CSULB professor explores baseball’s impact on Jewish Americans
April 14, 2010
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For first and second generation Jewish-Americans, baseball was much more than a past time. It was a way of gaining acceptance into American society.
Cal State Long Beach history professor Don Schwartz delivered a speech titled “As American as Potato Latkes: Jews and Baseball” at the Alpert Jewish Community Center Tuesday night to discuss baseball’s importance in Jewish-American culture.
Schwartz talked about elements of the game that attracted the interest of Jewish males, how their reaction to the sport changed over the years and Jewish contributions to baseball, both on and off the field.
Jeffrey Blutinger, co-director of Jewish Studies and assistant professor of history, said he took interest in Schwartz’s speech despite not being a baseball fan.
“It wasn’t simply a listing of great Jewish sports figures,” Blutinger said. “He tied it into a wider narrative over the assimilation or acculturation of Jews into America.”
Late in the 19th century, a large wave of Jewish Eastern Europeans fled to the U.S. to escape persecution in their native land. Baseball provided a way for Jewish acculturation, according to Schwartz.
“[It was] a way to transform the Yidden into a Yankee,” Schwartz said jokingly.
Schwartz also said sports helped shape the Jewish-American identity.
“For Jews, playing America’s game meant making it in America,” he said. “It demonstrated that a Jew could also be a successful American.”
While Schwartz focused mainly on the role baseball played for Jewish Americans at the time, he also highlighted the accomplishments of notable Jewish baseball players such as Hank Greenberg, who played in the 1930s and was the first Jewish person inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Schwartz also mentioned pitcher Sandy Koufax, the youngest player inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Schwartz said the movement of Jews into the suburbs and American society’s gradual acceptance of the group caused a drop in players. According to the history professor, the decline in anti-Semitism provided Jews alternate career paths, meaning they no longer had to play sports to assimilate.
Audience member Joel Black was surprised of the statistic and noticed the correlation to the modern-day sports landscape.
“It was probably a direct result of the socioeconomic condition of Jews in those days,” Black said. “Just like a lot of immigrants and minorities in the country these days, one way to move up on the ladder is to compete in sports and baseball.”
As Jewish presence decreased on the diamond, it grew rapidly off the playing field with the rising presence of Jewish owners, statisticians, announcers, sports writers and commissioners.
For example, Bud Selig, the current commissioner of Major League Baseball, is Jewish, as well as Al Michaels and Chris Berman, who are frequent analysts on sports programs aired on ESPN, Schwartz said.
Yorbin Milks, another audience member, said he was not surprised by Schwartz’s speaking abilities.
“I’ve heard [Schwartz] on other subjects and I think he’s a terrific speaker,” Milks said. “I thought he was very entertaining, and I enjoyed [the speech].”
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