Around the turn of the 20th century, two quick-footed Jewish boxers who shared the nickname “The Little Hebrew” faced off in a highly touted title fight in San Francisco. Tickets cost $1 for the 20-round “battle” between Al Emmick-Cohn and Abe Attell, the world’s featherweight champion from 1906 to 1912.
Both men weighed in under 120 pounds, but their size said little about their power: A newspaper article about an earlier fight involving Emmick-Cohn said that if he and his opponent hit each other simultaneously, the referee would “have to give the decision to the first boy to wake up.”
Attell would go on to earn induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. And in 2009, both pugilists were inducted posthumously into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California.
On Nov. 10, the JSHoF will hold its 13th annual induction ceremony and banquet at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, honoring five athletic professionals with local connections. Proceeds will support the nonprofit organization, which has handed out 74 college scholarships over the years and supports athletic programs in San Francisco public schools and concussion prevention research at the University of San Francisco.
Jack Anderson, 88, helped found the organization in 2006 and serves as its president. The former champion college fencer at San Francisco State University, who has ties to Congregation Sherith Israel going back generations, describes it as the only independent regional Jewish Hall of Fame in the country. He said its mission is to enhance “the image of the Jewish community” and create positive relationships “across diverse groups of people through the shared love of sports.”
Of course, when he first formed the JSHoF, some asked if a “Jewish sports organization is an oxymoron,” Anderson recalled in a recent email to supporters. “Most Jews were more amused than offended by the stereotyping.”
“We were told not to do it, because it wouldn’t succeed,” he told J. “We would run out of Jewish athletes.” But 13 induction ceremonies later, he said decisively, “we’re still coming up with viable people.”
That would include people like Super Bowl-winning 49ers tight end John Frank (inducted in 2008). Oakland A’s first baseman and Olympic gold medalist, nicknamed the “Super Jew,” Mike Epstein (2009). UC Berkeley women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb (2016). And now, Joc Pederson, the L.A. Dodgers’ All-Star outfielder and 2010 graduate of Palo Alto High School (2019).
Though they are part of a long tradition of Jewish sports organizations, from the gymnastics clubs of prewar Europe to the Maccabi World Union formed in the 1920s, Jewish Halls of Fame are a comparably recent phenomenon — they’re modeled after American sports attractions like the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, though with a regional orientation and absent the posh museum complex. They celebrate athletic careers that are by their nature fleeting and tell unique stories about history that illuminate the times in which the figures lived.
One of the earliest examples is the Rochester Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, founded in 1962 by Les Harrison. Harrison was a pro basketball player, coach and founder of the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA. He paid $25,000 to franchise the team in 1945, according to a 1997 obituary in the New York Times. The following year, he helped racially integrate professional sports by signing Dolly King and Pop Gates to the Royals — one year before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“Harrison faced widespread criticism, anger and blatant racism but stuck to his decision, perhaps based from his own experiences as a Jew faced with anti-Semitism,” his entry in the Rochester Jewish Sports Hall of Fame reads. In 1980, Harrison was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In 1981, the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame would open in Netanya, Israel, and in 1993, the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Commack, New York, held its first induction ceremony. Regional halls in Philadelphia, Southern California and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area would follow.
Since its founding, the JSHoF of Northern California has inducted 64 sports figures, most of them professional athletes but also coaches, sports media personalities, professional sports team executives and local luminaries and philanthropists. Their photos and information about their careers and lives are permanently on digital display on the JSHoF’s “Wall of Fame,” located at the Palo Alto JCC.
This year’s class of five draws from typically varied sources: Pederson, the only athlete in the bunch, will be joined by two newsmen — Emmy-winning sportscaster Dave Feldman and longtime Giants beat writer Henry Schulman — along with Pat Gallagher, a longtime S.F. Giants executive, and Jerry Seltzer, a business pioneer in a uniquely bruising American sport invented by his father: roller derby.
Feldman is an eight-time regional Emmy Award-winning sportscaster and Palo Alto High School graduate. He spent more than a decade at the Fox local news affiliate in Washington, D.C., where he was enshrined in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Greater Washington. He returned home to the Bay Area in 2012, hosting 49ers programming for NBC Sports. He now hosts Xfinity Sports Sunday on NBC and does play-by-play announcing for ESPN college basketball.
Feldman knew he wanted to be a coach or a sportscaster early on.
“We used to go to Warriors games with my friend Bill Pidto,” he said. “We would sit in the stands and pretend we were [Oakland A’s radio announcer] Bill King.” Feldman’s first sportscasting job, right after graduating from Tufts, was announcing Stanford women’s tennis matches on local cable. Pidto, his childhood friend, would go onto become a well-known sports broadcaster himself, with ESPNews and SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio.
