Jackie Robinson, Jewish Icon

Article excerpt

The story of Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball in 1947 provided Jews with a myth representative of their experience of assimilation into American society in the era following World War II. Popular Jewish accounts of this story, found in children's literature and adult fiction, essay and memoir, reveal three themes: identification with Robinson as a victim of oppression, idealization of Robinson as a heroic figure whose success announced the possibility of an end to all bigotry, and glorification of the role Jews played in bringing about Robinson's triumph. The ways in which Jewish writers tell this story reveal how the Jewish ideal of a special relationship between Blacks and Jews derived from drawing connections, based primarily in the Jewish imagination, between Jewish and Black experiences of integration and assimilation.

The literature about the relationship between African Americans and Jews in the twentieth century United States continues to grow. Most of this work has substantiated Jeffrey Melnick's insight that "Black-Jewish relations" is "a story told tyjews about interracial relations.1 In recent years scholars have used this insight to examine "Black-Jewish relations" through the lens of politics and in the world of music and film.2 One dimension that has yet to be looked at is how this Jewish fascination with African Americans played out in the world of sports.

Identification: The Kinship of Hardship

The desire to become American played a major role in defining Jewish experience in the first half of the twentieth century. Jews perceived themselves as outsiders and were concerned about antisemitism. As baseball functioned as "the national pastime" it provided an avenue of belonging. The popularity and fame of outstanding Jewish baseball players like Hank Greenberg helped make Jews feel at home in America.3 Jews of this era identified the struggles of Hank Greenberg in overcoming antisemitism as a ball player in the late 1930s with the struggle Robinson faced. Newspaper columnist Jack Newfield noted that most of his older relatives believed that Hank Greenberg suffered in the same ways Robinson did. While Newfield believed that antisemitism against Greenberg was real, but not of the same order as what Robinson experienced, he saw the connections: "Kinship between Blacks and Jews would play a big role in my life. And this alliance between Robinson and Greenberg was probably my first awareness of this kinship of hardship."4

In his 1948 autobiography, Jackie Robinson noted his connection to Greenberg, whom he met when they played one game on opposing teams in the 1947 season, Greenberg's last and Robinson's first. Greenberg was playing first base, and he and Robinson collided accidentally when Robinson was running the base path. He called Greenberg's words to him on that occasion "the first real words of encouragement I received from a player on an opposing team," suggesting that Greenberg was "sincere because I heard he had experienced some racial trouble when he came up. I felt sure that he understood my problems."5 Greenberg also suggested that the connections between himself and Robinson were about a common bond over racism and antisemitism. In his autobiography he comments in hindsight, "Jackie had it tough, tougher than any ballplayer who ever lived. I happened to be a Jew, one of the few in baseball, but I was white But I identified with Jackie Robinson. I had feelings for him because they had treated me the same way. Not as bad, but they made remarks about my being a sheenie and a Jew all the time."6

The story of the one meeting between Greenberg and Robinson achieved legendary status in Jewish writing, although it is rarely mentioned in general scholarship about Robinson. The theme finds expression in Pete Hamill's Snow in August. Not himself a Jew, Hamill tells the story from the perspective of a young Christian boy in Brooklyn, Michael, who befriends a rabbi who had come to the United States from Prague after the Holocaust. …