When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn in the years following World War II, the two great loves of my life were reading and play ball. I’d go to the library at least once a week, take out four books — the maximum number allowed — and read them, return them, and take out four new books. When I was eight years old, I wrote my first novel — a 70-page book about a family of pigs (decidedly un-kosher, my boyhood imagination, since we observed kashruth in my home) that my mother typed out for me, and from which I read a new chapter every Monday morning to my fourth grade class.
When not reading, I spent as much time as I could playing ball. I lived during the years of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams, and within walking distance of Ebbets Field, and so I got to see my heroes — Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella — play several times a year.
And at least equal to the Dodgers were great Jewish athletes, living and dead, I read about, and by reading about them could believe it possible for a Jewish boy not only to become a star athlete, but while doing honor to his heritage also become famous in a world where Jews could generally go as far as their talent and hard work could take them and, thus, become more truly American.
The list was long, and frequently had personal connections. In baseball: Hank Greenberg, who refused to play on Yom Kippur, and married the daughter of the family that owned the Gimbels department store; Andy Cohen, the first Jewish player on the New York Giants; Saul Rogovin; Al “Goodie” Rosen, who played for the Dodgers, but wasn’t as good as future Hall of Famer Al Rosen; Moe Berg, the first cousin of a friend who lived two houses away from me; Sid Gordon, who — what I could never understand — lived a few blocks away yet played for our National League enemy, the New York Giants.
In basketball: Dolph Schayes, Max Zaslofsky, Sid Tannenbaum — three All-Americans who played across the bridge at NYU — Nat Holman, and Lou Bender, who starred for the greatest team of its era, The Original Celtics.
In football: Sid Luckman, who went to Erasmus, went on to be All-American at Columbia, after which he starred for the Chicago Bears and is usually credited with “inventing” the forward pass; Benny Friedman; Sid Gillman; Marshall Goldberg; and Al Sherman, a left-handed quarterback who enrolled at Brooklyn College at 15, and though he was only five foot six and 145 pounds, went on to play in the NFL, and to coach the New York Giants.
In tennis: Herb Flam, Allen Fox, Grant Golden, Mike Franks, Sid Schwartz (an Erasmus grad who visited my gym class), and Dick Savitt, a National Indoor and Wimbledon champion who, at 89, still plays once or twice a week on the same New York City public courts I visit.
There were others: Sidney Franklin, in bullfighting, who went to Eastern District High School, in Brooklyn, with my father; Marty Glickman, who played professional football and basketball, and was removed at the last minute from the United States relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics because he was Jewish; Henry Wittenberg, winner of two Olympic medals in wrestling; Viktor Barna and Richard Miles, international and United States champions for many years in table tennis; Vic Hershkowitz, who won fiteen consecutive handball championships.
And then there were the Jewish boxers who dominated boxing in the first half of the twentieth century. The list included champions at virtually every weight level: Abe Attell, Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, “Kid” Kaplan, Al McCoy (real name: Al Rudolph), “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, “Battling” Levinksky, Ted “Kid” Lewis, and of course, the man who loomed so large in my imagination as a boy that I wrote a novel about him: Max Baer.
Baer wore a Star of David on his boxing trunks, and the first time he did so was in 1933 when, at Yankee Stadium he defeated “Hitler’s boxer” Max Schmeling. Baer went on to become heavyweight champion of the world, and to an extraordinary life that exists within the fictional world I’ve created in Max Baer and the Star of David.
Jay Neugeboren is the author of nearly two dozen books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, and four collections of award-winning stories.