In search of ‘Jewish Jocks’

Editors Franklin Foer, left, and Marc Tracy.
(Twelve Books)

Mention the phrase “Jewish sports legends” and you’ll probably conjure up familiar suspects: Sandy Koufax, Mark Spitz, maybe that joke from “Airplane.”

You’re more likely to omit Sidney Franklin, a matador from Brooklyn (real last name: Frumpkin), or Helene Mayer, an accomplished fencer who won a gold medal for Hitler’s Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy want to make sure none of these personalities are forgotten. In “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” (Twelve: 304 pp., $26.99), a skillful collection edited by the veteran journalists (Tracy is a writer at the New Republic and Foer is the publication’s editor), dozens of tribesmen who’ve left their mark on sports are given the essay treatment by well-known writers.

Many of the pairings are natural. Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, for instance, writes about the former Dodgers great, while Foer’s brother Jonathan takes on the literary weirdness of Bobby Fischer.


But there are also plenty of unexpected pieces — Buzz Bissinger on the iconic Jewish boxing figure Barney Ross, for instance, or the novelist Tom Rachman (“The Imperfectionists”) offering his thoughts on the outsized legend (often in his own mind) of the bullfighting Franklin.

More than just viewing Jewish athletes as a collection of people who happen to share a bloodline, Foer sees in their history — and, particularly, the reaction to it — a larger arc.

“Jews have always celebrated their athletes as warriors who eschewed stereotype,” the editor said by phone. “As anti-Semitism has waned, the stereotype-busting has diminished, and now there’s almost a campy sense of irony that a lot of Jews have about Jewish athletes.”

The overall goal, Foer said, is to move away from the simple hagiography that filled previous volumes of this sort. So while Mark Spitz’s talent is paid its due, so is his ego. Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish gangster who fixed the 1919 World Series, is also here.


“We felt no pressure to create superheroes out of our subjects,” Foer said. “There are a lot of villains and scoundrels too.”

Many contributors are also less interested in providing mini-biographies as they are windows into their subjects via a particular topic. Rather than recount Hank Greenberg’s general standing as the great Yom Kippur-abstaining Detroit Tigers first-baseman, for example, veteran sportswriter Ira Berkow examines whether Greenberg’s chasing of Babe Ruth’s home run record was stymied by anti-Semitic pitchers throwing around him. (Greenberg himself thought the theory was, well, hogwash.)

Nor are the subjects limited to athletes.

Howard Cosell is considered a “Jewish Jock,” as is the labor lawyer Marvin Miller, who helped create baseball’s free agency. Rothstein gets one of the most socially trenchant essays; the commentator Ron Rosenbaum makes the case for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s anti-Semitism via the author’s Rothstein-like character in “The Great Gatsby.”


Perhaps the most surprising name to pop up, at least for Angelenos, is longtime film producer Joel Silver: He helped create the game of Ultimate Frisbee.

The idea of singling out the Jewish athlete is a culturally charged notion for some members of the faith. And, indeed, a few essays suggest that the jocks achieved their goals in a more stereotypically brainy way. Of the Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, who helped revolutionize the position as a cerebral captain of the offense, Rich Cohen writes, "[George Halas] needed a Jew, a kid with a Yiddishe kop, to run the T formation. Mind of a Hebrew, body of a Cossack.”

But through its sheer comprehensiveness, “Jewish Jocks” also makes the argument that the Jewish athlete isn’t an anomaly.

“I didn’t intend to make any grand statement about the Jewish people,” Foer said. “If you go back to the Zionist sports clubs, the goal was always about trying to make Jews into normal people. Sometimes they do things with their bodies, sometimes they write essays for the Partisan Review.”


That said, he understands how a book like this can be read that way.

“There’s definitely a pattern to the essays,” Foer said. “My father read it and felt that way. He came away saying, ‘This is the most triumphalist Jewish thing to have appeared since the 1967 Israeli War.’ ”