Rebecca T. Alpert, Professor of Religion and Women’s Studies at Temple University, started out trying to get to the bottom of the Jewish affinity for baseball. But, reared on the 1950’s Brooklyn Dodgers, she found it impossible to not also bring race into the picture, at one point arguing for Jackie Robinson as a great Jewish sports hero. She ended up writing Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (Oxford University Press). I interviewed Dr. Alpert over the summer for a piece that didn’t end up happening. I thought this stuff was a good read, though, so here it is.
SHOALS: How did you find your way to this topic?
ALPERT: I discovered that in Negro League stories there were often questions about “Well, who were these sort of smarmy Jews who owned Negro League teams, and what were they about?” I wanted to see if there really was anti-Semitism, and it lead me to trying to use baseball to peer at some of these questions that are really about this hypothetical connection between Jews and blacks.
SHOALS: A figure in the book like Abe Saperstein is incredibly hard to make sense of by today’s standards. He wasn’t white, but was more white than the blacks he dealt with professionally. This had its avantages, for him and his black peers (and even the players), but also made him an easy target. There’s a real connection there, but it’s remarkably ambivalent.
ALPERT: With any historical myth, it’s important to see what’s underneath it. But it’s also important to remember the Jews who created that myth saw themselves immediately after the Holocaust. They weren’t talking about the Holocaust, but I do believe they used the changes in American society and use championing the changes in American society as a way to deal with anti-Semitism as much as it was to do with anti-black racism.
SHOALS: That was one of the more striking, I think, single themes in the book. Because that almost really does turn it into what makes it seem self-serving. It could have been anyone. Robinson is, in a way, the missing link between the struggle of Hank Greenberg and Koufax’s great moment of acceptance by mainstream America. What makes it tricky is that he’s at once subject and object.
ALPERT: You can’t separate Koufax from the whole Six Day War phenomenon, as well. When you talk about the power of the civil rights movement, Jews, I think, at that time, translated the civil rights stuff in relation to the Six Day War. And in 1967 was Koufax and the Six Day War and it was all “Jew is beautiful.” I lived through it, and that is how I experienced it. And I think it’s borne out by a lot of the literature. That’s really what was going on.
SHOALS: Also, that’s right on the verge of the late 60s split between Jews and blacks in the movement. It’s interesting timing there that the most Zionist pressure point is also the one where the “special relationship” starts to fray.
ALPERT: Absolutely. I sort of feel like blacks are saying to us, “You’ve stolen enough. You’ve taken enough. Now you’re taking our ‘black is beautiful’ thing. No, you can’t have it. No, you can’t claim to have done anything that has contributed to our well-being.”
SHOALS: I wonder if there also isn’t a different between business interest versus activist interest. When you’re talking about business situations, there’s almost inherently strife, because there’s money involved.. Whereas activism, the people are working together because they have common ideological goals or at least overlapping ones. The Negro Leagues are bound to make Jews look less sympathetic because they’re trying to make money. It was a business. You get the same problem in the record business. Jews helped promote music, but they also exploited artists at times.
ALPERT: Part of the problem with sport, and entertainment as well, is that people don’t want to think of it as a business. They want to think there’s something holier or purer about it, which is, again, how Jews concoct their connection to baseball a lot of the time. But you’re absolutely right when business interests get involved. You read a lot of criticism also of the black Negro League owners. It wasn’t like they were good guys and these Jews were bad guys. I tried to bring that out in the book as well. I wanted to love [owners like] Cumberland Posey and Effa Manley, but they, too, were business people.
Undisputed Guide Reviewed in Harper’s
In this month’s Harper’s, Charles Bock (Beautiful Children) takes on FreeDarko’s Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out, and the entire landscape of sports journalism. We’re accused of “revisionism and hagiography”, and “tripping over our own ambitions”, but Bock suspects we may be fully aware of this. I can’t disagree on any counts—FreeDarko is one big inside joke that sought to make the world a better place, an absurd premise undertaken with the utmost seriousness. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either self-defeating or liberating. Anyway, Bock also has plenty of good stuff to say, and the essay is about way more than little ol’ us. Mostly, though, I’m just stoked beyond belief that we got written up in Harper’s. Top of the world!