How black baseball helped Jews learn to play the game

It might seem strange that someone uninterested in sports would ask to review “Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball.” What drew my attention to the book was its author.

“Rebecca T. Alpert, the well-known feminist writer and Reconstructionist rabbi, is writing about baseball?” I thought. The combination seemed so odd I couldn’t resist. Alpert — who will discuss her book Monday, Nov. 21 at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco — is a respected professor at Temple University known for her interest in social history.

While her book didn’t make me a baseball fan, lovers of the game should rejoice. Alpert has written an excellent history of the Jewish involvement in the Negro leagues.

The author puts the Jewish fascination with baseball into cultural context, explaining that “because of its role as part of America’s civil religion, baseball provided an entryway for new immigrants to become absorbed in the American way of life. Jewish men became boxers and basketball players to protect themselves on the street and to prove their masculinity, but playing or even following baseball made them American.”

Though Jews played the sport during the 19th century, as the game became more formalized and conservative, few Jews were involved in the all-white leagues, either as businessmen or players. Instead, their connection to baseball — particularly in business matters — centered on the Negro leagues.

In the first half of the 20th century, Alpert notes, the Jews were considered outsiders by the blacks who worked in and/or ran the Negro leagues. However, whether these Jews helped the teams and players succeed, or whether they were only greedy middlemen who exploited them, depends on who is telling the story.

“Out of Left Field” focuses on the men who participated in different aspects of black baseball: Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters; Ed Gottlieb, a booking agent and co-owner of the Philadelphia Stars, the black baseball team; and Syd Pollock, who owned novelty baseball teams, which featured comedy along with regular ball play.

Alpert notes that although some of the black team owners made anti-Semitic statements, the Jews in the industry weren’t blameless. Many didn’t always understand the difficult social conditions the black players and owners faced. In addition, some bought into the racist attitudes of the time and made offensive comments about the black members of their teams.

Alpert’s discussion of novelty baseball focuses on one issue that caused major dissension: “For Syd Pollock and Abe Saperstein, clowning was first and foremost a way to attract fans. … Some black players and commentators saw clowning as a highly skilled art that added a poetic dimension to the game of baseball. But for many [it] represented an embarrassing reminder of the degrading legacy of minstrelsy.”

These and other differences of opinion raised an interesting question about the Jewish role in black baseball: Who was really helping the players?

Some saw the Jewish businessmen as creating opportunities for black players they otherwise might not have had. Plus, they recognized that the black business owners also were trying to make money and

didn’t always have the best interests of their players in mind when they made decisions.

However, the Jewish businessmen were trying to make a living, as well, and often ignored the social implications of their choices. No one’s motives were beyond question.

Alpert writes clear, concise prose, and “Out of Left Field” is remarkably free of academic jargon, making it an easy read for those unfamiliar with the topic. Anyone who loves baseball’s history will definitely want to add it to their must-read list.

Rabbi Rachel Esserman is the executive editor of the Reporter, a group of six Jewish community newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Rebecca T. Alpert will discuss “Out of Left Field” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21 at the BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. www.bjesf.org.

“Out of Left Field” by Rebecca T. Alpert (256 pages, Oxford University Press, $27.95)