The Color of History

By Isaacs, Stan | Moment, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

The Color of History


Isaacs, Stan, Moment


Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball

Rebecca T. Alpert Oxford University Press, 2011, $27.95, pp. 272

In Out of Left Field, Rebecca Alpert describes the role of Jews in promoting professional black baseball and efforts by Jewish communist sportswriters to break the color line in major league baseball. Alpert, who teaches religion and women's studies at Temple University, solidly establishes the important--and sometimes controversial--place of Jewish promoters in Negro League baseball. Two of the most influential Jews in Negro League baseball were men more often associated with basketball. Eddie Gottlieb, the founder of the South Philadelphia Hebrew .Association (SPHA) and then-owner of die National Basketball Association's Philadelphia Warriors, became a significant figure in the NBA. Abe Saperstein was famous as the owner and ringmaster of the Harlem Globetrotters. They were among the Jews who came "out of left field" to play a significant role in black baseball.

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Alpert delivers a keen analysis of these men's roles in black baseball as benefactors and exploiters. She writes, "Gottlieb's multiple roles--as owner of the Stars, booking agent for die league, and head of his own booking agency--gave him a lot of power in the Negro National League." And diough Saperstein achieved his fame as die owner of the Globetrotters, "they were but one part of die sports empire he built.. .Much of Saperstein's income would be derived from promoting and booking black baseball comedy and novelty teams."

Gottlieb and Saperstein believed that black baseball would be financially successful only if it offered the attraction of comedy, an aspect that galled blacks and some whites. Black players might, run backwards or read a newspaper while batting. Even pitching great Satchel Paige engaged in demeaning comedy shrieks that inspired the white press to depict him as a shuffling, lazy black man. Gottlieb felt he was providing good work for a number of men who would otherwise be "bell hopping or mopping floors." He and Saperstein ignored die complaints of critics who thought comedy baseball was a throwback to black-face minstrel traditions and detrimental to the race.

Because Gotdieb and Saperstein were Jewish, this led to some anti-Jewish stereotyping among black owners and by a black sportswriter for The Pittsburgh Courier, Wendell Smith. These crude descriptions of Jews were readily accepted by blacks whose only exposure to Jews was as landlords and merchants in their own neighborhoods. Alpert writes that black owners "would use anti-Semitic rhetoric to gain some advantage with the white power structure that also found itself uncomfortable with Jewish economic power."

Out of Left Field is valuable for outlining the dynamics that led the Brooklyn Dodgers to break the color line by hiring Jackie Robinson, first for their Montreal farm team and then unveiling him as a Dodger in 1947. Agitation in the black press to breach the color line started as early as the 1920s. Jewish reporter Lester Rodney of The Daily Worker joined the fight in the mid-1930s, and together they kept the issue alive in one form or another until the Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey, took the bold step of defying fellow owners to sign Robinson.

There were other factors. World War II emphasized die hypocrisy of blacks fighting for their country but not being allowed to play in the so-called national pastime. The efforts of Isadore Much-nick, a Boston city councilman, helped bring about a tryout of black players by the Red Sox. …

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