Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball

Article excerpt

Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball. By Rebecca T. Alpert. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ix + 236 pp.

Coming of age, Rebecca Alpert heard from her family and Reform temple that the major league baseball debut of Jackie Robinson in 1947 represented a validation of American democracy, a victory facilitated by Judaism's commitment to social justice. She later recognized, however, that continued inequality muted black celebration of Robinson's achievement. As Jews evolved from race to white ethnic group in the national culture, they failed to fully comprehend that anti-black racism would prove far more intractable than American anti-Semitism. The common trajectory of Jewish assimilation and economic upward mobility did not prove normative for African Americans. Alpert argues that blacks, like Jews, accepted stereotypes of the other that impacted interaction between the two groups in America and its national pastime. For centuries, restrictions and prejudice had relegated European Jews to circumscribed spheres, sometimes as rent collectors, moneylenders, and traders, positioned precariously between dominant elites and resentful workers. In the United States, numbers of Jewish shopkeepers and landlords appeared to retain attributes of that uncomfortable middleman status in black neighborhoods. Unfavorable perceptions of the Jewish economic presence in their communities, according to Alpert, impacted the African-American view of Jews in black baseball.

Out of Left Field chronicles the intersection between Jews and black baseball in the years before and after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Just as blacks and Jews gave divergent meaning to Robinson, the two groups viewed their shared baseball experience from sharply different perspectives. Documenting a substantial Jewish presence in black baseball, Alpert rejects facile generalizations that fail to capture the complexity and nuance of the phenomenon. Out of Left Field posits three distinct roles played by the Jewish outsider in black baseball: players, entrepreneurs, and reformers.

Black Jewish ballplayers found their most notable representation in the Belleville Grays, a team sponsored by Temple Beth El in Belleville, Virginia. Alpert presents a seminal account of the Grays, a team that reflected the permeable boundaries between league and independent play in black baseball. With roots in the Hebrew Israelite movement, Temple Beth El observed Jewish customs and rituals despite an eclecticism that also reflected African and Christian elements. Through the baseball prowess of the Grays, Temple Beth El sought respect and revenue for its black Jewish community.

As booking agents, promoters, league officials, and team owners, Jewish businessmen occupied a central role in black baseball. Alpert focuses on three of those Jewish entrepreneurs, Ed Gottlieb, Syd Pollock, and Abe Saperstein. These Jewish businessmen effectively promoted black baseball, but their scheduling of barnstorming games ran counter to the establishment of stable Negro Leagues. With little commitment to ending Jim Crow baseball, Jewish businessmen recognized that integration would ultimately destroy their income from black baseball. The contrast between the lucrative profits of Jewish middlemen and the modest remuneration of Negro league owners and players created resentment. Although generous to individual players, Jewish businessmen contributed little to the creation of a strong infrastructure for black baseball. …