Then and Now: Ethical questions hammered the Little Hebrew

Though Jewish Milwaukee Brewers superstar Ryan Braun successfully challenged a positive doping result earlier this year — a first for Major League Baseball — San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera admitted to using a banned substance and is suspended for 50 games. The risks players take to win remind us that professional athletes are really competitive, and that sports and ethics don’t always go together.

Abe Attell shows what it takes to make a winner. photo/library of congress

Take Abraham Washington “Abe” Attell (1883-1970), boxing’s world featherweight champion from 1906 to 1912. San Francisco born and raised, Abe “the Little Hebrew” Attell grew up poor, selling papers on the corner of Market and Eighth streets after his father abandoned the family. He made headlines with a win in 1900, at age 17, inspiring his brother Monte (the “Nob Hill Terror”) to become the bantamweight champion, making them the first brothers to hold world titles simultaneously. Both are in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California.

Abe Attell was alleged — but never proven — to have soaked his back in chloroform to daze challenger Johnny Kilbane. More publicly, Attell was reputed to be the messenger between gangster Arnold Rothstein and the Chicago White Sox during the 1919 World Series, when several White Sox players were banned for life for trying to fix the games. Attell was never convicted, but fled to Canada for a year to avoid a subpoena. After boxing, Attell operated a successful shoe store in New York before going into vaudeville.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present,”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.