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Flatbush Flashback

Jewish Stars of Baseball

"Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story" trailer from Willow Pond Films on Vimeo.

"Cleveland Indians third baseman Al Rosen, the second in a very short line of 'Hebrew Hammers' (and the best Jewish slugger since the original Hebrew Hammer, Hank Greenberg), was leading the A.L. with 18 home runs, 4 more than Mickey Mantle of the Yankees." —from Bobby in Naziland

Peter Miller's Egg Cream, a documentary about the chocolate beverage that contains neither egg nor cream, led me to another Miller film, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, from 2010, which also coincides with a theme I touched on in Bobby in Naziland.

 

Bobby references three Jewish major league ballplayers: Brooklyn-born Sandy Koufax, pitcher for the Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers; Detroit Tigers first-baseman and outfielder Hank Greenberg; and Cleveland Indians third-baseman Al Rosen.

 

In the book, I talk about how Koufax, on his way to the Hall of Fame, learned to throw his unhittable curve ball on the "sacred, scruffy sandlots" of Brooklyn's Parade Grounds and was crowned King of the Jews when he sat out a World Series game on Yom Kipper.

 

I also mention how Greenberg, in 1938, blasted 58 home runs, the closest anybody came to breaking Babe Ruth's record before Roger Maris did it, in 1961. Though he missed three prime years to serve in the army during World War II and was subjected to rabid anti-Semitism from fans and opposing players, over the course of his 13-year career Greenberg hit 331 homers with a .313 lifetime batting average—amazing statistics for a player of any religion.

 

But I didn't know till I saw Jews and Baseball that Greenberg, too, was celebrated for refusing to play a World Series game on Yom Kipper.

 

In this impressively comprehensive documentary, Miller, an Emmy- and Peabody-award–winning director, doesn't cover all 160 Jews who played the game going back to the dawn of professional baseball. But he covers a lot of them, lavishing most of his attention on Koufax and Greenberg, the game's two greatest Jewish stars, but also giving Rosen—somewhat obscure because he played only seven full seasons, outside a major media market—his due.

 

I've been following baseball since I was old enough to understand what baseball was. And I was brought up in a household where any Jew who'd ever achieved anything of significance was brought to my attention. Yet I didn't discover Rosen until I was about nine and started reading books like Who's Who in Baseball. I was amazed that I'd never heard of a player who'd hit so many homers—43 in 1953 alone, when he was the American League MVP—and who shared my last name.

 

He wasn't the only Rosen who played professional baseball. Also mentioned in the film is Goody Rosen, a Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant center fielder who, in his best season, 1945, hit .325 with a dozen home runs. I remember people in my father's candy store talking about him long after he'd retired—probably because, like Y.A. Tittle, they liked saying his name.

 

Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Jews and Baseball features extensive archival footage, interviews with fans like Larry King and Ron Howard and, of course, interviews with Koufax, Greenberg, and Al Rosen.

 

Though the film will obviously hold the strongest appeal to Jewish baseball fans (and those old enough to remember the Brooklyn Dodgers), I'd recommend Jews and Baseball to all fans, regardless of religion, race, or country of national origin. It's streaming on Amazon.

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My latest book, Bobby in Naziland, is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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40 Sacred, Scruffy Acres

 

"Once I was allowed to cross Caton Avenue on my own, I could play baseball anytime I wanted, though not terribly well, on the sacred, scruffy sandlots of the Parade Grounds." —from Bobby in Naziland

 

The official name has always been Parade Ground, but nobody called it that. Today, these 40 acres of ball fields, unrecognizable to my eye, are partitioned with fences and covered with artificial turf. A sign over one of the entrances confirms the official name, so maybe modern-day Flatbushians call it Parade Ground.

 

Fifty-five years ago, when I lived a half block away, on East 17th Street, everybody called it the Parade Grounds, plural, and there were no signs indicating otherwise. To say "Parade Ground" doesn't sound right to me and never will.

 

It was a wide-open space and there was no artificial turf, either. Astroturf, as it was first called, didn't exist. The Parade Grounds were, as the above excerpt says, a collection of dusty, scruffy, unmanicured baseball fields. Blades of grass were few and far between. When you played ball there, especially in the summer, you'd return home covered in gritty red clay.

 

Come autumn, combination football goalposts and soccer goals appeared, and gridirons were marked off. Though somebody must have played soccer there, I never saw anyone do it and I didn't know anyone who did. The Parade Grounds were for baseball and football because that was the American Way.

 

And the grounds were sacred, especially if you were Jewish and loved baseball, as most of us were and did. The Parade Grounds were where Jewish, Brooklyn-born Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, of Lafayette High School, learned to throw his unhittable curve ball before joining the Brooklyn (soon-to-be LA) Dodgers.

 

In the above photo, taken in 1928 from a rooftop near Coney Island Avenue, the Parade Grounds look similar to the way they were in the 1950s and 1960s. The corner of Caton Avenue and Stratford Road is behind the trees on the upper right, and Parade Place, which turned into East 17th Street when you crossed Caton Avenue, is at the upper left.

 

The number of times I crossed Caton Avenue with either a baseball mitt or football tucked under my arm is incalculable.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

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King of the Jews

 

When the Dodgers played their last game in Brooklyn, on September 24, 1957, I was five years old and had just begun kindergarten. As I explain in Bobby in Naziland, I am among the last generation to have a living memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Had I been born just a few months later, I would not have been old enough to remember them.

 

So yes, I remember seeing them play on the tiny screen of our black-and-white TV, while my mother, a true-blue Dodgers fan, and her friends sat around the living room cheering "them Bums" on. Even more clearly, I remember people talking about the Dodgers because people talked about them for years after they left Brooklyn. And they never stopped talking about Bobby Thomson's soul-destroying "shot heard 'round the world" in the 1951 playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants.

 

Yet long after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, the spirit of Brooklyn-born Jew and strikeout artist Sandy Koufax—the rare local boy who'd played for his hometown team—continued to hover over the baseball diamonds of the Parade Grounds, where he'd learned his craft. Koufax—his rookie card from 1955 is shown above—was an inspiration to any Jewish kid who'd ever picked up a baseball and harbored, even for a minute, the slightest inklings of a major league dream.

 

Yet Koufax had his greatest moment as a Jew in Baseball nearly a decade after the Dodgers (like so many other Brooklynites) had split for the Coast. Game one of the 1965 World Series, between the Dodgers and Minnesota Twins, was scheduled for October 6—which was also Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish Year. Koufax, the Dodger ace, was supposed to pitch that day. But in his entire career he'd never pitched on Yom Kipper, and he declined to pitch even this crucial game.

 

That was the day he was crowned King of the Jews—because he demonstrated to the world at large and every goyim boss who'd ever demanded otherwise that no Jew, no matter how important his or her job, had to work on Yom Kipper.

 

The other Dodger ace, Don Drysdale, pitched on Yom Kipper, and LA lost. Koufax then pitched game two, but the Dodgers lost again—before going on to take four out of the next five games, with Koufax winning games five and seven, thereby giving LA (and the Jews) the world championship.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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