That’s not really fair. Some of the best Jewish athletes combined both qualities. Sid Luckman, writes Rich Cohen, blessed with the “mind of a Hebrew [and the] body of a Cossack,” was recruited out of Columbia, of all places, by the Chicago Bears to quarterback the first T-formation that revolutionized football. Ron Mix (his Russian-born father changed the name from Rabinowitz) was a 270-pound, eight-time All-Star tackle for the San Diego Chargers who went to law school in the off season and helped fellow athletes sue their former teams for feeding them steroids.
Even if I still felt hungry after reading this book, I learned a lot from it, and some intriguing themes tie these chapters together. One is the pride these authors take in rooting for their landsmen. Jews will always pick Moses over Pharoah, especially with a good point spread. New York Times columnist David Brooks says that watching outfielder Art Shamsky play for the “Miracle Mets” of 1969 “was like watching the Book of Exodus play out in front of you.”
Set against the stereotype of the small, smart Jew is the growing role that physical fitness played in an evolving Jewish identity. Max Nordau, a European Zionist and philosopher of the late 19th century, preached the virtues of sports training and said — presciently — that only by “force of will and muscle” could Jews plant and preserve a state for themselves in Israel. That tradition continues. I recently gave a book talk at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, and there were a lot more folks in the building working on their abdomens than their aptitudes.
Some Jewish athletes disguised their names to hide their true identity (Arthur Lieberman fought as Artie O’Leary), but as their place in American life grew more secure, they started using their religion as a motivational and marketing tool. “It drove me to do better,” said baseball slugger Hank Greenberg, “to prove that a Jew could be a ballplayer.” Pro wrestler Bill Goldberg joked, “My real name is Killer, but I wanted a much more menacing name, so I picked Goldberg.”
More than a dozen subjects in this book are not athletes at all: managers and owners, writers and broadcasters, trainers and teachers, and two notorious gamblers — Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series, and Jack Molinas, who organized a point-shaving ring in college basketball and was rubbed out by the mob. As Pinker writes in his essay on basketball coach Red Auerbach: “To ignore Jews’ success in the art of the deal would be to deny what made them historically distinctive.” So it’s fitting to include dealmakers such as Marvin Miller, who first organized baseball players into a union; Al Davis, the slick salesman behind the outlaw image of the Oakland Raiders; and Daniel Okrent, who created fantasy baseball but somehow violated tribal tradition by never making a dime from his invention.