is associate professor of religion and women’s studies at Temple University. Ordained as a rabbi from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Alpert specializes in religion in America, with a focus on sexuality and race. A prolific author and editor with numerous articles and chapters published in scholarly publications. Among her works are the award-winning Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1997); Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach which she co-authored, and Voices of the Religious Left: A Contemporary Sourcebook (Temple University Press, 2000), which she edited. Alpert’s most recent work is, comparatively, “out of left field,” and bears that title.
Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (Oxford University Press, 2011) is inspired by Alpert’s childhood as a Dodgers fan growing up in Brooklyn. She will talk about her book on Thursday, Feb. 21 at Fairfield University. She spoke with the Ledger about how she was inspired to explore this pivotal relationship in American sports history, now largely missing from our collective consciousness.
Q: How did you become interested in this subject?
A: Tell people that you’re writing about baseball, and they are waiting for the bad jokes and silly puns. Tell people you’re writing about Jews and baseball, and they say “Sandy Koufax” or “Hank Greenberg,” or maybe nothing at all. Tell people you’re writing about Jews in black baseball, and they just look at you funny.
My goal is to provoke people to think about the important role baseball plays in American civil religion and get a greater appreciation of how Jews who aren’t often studied – mid-20th century entrepreneurs, Communists, and Hebrew Israelites – negotiated the terms of their religious, ethnic, and racial identities in the era before and after World War II.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were the first racially integrated team in baseball, breaking the so-called “color line” with the signing of Jackie Robinson to a major league contract in 1947 by Branch Rickey, their general manager. Many times my mother saw the Dodgers as Jewish because they’d done the right thing. That insight, that Robinson was a Jewish hero or icon, was the seed of the book.
The role Robinson played in Jewish life fascinated me. It was the source of poems, memoir, novels, juvenilia – the latest, a children’s book by Sharon Robinson about Jackie buying a Christmas tree for his Jewish neighbors in Brooklyn – and even a Broadway play. What made Robinson a Jewish hero? Was it victim envy? A sense of shared oppression? An opportunity to claim American identity and noblesse oblige? All of the above?
Since the Jews had such a passion for Robinson, it led me to wonder about whether the Jews had any connection to the Negro Leagues. It was a question rarely asked. There were figures on the business side who were assumed by all the researchers to be Jewish, and this fact was casually mentioned. It turned out that some of them were, but some of them weren’t. Jewish Jackie Robinson research turned up one other important clue: two groups of people pressured for the integration of baseball for decades. The main ones were the black press, starting in the late 1920s, with occasional support from the mainstream press, and constant support from the sportswriters
of the Daily Worker, the Communist newspaper, all of whom were Jews. What I didn’t expect was that I would also discover that Jews played in the Negro Leagues, and had their own team, the Belleville Grays.
Q: Who were these Jewish players?
A: The Jews I am talking about defy most Americans expectations: in our common understanding, Jews are white; black Jews converted or were the product of an inter-racial marriage. But these black Jews belonged to a community known as the Church of God and Saints of Christ. The plot thickens! What do Jews have to do with Christ? These Jews assert proudly that they are from the religion of Jesus, not about Jesus, and they do not share Christian beliefs about a triune god, or the saving power of the resurrection. They do observe the Sabbath, follow the Jewish calendar, read from the Hebrew Bible, use a common Jewish liturgy, and call their leaders rabbis. Some of their congregations have practices that are very similar to those we commonly understand as “Jewish,” blended with African-derived traditions. But whatever were they doing with a baseball team that, in 1938 and 1939, was the best in Virginia and provided good competition for the traveling teams like the Homestead Grays, after whom they were probably named, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, and Newark Eagles?
The answer has a lot to do with Rabbi H. Z. Plummer. It was H. Z.’s father, William Plummer – the second leader after founder William Saunders Crowdy, an ex-slave who had a prophetic vision that African-Americans were descended from the Israelites and should practice Biblical religion – who started the team. Plummer’s community settled in Belleville, Va. in the early 1900s. Land-owning blacks in the south in that era were rare, but the Church of God and Saints of Christ community grew and prospered. They farmed, but not cotton; operated a home for widows and orphans; ran a lumber mill; produced beautiful liturgical music; and lived communally. They had a Sunday school for their youth, adopting customs of African Judaism from an itinerant teacher, Ethiopian rabbi, David de Kollscritta.
H. Z., who played second base on his father’s team, became the leader of the community in 1931. Plummer had greater ambitions than his father for the team. For him, it was not simply recreation, but part of a plan to situate his community on the national African-American map. Plummer brought in players like Tommy Sampson, Gentry Jessup, and Buster Haywood, who would later be stars in the Negro Leagues. Plummer’s ambitions, however, were on a collision course with his religious principles. The team wouldn’t play on the Sabbath, so making a schedule away from home was often difficult. Negro League Baseball was a ruthless business, and Plummer had many angry fights with other owners, of whose tactics he disapproved.
