A Young Men's Hebrew Association baseball team in St. Louis, ca. 1930. (Photo/File-Courtesy American Jewish Historical Society)
A Young Men's Hebrew Association baseball team in St. Louis, ca. 1930. (Photo/File-Courtesy American Jewish Historical Society)

‘A sport-loving people,’ Jews always felt at home in baseball

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The love that Jewish Americans hold for this most American of games has been well documented over the years. But what is it with Jews and baseball? The relationship continues to this day — in fact tonight, Aug. 15, is Jewish Heritage Night with the San Francisco Giants, with J. as a community sponsor. (Stop by our table in the Community Clubhouse to say hi!)

As steady as this love has been, we found in the pages of yesteryear that the answer came down to assimilation, again and again.

Baseball was American, and America was baseball, for waves of immigrants from across Europe. Even in 1907, we were discussing the power of the game in a satirical take on assimilation. In journalist Bernard G. Richards’ biting monologue, two Jews meet in a café, where one explains to the other, more recently arrived, just how assimilation works.

“Methods are now in process of formation that will ultimately turn an immigrant into a full-fledged American in three minutes and six seconds,” he explains. “We came here too late, fellows, a hundred years too late. If we came then we would have had ample time to Americanize slowly and naturally.”

For the unfortunate newcomer, though, “your children do not want to talk to you because your little girl, being younger than you are, was able to recite the Declaration of Independence after she came here and your son had been initiated into the mysteries of baseball.”

Baseball, in this rather scathing essay, stood for Americanization. And Richards was not the only one to point it out.

In 1998, San Francisco State University professor Eric Solomon said something similar in an article written by Joshua Meckler. Headlined “Jews pitch way into major league of baseball writers: Local professor says sport fostered assimilation,” the article was about how Jewish writers dominated baseball fiction.

Jewish immigrants “were attracted to baseball because they found in it a way to assimilate into American culture,” Meckler wrote.

“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 said.

Here in San Francisco, among the assimilated readers of this paper, baseball was enthusiastically embraced.

They had to get a substitute for what they left behind, the shul and the shtetl.

In a 1915 blurb titled “Our Young Folks,” we described a local game between two Jewish youth teams.

black and white photo of a kid posing with a baseball and a baseball glove
From our Feb. 12, 1913 issue

“Carl Harris, pitcher of Temple Emanu-El baseball team, pitched a fine game when the team played the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum team.

“The feature of the game was the gallant ninth-inning rally, when Harris, Eppinger and Lowenstein got on bases and Dinkelspiel brought them in with a double, thus winning the game.”

In 1925, one Rabbi Newman (most likely Louis I. Newman, who was rabbi of Emanu-El in the second half of the 1920s) brought the question of success at baseball back to virtue. This was typical of the moralistic paper of the time, which constantly and forcefully signaled the assimilated nature of the Jewish community — often with a very heavy hand.

“We Americans sometimes forget the educational purposes of games and sports. We are a sport-loving people,” Newman wrote. And what about the danger that Jewish boys who excelled at sports would get a puffed-up ego? Not to worry. “The true American boy is too sturdy and virile to desire any distinction which he does not genuinely merit. It is one thing to gain a reputation; it is another thing to hold it.”

That being said, we hope the parents of young Harris, Eppinger, Lowenstein and Dinkelspiel feted them appropriately.

While baseball games between Jewish teams were regularly announced in the paper, it was usually youth groups. However, at least once, rabbis got into the game, pulled there by the younger generation. In 1918 we described “A Rabbinical Baseball Game.”

“A few athletic boys of the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum, firm believers in the science and efficacy of ‘muscular Judaism,’ have come to the conclusion that the San Francisco Rabbis should be the first converts to their new doctrine.

“With this laudable purpose in mind the boys have issued a challenge to rabbis Martin A. Meyer, Herman Lissaner, Herman Rosenwasser and their cantors to meet them Sunday morning, June 16th, on the field of honor in the grounds of the orphanage on Divisadero street for a game of baseball.

“The gauntlet thus unceremoniously thrown at the rabbinical feet has been taken up and the duel will come off as per schedule.”

Who won? There’s no word on the results, but we’d put our money on the young men. Or maybe not. After all, in 1987, we carried a short blurb on famous Jewish athletes leading with this quote: “’Nobody can become a rabbi in America if he does not play baseball!’ said Dr. Solomon Schechter many years ago.” (The quote may or may not be apocryphal, though it’s hard to imagine the bearded Moldovan scholar and theological leader with a baseball glove on.)

Whichever team won in 1918, the real winner was baseball itself, which has remained a cherished part of Jewish American culture. Even if the game is losing its place as the most American of sports, baseball will always remain in some ways a part of the Jewish experience.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.