Local professor says baseball fostered assimilation

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Ah, yes, it’s baseball season again, time for peanuts and Cracker Jack, not to mention bagels, lox and knishes.

Yep, you read that correctly. Even though few ballplayers in the sport’s history have been Jews, there is a definite connection between the Jewish religion and the American religion of baseball.

And that connection, quite appropriately, lies in literature. The People of the Book, it turns out, have been among the most prodigious writers of baseball fiction.

Eric Solomon, an English professor at San Francisco State University, has spent the last 15 years researching Jewish writing on baseball. He’s found that American Jewish authors have written far more books on baseball or with baseball subthemes than writers of any other ethnic background.

“It’s very surprising,” Solomon says. “There are maybe two novels by Irish-Americans and one by an Italian-American — and the great American writers have written little about it.

“The overwhelming preponderance of serious books written about baseball,” Solomon says, “are by Jewish American writers.”

Novels such as Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural,” Irwin Shaw’s “Voices of a Summer Day” and Sylvia Tannenbaum’s “Rachel, the Rabbi’s Wife” are among Solomon’s favorites. Books by other Jewish authors such as Max Apple, J.D. Salinger, Paul Goodman and Chaim Potok have enough references to baseball to merit inclusion in Solomon’s study sample.

As academics are wont to do, the 69-year-old Solomon has devised a theory on why so many Jewish authors — particularly those in the early part of this century — have chosen to write about the sport.

First of all, Solomon says, the writers were attracted to baseball because they found in it a way to assimilate into American culture.

“What all these authors describe is the same situation: Their families came to this country from Eastern Europe and they had to get a substitute for what they left behind, the shul and the shtetl,” Solomon says. “So what they found in major-league baseball was a community, a way of becoming American and yet retaining their identity as Jews.”

Also, he says, these Jews were drawn to baseball because of its strong grounding in statistics and history. The writers “loved the intellectual aspect of baseball, all the stuff with arguments [about the best players and teams],” Solomon says. “That’s the Jewish cultural heritage, remembering the past while living in the present.”

So if those Jews loved baseball so much, why didn’t they simply play it instead of writing about it? Why do we have so few Hank Greenbergs and Sandy Koufaxes, and yet so many Jewish writers on baseball?

The answer lies at the home plate of Solomon’s theory. Jews have always wanted to play baseball but their immi-grant parents forbade them from doing so, believing their children should strive for more intellectual careers.

“Instead of playing ball, Jewish boys wrote novels about it,” Solomon says.

Solomon has published nine scholarly articles based on that theory, he’s given numerous talks, and he is currently writing a book titled “Jews, Baseball and the American Novel.” He also integrates his research into a class on baseball history and literature that he co-teaches at SFSU. Sixty percent of the books on the course’s reading list are by Jewish authors.

“The baseball class is pop-culture stuff, but it doesn’t harm anybody,” says Solomon, who specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American and British literature.

In many ways, Solomon’s own interest in baseball writing meshes with his theory.

Solomon was born in Boston to non-practicing Jews. His family had a cook who regularly listened to baseball games on the radio. “I would listen with her, and I was absolutely fascinated,” the professor recalls.

“I made my father take me to games and I became, as kids do, obsessive.”

The young Solomon tried to play the sport, but his athletic dreams weren’t meant to come true.

“I played right field, badly, but I loved it.”

His baseball career curtailed, Solomon went on to complete a doctorate at Harvard. From there, he began a teaching career that has spanned 34 years.

Throughout it all, he’s retained a special place in his heart for baseball.

“The obsession isn’t there anymore, [but] I found a way to combine it with what we laughingly call my profession,” he says. “As I get older, I bring baseball in everywhere.”

Solomon, whose son Bill pitched for the University of Washington for two years before quitting to focus on academics, still roots for the Red Sox. He attends a total of about 15 to 20 Giants and A’s games each season.

He doesn’t have a lot of memorabilia, but he does treasure an autographed Ted Williams picture that the former Red Sox great sent him. And, speaking like a true baseball junkie, Solomon adds, “I don’t think the picture is as meaningful to me as the fact that I have the brown paper wrapping [on which] Williams wrote his return address.”

If you’re interested in reading Solomon’s book, you might have to wait a few years. The manuscript, he admits, “is only about a decade overdue,” and he’s had to rework his theory to incorporate more recent Jewish baseball novels.

Asked to choose the best contemporary baseball novels by American Jewish authors, Solomon points to “The Celebrant” by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, and Mark Harris’ “Bang the Drum Slowly.”

And now that the baseball season started on Tuesday, Solomon says he’ll be spending more time studying the sports pages.

“The way some people read the stock pages, I read the box scores,” he says, “only they find money there. I find poetry.”

As usual, however, he won’t find many Jewish names in the box scores. Solomon estimates that only about 1 percent of major league players since 1871 have been Jewish.

Still, he likes to cite a fact that he read in “The Encyclopedia of Jewish American Athletes.” According to that work, Solomon says, the first professional baseball player was a Jew named Lipman Pike.

“It’s probably not true, and I’ve gotten into trouble with the historians for saying [Pike was the first professional player],” Solomon says. But “I like saying it for fun.”

Waxing eloquent on the game, Solomon adds, “[Today’s youth] knows that basketball is the American game of choice, and football is the mass game, and thinks that baseball is an exercise in nostalgia. But I don’t think that’s true.

“Baseball is slow, and you have to time to talk and think while you’re watching. I think there’s a special quality to baseball.”

Apparently there’s a Jewish quality as well.