Sports Nut

Who’s the Greatest Jewish Athlete?

An interview with Franklin Foer about Jewish jocks, and how they changed sports history.

American baseball player Sandy Koufax circa 1965.
Sandy Koufax circa 1965

N.Y. Public Library Picture Collection/Wikimedia Commons.

When I was bar mitzvah’d in 1983, I received four Swiss Army knives as presents. Starting this week, and for decades to come, every Jewish bar mitzvah boy will probably get four copies of Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. Edited by Franklin Foer and Mark Tracy, Jewish Jocks collects dozens of short, opinionated biographical essays about the greatest Jewish athletes, coaches, team owners, trainers, and sports journalists of all time. Contributors include David Remnick, Howard Jacobson, Buzz Bissinger, Simon Schama, and Jane Leavy—not to mention Slate’s own Emily Bazelon, Josh Levin, Dahlia Lithwick, and me. Later this week Slate will run the essays from Steven Pinker (on Red Auerbach), Jonathan Safran Foer (on Bobby Fischer), and Bazelon (on Renee Richards).

I interviewed Franklin Foer about the book.

Great Jewish Athletes is supposedly the world’s shortest book. How did you manage to get 300 pages out of the subject?  

That old joke from the movie Airplane!: It’s both true and a smear. Yes, Yeshiva Flatbush isn’t winning many football championships these days. But the history of Jewish athletics is much richer than most folks realize. Basketball and boxing were both dominated by Jews during the interwar years. (Back then, a third of all boxing champions were Jews. You could find them in every weight class.) Football, not a very Jewish discipline on the surface, was practically invented by our people. Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman created the modern quarterback as we know him. Sid Gilman was the genius who conceived the basic structure of offense you see on your television sets each Sunday. Al Davis—yeah, we own him, too—reshaped the image of the game. That’s to say nothing of the TV executives, the newspaper journalists, and marketing geniuses who left their sizable stamps on football.

Our thesis is that the Jewish contribution to sports is very much akin to the Jewish contribution to Hollywood. To paraphrase: We built that. 

What kind of sports have Jews been especially good at and why? And which ones have we struggled at?

Jewish Jocks, 2012.
Jewish Jocks, 2012.

Twelve/Hachette Book Group.

Jews were very good at any sport that thrived in New York City in the early 20th century, which is not surprising given their large presence in the five boroughs. That was also a time when Jews lived in working-class neighborhoods, where physical strength was an everyday imperative. You needed to know how to fight back against the Irish and Italian kids threatening to pound you. And credit must also be paid to the Settlement House movement, which built gyms across the Lower East Side in the first decades of the century. 

You can find Jewish champions in almost every sport, with one strange exception: golf. There are lots of Jewish country clubs and lots of Jewish doctors on the links, but there are stunningly few members of the tribe on the PGA tour. I have struggled to find a theory to explain this paucity. (Perhaps golf is a sport that punishes neurotics. Or perhaps there’s some hangover from the era when country clubs excluded the Goldbergs and Epsteins.) The one great Jewish golfer in recent memory, Corey Pavin, became an evangelical Christian.

Is there any reason to believe that Jews are better or worse athletes than non-Jews?

My father has called this book the most triumphalist document to emerge from the Jewish community since the ‘67 war. Many of the essays hit the same theme: Jews compensate for their lack of physical acumen with their heads. They are innovators, who must devise new strategies and new techniques to win. Jewish boxers were invariably described as “scientific.” That is, they used precision and creativity in order to foil their foes. Henry Ford, for one, hated the scientific fighters. He considered the use of feints and trickery to be less than manly. Yet, the slips and punches that Jewish boxers invented ultimately found their way into every gym in America. 

Who’s the greatest Jewish Jock of all time?

The strongest (and most screamingly obvious) case can be made for Sandy Koufax. His image and career come very close to perfection. It helps that he retired before we could witness him at less than full strength. (In his final season, he won 27 times, each of them a complete game!) And his decision to sit out Yom Kippur—and the applause he received for it—certified Jewish assimilation in this country. 

I can also make a case for Benny Leonard, the greatest of the Jewish pugilists. He won the lightweight title in 1917 and didn’t let it go until 1925. The authoritative Bert Sugar (also a Jew) has rated him the sixth best pound-for-pound fighter of all time—just one spot below Muhammad Ali.

Or, in the spirit of the book, I should mention Daniel Okrent. He is the journalist, the first public editor of the New York Times, who invented rotisserie baseball, a game that has transformed the experience of fandom. He took the quintessential Jewish obsession with stats and elevated it into a national obsession, the very definition of fantasy. In effect, Okrent made us a nation of Jewish nerds.

 A huge number of your Jewish Jocks are owners, lawyers, coaches, journalists—nonsportsmen. Why did you include them? You’re confirming the stereotype that we’re actually the moneymen, not the ballers!