Q: Who were the Jewish businessmen who became involved with Negro League teams?
A: There were virtually no Jewish owners among the white owners in the pre-Depression era, although most people believed there were. Nat Strong, who made a fortune from booking games and owning Negro League teams, was often dubbed the Hebrew Menace; but Strong was of Welsh, not Jewish, descent. His business partner, Max Rosner, provided a venue and crowds for black baseball teams to play – against his Brooklyn Bushwicks, the best white semi-pro team in the country throughout the 1920s and 30s – but wasn’t the operator Strong was and was not directly involved in black baseball. That blacks thought Strong was Jewish says a lot about stereotypes of Jews and money that were rampant in that era.
Of the few whites who got involved during the Depression, almost all of them were Jewish. The Jews who became owners of Negro League teams were a complicated lot. Their involvement grew from a combination of their love of sport and the limited business opportunities available to them as children of recent Eastern European immigrants without large reserves of capital to invest. Their entrepreneurial skills found a welcome home in Negro League ball. There were, of course, not a small number of Jewish owners of Major League teams in the earlier part of the century, mostly from German-Jewish backgrounds, but by the time the Depression rolled around, and anti-Semitism was on the rise, and team ownership became the prerogative of the very wealthy upper classes, only William Benswanger, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, remained.
In my book, I focus on the three Jewish men who were owners of black baseball teams starting in the late 1920s. Ed Gottlieb, a Philadelphian, started out as a baseball and basketball player. He was the driving force behind the greatest Jewish basketball team of all time, the Philadelphia SPHAS. The second, Abe Saperstein, is a familiar figure, but, like Gottlieb, is known mostly for his involvement in basketball. Saperstein was the owner and founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. While Saperstein’s fame derived from basketball, much of his wealth came from his involvement in the Negro Leagues before the 1950s when the Globetrotters became a household name. Operating out of Chicago, he was part owner of several Negro League teams … Like Gottlieb, in this work he had admirers and detractors, many of whom resented his financial self-interest.
The third Jewish entrepreneur in my story, Syd Pollock began his career in baseball in the early 1920s. He also worked in the family business in North Tarrytown, N.Y., where his father owned the vaudeville theater. Pollock believed that baseball and entertainment were made for each other, and his career would center on promoting novelty teams.
He started with the Bloomer Girls, but quickly moved on to bringing teams from Cuba. Pollock advertised them as speaking “gibberish.” The Havana Red Sox dressed in colorful uniforms and performed novelty acts like “shadow ball” – where players mimed a game, throwing and hitting an imaginary ball with great proficiency – between innings and sometimes interrupting the game with various antics and routines. In 1936, Pollock purchased a black team that he renamed the Ethiopian Clowns. In addition to the routines, the clowns wore face paint and clown outfits, and the players, some of the best in Negro League baseball, took on African names. Buster Haywood, who joined the Clowns in 1940, played under the name of Khora. His comedy role was to bat with his catcher’s equipment on; the other catcher on the team played the position in a rocking chair.
Q: How has such a significant piece of American Jewish history faded from our collective memory?
A: The Belleville Grays, Daily Worker sportswriters, and even the Jewish businessmen are not typical subjects of American Jewish history and black-Jewish relations, which has been more focused on studying Ashkenazi Jewish religious and ethnic institutions. The kind of Jewish lives they represented fell out of fashion when the integration of Major League baseball began after World War Two. The world of black baseball entered a slow decline and the opportunities Jews experienced in the segregated world they inhabited but in which they did not belong, disappeared. The social changes that permitted baseball’s integration after the war also had a profound impact on Jewish American identity. The postwar Jewish community capitalized on these changes in a variety of ways that would put an end to the way Jews in black baseball expressed their identities through radicalism, minstrelsy, and blackness.
Jews and blacks began to work cooperatively during this “golden age of black-Jewish relations.” Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League created alliances with black groups like the NAACP to fight for legal rights that would put an end to discrimination in voting, education, housing, and employment. Jackie Robinson’s warm and welcoming relationship with the Jews was symbolic of this era. Jewish organizations subscribed to the “unitary theory of bigotry” and assumed that supporting rights for blacks would bring an end to anti-Semitism.
Baseball, like history, tells stories of winners and losers. The Jews of black baseball ended in obscurity, their customs and practices no longer acceptable. But as the children of immigrants and descendents of slaves they accomplished more than was expected of them. Their lives and legacies confirm the complexity of black and Jewish identities and relationships, and underscore the importance of baseball as a location for understanding mid-20th century America.
“Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball” with Dr. Rebecca T. Alpert: Thursday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m., Fairfield University Dolan School of Business, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield | RSVP: Bennett Center for Judaic Studies, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2066