“Spring training” has just opened up. America’s favorite past-time signals warm weather, longer days, family outings, the good times. T-ball, little league, sandlot, at one time we all have engaged the crack of the bat, the excitement of rounding the bases.
When my son, Eyal, who is quadriplegic and vent dependent, was growing up, he played on a baseball team, called The Challengers. Summer evenings, a couple of times a week, our family would pile into our specially-equipped van and drive a half hour or so to a baseball field in North Syracuse. It’s clear the name of the team was coined because each player faces serious challenges. My son, “Big Al,” (does not every serious ball player have a nickname?) played third base.
When you watch these kids play baseball, at first there is a sense of disbelief and even restlessness. When the ball is hit, children are lifted and hoisted from wheelchairs and shuttled around the bases as family members and friends clap and cheer. In this league, ingenuity and imagination are the name of the game. For a girl who is blind, there is a special baseball that produces a beeping sound. A young boy smacks the ball using his crutch as a baseball bat. And all the time, parents and siblings are facilitating, enabling and empowering. You don’t have to watch for long to realize something very special is taking place on this baseball diamond, and it has very little to do with the game of baseball itself. It has to do with relationships, cooperation, perseverance and possibility. Whenever these kids play, I am witness to miracles as awe-inspiring as the splitting of the Red Sea. Previously, my understanding of a miracle was more “Bible stuff.” The expected lightning and thunder, mountains that shudder, now we’re talking miracles. But a miracle is nine kids on a baseball team, some of them cannot see, others cannot talk, and still others cannot even move. And they play baseball three nights a week in North Syracuse. Now that’s a miracle to write home about.
I’m reminded of this special baseball team whenever I visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, not far from my home. On the second floor, there is a theater that has been constructed to simulate an old-time major league baseball park. It allows you to sit in bleacher chairs, right up close to the action, you can even hear the voices of the ball players and those of the concessionaires, hawking programs, peanuts and cracker jacks. In this nostalgic environment, there is a seven-minute film clip, a young major leaguer walloping a baseball, a winning runner crossing home plate, hands held high. Candid shots, of modern major leaguers to little leaguers. And it all ends with the voices of children playing baseball in some cow pasture. And this voiceover:
“Baseball is a part of the very fabric of America. And at whatever level we experience it… whether we play it… or watch it … from backyard to major league stadium… it is a game that speaks to us of more than box scores and starting line-ups. It is a game that reflects:
the strength at the beginning…the wisdom near the end,
the bad days…and the good”
Baseball approaches myth because it is a celebration of life. As author Roger Angell wrote, “Since baseball is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”
Okay, “Big Al,” Eyal, get ready champ. You’re on deck. Batter Up!
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Each of our 50 essays focuses on an individual figure. (The closest there is to an exception is Deborah Lipstadt‘s moving piece, which is a memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich; it focuses on the wrestler Yossef Romano.) Which got me thinking: if we were going to write a book called Jewish Teams—or, to keep the alliteration, Semitic Squads—which would make the cut?
Baseball: This one seems more difficult than it is. The Chicago Cubs’ perennial underdog status seems to reflect the Jewish ethos; the Boston Red Sox’ almost messianic redemption seems to reflect the Jewish story (unless it too closely reflects the Christian one!). The Detroit Tigers had Hank Greenberg, the Milwaukee Brewers have Ryan Braun. The San Francisco Giants trace their route back to New York City, and the New York Mets have claimed the mantle of New York teams departed. Which is to say nothing of the Yankees. However, talk of New York of course leads us to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Had this merely been the franchise that hosted Sandy Koufax, dayenu. But, of course, this was the last professional franchise to call Brooklyn home until the Brooklyn Nets debuted a couple of weeks ago. (In fact, for the first couple years of his career, Koufax played home games at Ebbets Field, about five miles from the Bensonhurst neighborhood where he’d grown up.) So, Dodgers it is.
Basketball: After New York, Philadelphia was the hotbed of Jewish basketball: Eddie Gottlieb managed the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association squad (the SPHAs) before becoming coach and then owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors. After they skipped town for San Francisco (they now play in Oakland and are known as the Golden State Warriors), the great Dolph Schayes’ Syracuse Nationals moved down to become the 76ers. Of course, the key phrase here is “after New York.” It was New York Jews who developed the game; Ossie Schechtman who scored the first basket in NBA history while playing for the New York Knickerbockers; and Red Holzman, profiled in our book by Todd Gitlin, who coached the Knicks to two championships 25 years later. Also, Woody Allen is a Knicks fan. This one isn’t even close.
Football: It would be simple to give this to the New York (football) Giants. They won the second-ever NFL championship when five-foot equipment manager Abe Cohen secured them special shoes to play on the iced-over Polo Grounds. They were quarterback Benny Friedman’s team. Even today, they are half-owned by film producer Steve Tisch. But enough with New York, right? Let’s give this to Al Davis’ team, the Oakland Raiders, now owned by his son. The real question is: are the Raiders a point of pride, or a shanda fur de goyim?
Hockey: In Jewish Jocks, Grantland writer Jonah Keri—whose professional focus is baseball—makes a case for his hometown Montreal Canadiens in the course of profiling defender Mathieu Schneider, and it’s a convincing one. The Canadiens have won more championships than any team in any other major sport except for the Yankees—but have not done so for nearly two decades, and these days (especially as a cancelled NHL season looms), they are as much an exercise in nostalgia as anything else. Sound familiar? Besides, hockey is like smoked meat to basketball’s pastrami, right?
Soccer: If we were restricting ourselves to the English Premier League, this would be the Tottenham Hotspurs, whose fans call them “Yids”—in a good way—in part due to their North London environs. But as Simon Kuper makes clear in his Jewish Jocks essay on Bennie Muller, it’s the Dutch squad Ajax that is undeniably the world’s most Jewish soccer club. It’s so Jewish that even non-Jewish players like superstar Johan Cruijff were assumed to be of the Tribe.
Olympics: On the one hand, there is a more or less official Jewish country. (More or less: I don’t mean to start any arguments here.) On the other hand, a different country has, by far, sent the most Jewish medal-winners to various Games. Our pick? The United States of America.