Feldman, 54, had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and said it’s a “tremendous honor” to be inducted into the JSHoF of Northern California. “San Francisco is a great sports town. I’m proud to be, in a small way, involved with some of the great Jewish athletes who have been honored and remembered.”
Schulman, 59, has been reporting on the S.F. Giants for over 30 years. Historic events he’s covered include Barry Bonds’ quests to break the single-season and all-time home run records; three World Series titles for the Giants; and, in only his second year on the beat, the 1989 Bay Bridge World Series between the Giants and A’s and the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake that struck minutes before game 3. He recalls that the quake, for one thing, badly screwed the Giants: They had to face A’s pitchers Dave Stewart and Mike Moore, who held them to just one run total in the first two games, all over again after a 10-day delay. The Giants would get swept. But “the thing I remember most is the press box at Candlestick,” he said on a recent podcast. “You had this sensation that the thing could just fall apart.”
“There are the little moments,” too, he told J., reflecting on his career. “J.T. Snow hitting a home run for his mom the first day he comes back after her funeral. Little things like that.”
Athletes are notably tight-lipped and often reserved, but Schulman is known for getting them to open up and then writing penetrating personality profiles, like one earlier this year about Giants’ rookie Mike Yastrzemski’s relationship with his father, Carl. “The most important thing is establishing trust,” Schulman said.
Still on the Giants beat, he is unwinding after a long season (no sabbatical, though — he’s reporting on the team’s search to replace manager Bruce Bochy). Schulman said it was a surprise, and an honor, to learn he would be inducted into the JSHoF. He is a secular Jew whose parents both survived the Holocaust and immigrated from Eastern Europe to Los Angeles. Many of his family members will be at the ceremony.
“No matter how secular you become, you never lose your Jewishness,” he said. “I’d be honored to be in any hall of fame. But to actually be part of this group — with some of the other people who are in, when you look at the list — it’s a very high honor for me.”
Perhaps the most unconventional inductee this year is Seltzer, who will be recognized posthumously for his stewardship of the sport of roller derby. He took over as commissioner of the International Roller Derby League in 1959 from his father and popularized the contact sport, modeled after Depression-era walkathons and danceathons, with the help of television.
Seltzer died in July at age 87. According to a New York Times obituary, he recorded kinescopes of games played in an auto repair shop in Oakland and sold them to TV stations. Eventually the sport became nationally popular, and as Seltzer noted in a 2017 interview, became “a symbol of women empowerment.”
Gary Wiener, executive director of the JSHoF, spoke to Seltzer earlier this year and told him about the honor. “He was so excited about this,” Wiener told J. “He told me he was concerned he wouldn’t make it. There are some people who are coming who knew him very well.”
Gallagher, 70, will receive the Mensch Award, given each year to a non-Jew with a “distinguished career” in sports who embodies values of “generosity, accomplishment, and community service.”
The former Giants executive is known for, among other things, helping to secure a new ballpark for the team in 2000 and being instrumental in bringing Super Bowl 50 to the city. He’s also responsible for ballpark traditions like the “Croix de Candlestick” pin, awarded to fans who braved extra-inning games at the notoriously windy and cold ballpark, and for developing the Giants “anti-mascot,” the Crazy Crab.
A marketer by training, Gallagher said of Candlestick Park, which opened in the 1960s, “We always tried to have a sense of humor about it. If you have a lemon, you make the best lemonade that you possible can.”
Gallagher was a bit perplexed when he was told he was being inducted into a Jewish sports hall of fame. “I thought, with a name like Pat Gallagher, how could this ever happen?” he said.
He looked up the meaning of the word “mensch.” “I found it has a lot deeper meaning than most people are aware of,” he said. “It’s an honorable thing to be considered. I’m really touched by it.”
Finally Pederson, drafted out of Palo Alto High School upon graduating in 2010, will join the JSHoF roster at just 27 years old. A former player on Team Israel’s all-Jewish national baseball team — who called the experience “unforgettable” — he is second only to Tigers great Hank Greenberg in home run frequency. He averages one home run per 18 at-bats, according to the Jewish Baseball News.
Over the years the JSHoF has awarded around $150,000 in scholarships to student athletes, Anderson said, and the amount varies depending on how much is raised each year at the banquet, a silent auction and other events like bocce ball and golf tournaments. He hopes enough is raised this year to give sizable scholarships to six students.
Anderson said part of his motivation for starting and sustaining the hall of fame has been to build bridges between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. He says we’ve come a long way since Jewish quotas and “k–ke jokes” but still have far to go to “completely erase the vestiges of that age-old enmity.” And with visible anti-Semitism on the rise in the U.S., “all Jewish organizations now have a greater responsibility.”
“In other words,” he wrote in his email to supporters, “what is your organization doing to make a difference in this new climate of hate?”