This book has no anxieties! If you look at the cumulative history of Jewish sports, you have to conclude: We’re pretty good. So we never worried about confirming or disproving stereotypes. We include all manner of scoundrels. There’s a wonderful Ron Rosenbaum essay about Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series. One of my favorite essays is about Jack Molinas. He could have been one of the best basketball players to ever emerge from New York City. In his rookie season in the NBA, 1953, he was named an All-Star. But he also fixed games and the commissioner booted him from the league. After he quit playing, Molinas went around the country buying point guards and ordering them to shave points. By the end of his life, he became a porn mogul. It won’t surprise you to learn that he was murdered by his pool in Los Angeles, while entertaining a young XXX star. 

Author Frank Foer.
Author Franklin Foer

Photo by Len Small.

You seem to have a beef with our expansive definition of “jock.” And, it’s true, that we inserted labor lawyer Marvin Miller in our cannon. (Dahlia Lithwick wrote that one.) Our interest was in documenting the history of sports. The locker room, press box, and sideline are often the most interesting (and influential) places in the arena. Why would we exclude them? 

What is the most remarkable Jewish contribution to sports—not the best athlete, but the thing that a Jew did that had the greatest impact on sports?

Basketball is the greatest Jewish contribution to sports. Sure, it was a Canadian gentile who invented the game. But it was Jews who turned it into something interesting. Before Jewish coaches and players exerted their influence, basketball was a stagnant sport. It was Jewish coaches (Harry Baum, Nat Holman) and Jewish players (Barney Sedran) who gave the basketball its speed—the backdoor cut, the look-away pass, hands-up defense, incessant motion. Barney Sedran, by the way, is the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was 5-foot-4. His team was nicknamed the “Busy Izzies” or the “Dizzy Izzies.”

I noticed that Sasha Cohen, the great figure skater, is not in Jewish Jocks. I am sure there are other Jewish Jocks that you couldn’t include. Who do you wish was in there?

I’m filled with regret that we don’t have an essay on Abe Saperstein, the founder and manager of the Harlem Globetrotters. Relations between Jews and African Americans is an important sub-theme of this collection, but Saperstein would have occasioned a more substantial discussion of that. I also wish we had an essay on Ryan Braun. My hunch is that guy is a player for the ages. But scandal was hovering of him during the production of this book. We weren’t sure of his guilt and that uncertainty made him a difficult subject to explicate.

You have a lot of wonderful (and famous) writers in this anthology. Are they all Jewish? Was that a requirement?

We interviewed the mothers of all our contributors to determine whether they possessed the necessary qualifications. No! There are a few non-Jewish contributors to the book and others who might not qualify for automatic citizenship in Israel.

Did you let your writers choose their subjects, or did you assign them? Did you find that almost everyone you approached had a passion to write about someone? Does every Jewish boy (and girl) have a Jewish Jock that he fantasizes over? (I can’t imagine how you settled the brawl over Sandy Koufax!)

I have never had an easier time assigning essays. You’re right that everyone has a favorite Jewish Jock. The novelist Tom Rachman was obsessed with Sidney Franklin, the greatest Jewish bullfighter who ever lived. (As it turned out, Sidney Franklin is also the greatest gay Jewish bullfighter who ever lived, too.) Your colleague Emily Bazelon had an abiding interest in the transgendered tennis star Renee Richards and the conflict she created on the woman’s tour. In other words, it was the contributors who steered us towards many of our most interesting subjects. 

With Koufax, there was really only one choice. We went to Jane Leavy who wrote a spectacular, definitive biography of Sandy. Her essay in the book recounts the day that the great pitcher attended her daughter’s bat mitzvah at Washington Hebrew Congregation. It’s a completely charming tale and an interesting meditation of his character. 

Are Jews getting better or worse at sports?

We’re in the midst of a Jewish sports renaissance. Baseball is filled with Jews (Braun and Ian Kinsler are arguably the forth and fifth greatest Jews ever to play the game); at the Olympics, there’s nothing surprising about Jews on the balance beam or racing across the pool. Or check out the World Cup roster for the American national team: Bornstein, Spector, Feilhaber. Over the generations, Jewish life in America has become completely normalized—and that assimilation includes, of course, sports. 

Settle a fight I have with my Israeli-born wife. Who are better athletes: American Jews or Israeli Jews?

I’m going to say American Jews. We don’t have to serve in the military, which can disrupt a budding athletic career, and we have thriving college sports, which nurtures them. Israel often has a great national soccer team, but they are screwed by the Arab boycott. If Israel competed in Asia, where it geographically belongs, it would routinely qualify for the World Cup. But it is forced to qualify as a European nation, since Saudi Arabia and Iran won’t deign to play on the same field. Israel tends to get very close to winning a bid, then it loses a final important game against France or some other power. Shande!