Antisemitism in American Athletics

By Cople, Frederic | Shofar, October 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

Antisemitism in American Athletics

Cople, Frederic, Shofar

Antisemitism in American Athletics

"Antisemitism in American Athletics" traces the reception of Jews from the Civil War to the present in all sports in venues from amateur to professional played in or organized by collegiate groups, country clubs, athletic clubs, and professional associations. The main conclusions are: Jews were discriminated against less, as in other recreational sectors, than African-Americans. They also faced less prejudice than in other aspects of life, e.g., academic, residential, commercial, and professional. Hostility against Jews in sports varied with the social prestige of the sport and the venue. Thus, greater exclusion existed in yachting and horse racing than in basketball, baseball, and boxing, and greater exclusion took place in country and athletic clubs than in professional sports arenas. Finally, the trajectory of bigotry in athletics paralleled that of general anti-Jewish sentiment -- rising after the Civil War, peaking in the 1930s, and declining after World War II to its current low point.

Sport is often celebrated as the exemplar of the American Dream. Equal opportunity supposedly awaits all aspirants and merit decides the outcome. Athletics has even been touted as the route from poverty to respectability, from the slum to success. It is well known that, with the exception of boxing, not until a few years after World War II could African-Americans begin to embark on this route to success. But what of the Jews, who were similarly, if less severely, marginalized in American life?(1) For Jews, was sport an exception to, or an affirmation of, their exclusion? Did athletics work for them in the way it did not for blacks, as a true field of dreams for equality and success? Or did Jewish-Americans, unlike African-Americans, invest in other ambitions and activities and not engage themselves or other Americans in the sports world? Did Jews, unlike most other ethnic enclaves, not seek self or group definition or national repute and integration and acceptance through athletics? Despite their reputation for engaging in more "serious pursuits" from the violin to brain surgery, considerable evidence indicates that athletics was important to Jews. To Americanize its readers, the Daily Forward ran articles on how to play baseball; numerous books on Jewish athletes have appeared, including one that featured two chess champions and Johnny Kling, the non-Jewish pre-World War I Chicago Cub catcher. Heavyweight champion Max Baer wore the Star of David on his trunks for gate appeal despite his fragmentary Jewish origins. Benny Leonard, Hank Greenberg, and Sandy Koufax have been heroes in the Jewish-American community. More important, Jews have played, and sometimes excelled, in the games and contests. They have been Olympic gold medallists and major league and Hall of Fame baseball players, football, basketball, swimming, and track stars and boxing title holders and, more recently, tennis champions. They have also been managers, coaches, and owners. Cumulatively, and especially in boxing, football, and handball, the number of Jews at the top level, given their share of the population, is not small.

If Jews eagerly embraced sport, have they encountered barriers and have these obstacles been less formidable than those they faced in other aspects of life in America? The answer to both parts of this question is yes. Jews have faced some exclusion and bigotry, but nowhere near as much as they historically encountered in country clubs, residential neighborhoods, the professions, admission to elite schools, and in the higher rungs of corporate management. No quotas, formal or otherwise, were placed on Jews participating in collegiate or professional sports. Jews were admitted to sports, while denied entry into the higher rungs of corporate officialdom and elite spas, neighborhoods, and schools, because sport was a form of recreation, akin, in this respect, to Hollywood, the radio, and the theatre, where Jews were also active. …

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