This year, at least seven Jewish athletes will ply their trade on Major League rosters (two more are on the disabled list). It might be argued that a much larger contribution to the game has been made by the scores of Jewish men and women who write about the national pastime.
501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die includes several such titles by sportswriters, historians, statisticians, and novelists. While these may not necessarily be the “best” books on the topics, they encapsulate the far reach baseball has on American — and Jewish-American — culture.
(Full disclosure: 501 Baseball Books, which was published April 1 by University of Nebraska Press, was written by me.)
Books about Jews and baseball
• More than 150 Jews have appeared in the Major Leagues since Lipman Pike stepped on a diamond as a professional in 1871. Howard Megdal examines each one (up to the point of publication in 2009) in The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-by-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players. The author gives dozens of overlooked players — who may have appeared in just a handful of games and never received the recognition of a Hank Greenberg or a Sandy Koufax — a nice nod.
• Speaking of Koufax, Jane Leavy wrote perhaps the definitive biography of the Hall of Fame pitcher in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. Leavy, a former writer for the Washington Post, also wrote a well-received biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, thereby covering two of the greatest players in the “boomer” generation.
• Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Ira Berkow collaborated with Greenberg on the latter’s autobiography, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life, published in 1989, three years after the Hall of Famer’s death. The book served as the basis for Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.
• Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert, an associate professor of religion and women’s studies at Temple University, looks at the frequently contentious relationship between Jewish businessmen and the negro leagues in Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball.
• Aaron Pribble recounts his experiences in a well-meaning but ultimately doomed enterprise in his memoir, Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League.
• Nicholas Dawidoff wrote one of the great biographies of perhaps baseball’s most intriguing character with his 1994 biography, The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg. The Ivy League-educated Berg was generally believed to be one of the most intelligent men to ever don baseball flannels and served in the OSS (the predecessor to the CIA) in formulating plans against Japan and Germany prior to and during World War II.
• Eric Rolfe Greenberg tells the tale of two first-generation Jewish-American brothers and their association with baseball in the award-winning novel The Celebrant. One sibling is a gambler; the other follows in the family business to design jewelry, particularly for his beloved New York Giants and their star pitcher, Christy Mathewson, the “Christian gentleman” for whom he has an abiding admiration.
Baseball books by Jews
If Jews are underrepresented on the field, there’s no shortage of them on the keyboard. Jewish writers whose work appears in 501 Baseball Books include several with New Jersey connections.
• Philip Roth — Newark’s favorite literary son — published one of the underrated works of baseball fiction with The Great American Novel, which tells the hilarious tale of a World War II-era team expunged, Stalin-like, from the history books because of a scandal.
• The late Maury Allen, who lived in Cedar Grove, wrote a classic old-school biography of the Yankee Clipper — before the trend turned toward salaciousness — in Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?
• Marilyn Cohen, an assistant professor of anthropology at Montclair State University, writes about discrimination of a different sort in No Girls in the Clubhouse: The Exclusion of Women from Baseball.
• Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn brings to light dozens of fun aspects about the game in his “scrapbook,” The New Baseball Catalog.
Other Jewish authors include the current and former official historians for Major League Baseball. The late Jerome Holtzman published two books — both in 501 — of interviews with and about some of the great sportswriters, No Cheering in the Press Box (1974) and Baseball: A History of Baseball Scribes (2005).
John Thorn, Holtzman’s successor to the prestigious position, is something of a “polyglot.” His contributions run the gamut from statistical analyses (The Hidden Game of Baseball) to the origins of the game both for adults (Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game) and kids (First Pitch: How Baseball Began) to reference (Total Baseball) and ephemera (The Whole Baseball Catalog: The Ultimate Guide to the Baseball Marketplace).
Dozens of other Jewish writers populate the pages of 501. Most prominent among them are:
• Eliot Asinof, who wrote the first and, in my opinion, still the best, treatise on the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal in Eight Men Out. He also published Man on Spikes, an insightful novel about the physical and mental angst of a veteran minor league player.
• Leonard Schecter didn’t get top billing — that honor went to Jim Bouton — but without his editorial efforts, we wouldn’t have Bouton’s Ball Four, which opened the door for subsequent player-written mea culpas.
• Jonathan Eig wrote about the life and troubled times of two baseball legends in Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season.
• Perhaps calling on their Jewish sensitivities, the late sportswriter and broadcaster Dick Schaap joined forces with cartoonist Mort Gerberg to look at the game’s lighter side in Joy in Mudville: The Big Book of Baseball Humor.
• And no list of suggested baseball reading would be complete without Bernard Malamud’s classic The Natural, the ultimate tale of a sports hero with feet of clay, which habitually takes high honors in the discussion of baseball fiction.
501 generally considers books published prior to 2012. But just as each year holds the promise of exciting times on the field, so does each offer new titles that will no doubt add to the wealth of literature about this great game.