Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category


Korner Review: The Jewish Baseball Card Book

Posted on: November 27th, 2017 by Ron Kaplan

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for the Jewish sports fan, you can’t do much better than The Jewish Baseball Card Book, by Bob Wechsler.

Image result for the jewish baseball card bookBased on the popular Jewish card sets produced by Martin Abramowitz (who helped on the project along with Peter McDonald), this coffee table edition features photos and brief stories about every JML from Lipman Pike through Alex Bregman, presented by the year of the athlete’s debut.

You might remember Wechsler from his previous contribution to the religion’s sports library, Day by Day in Jewish Sports History. He does his usual great job of mining for little gold nuggets in the genre. (Full disclosure: he’s one of my go-to guys whenever I have a question about an athlete’s identity or other Jewish-related sports puzzlers.)

As you might imagine, it’s hard to find cards for many of these MOTs, especially those who barely had a cup of instant coffee in the big leagues. That’s what makes this volume stand out. In addition to the pages on “regular” Jews, the writers have included a section on “Jews by Choice,” which includes such notables names as Elliot Maddox and Joel Horlen, among others.. There’s also a chapter on Jews who have appeared in Topps regular sets, along with the numbers of their cards, a sort of checklist without the standard checking part.

Even rarer than Jews on American baseball cards? Jews on sets produced in foreign countries. That’s here, too, along with the beloved “error cards” that usually have the wrong photo attributed to a player.

The book concludes with a checklist of cards issued prior to 1988. Why that date? Because that’s when the industry exploded, with several companies competing for the collectors’ dollars, making the undertaking of finding every single card a bit more arduous.

All in all, this is a must-have for those who love the very narrow theme. Remember, Hanukka is just around the corner.

Check out Peter Ephross’ recent article in Tablet. He tells a more sentimental story than my “just-the-facts” rendering. Ephross was the editor of Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players. There’s also this from the Jewish Baseball Museum and this one from JewishBaseballNews.com.



Super Bowl suggestions for the People of the Book

Posted on: February 4th, 2016 by Ron Kaplan

Is it just me, or has there not been the usual clamor over the Super Bowl this year, despite the fact that it’s the 50th time this event game has been played? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the teams aren’t exactly local. Yeah, they try to make something out of the rivalry between the old guard in the person of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and new generation QB Cam Newton for the Carolina Panthers. There was also the racial element introduced by Newton that IMO was a bit silly, unless I’m just too innocent to live. Is it still an thing in terms of African-American signal-callers? Yes, Newton does a lot of things few QBs have ever done before. But if a white quarterback had his size and strength and skills, you don’t think he would be doing the same things? It reminds me of the reverse-racism when it came top Larry Bird being one of the few dominant Caucasian players in the NBA.

Because this is Super Bowl 50 — not Super Bowl L (the first time since the fourth such contest that the game has not been expressed in roman numerals) — it’s kind of a big deal, with lots of historical commemoration going around.

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51RB1hAE6%2BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHarvey Frommer published When It Was Just a Game: Remembering the First Super Bowl. It’s a combination narrative and oral history, but not just about that one game between the Green Bay Backers and Kansas City Chiefs, but the events leading up to that meeting. I found the recollections of how the media covered the event particularly interesting. Did you know it was aired on two TV networks? (I would love to see a book just on that: the behind the scenes machinations, planning, and fretting that went on as the networks and advertisers struggled to bring this to air.)

Here are a couple of suggestions for required readings, written by a couple of my favorite landsmen.

Frommer — whose sports books includes Remembering Yankee Stadium, New York City Baseball: The Golden Age, 1947-1957, and Rickey and Robinson: The Men Who Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier, among many others (not to mention It Happened in the Catskills: An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents, and Others, written with his wife, Myrna) — combines just the right amount of his own research with the words of those who were there. And not only the players, because they were just one segment of the participants. Coaches, team and league officials, media, and even family members share their memories as well.

You can read an excerpt of When It Was Just a Game here.

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51IPLozaTfL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJerry Izenberg, the veteran sportswriter for the Star-Ledger and other outlets, was there for SB1. Some of his recollections appear in Frommer’s work. Izenberg published Rozelle: A Biography in 2014. While obviously not wholly about the Super Bowl, Pete Rozelle, who was appointed NFL Commissioner in 1960, was an integral part of creating what many considered the biggest sporting event in the world (the dust jacket for Rozelle, features the subject in the background, dwarfed by a Super Bowl trophy). Those interested in backstory would do well to pick up a copy of this one.

More Super Bowl reading suggestions:

And finally (jump to the 2:20 mark):

You’re welcome.


People of the Book Club: Born to Referee

Posted on: January 7th, 2014 by Ron Kaplan

My Life on the Gridiron, by Jerry Markbreit and Alan Steinberg. William Morrow and Company, 1988.

I posted a piece awhile about about a local synagogue appearance by Markbreit which led me to an Amazon search, which led me to his first book. It’s a fun combination of regimentation, in an almost militaristic fashion, and self-deprecating humor.

Any official, regardless of the sport, needs to command respect in order to do the job well. And Markbreit comes across as that person. A perfectionist who realizes s*** happens, even to the best of us, no matter how prepared you may be.

What makes Born especially endearing is Markbreit’s liberal use of Yiddish terms sprinkled throughout the book. And while he doesn’t go into detail about his religious upbringing, he does discuss potentially uncomfortable situations, such as being goaded into attending his officiating team’s pregame trip to a church.

“I felt very awkward,” he writes. “I had never been in [a Catholic church] before and, boy, I had this terrible, almost sacrilegious  feeling that maybe the walls would topple down on me for being there.”

As you might imagine, a Jewish sports official is even more of a rarity than a Jewish professional athlete. So the fact that Markbreit is comfortable in his own “skin” is refreshing.

We had a game in San Francisco and the six of us were driving from the hotel to Candlestick park. There were people fishing along the bay and Bell said, “I wonder what they’re fishing for.” I said, “Gefilte fish.” He said, “What?” I said, “Gefilte fish.” Bell didn’t know from gefilte fish.He was from Lexington, Kentucky; how many Jews live there — maybe two?

As someone whose main sport is not football, I found Born to Referee educational as well as enjoyable and would recommend it even to the non-sports fan as an example of dedication to one’s craft.

Markbreit, who is still an employee of the NFL, published Last Call: Memoirs of an NFL Referee (also with Steinberg) earlier this year. I’ll be reading that at some point, too. He also published The Armchair Referee, a Q&A about football, in 1973. That will be harder to track down, but worth the effort.


Speaking of giving up…

Posted on: August 28th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

Finally got around to reading Scott Raab’s poisoned pen letter to a basketball great.

In The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James, Raab — an “expatriate” from Cleveland and hardcore fan of all the local teams thereof — writes an insightful, witty, frequently vulgar story which just goes to prove the folly of plighting one’s trough with a celebrity, whether it’s an athlete, movie star, or musician. It is a brutally frank and sometimes too open account; nothing is off limits for Raab, whether it’s discussing his yiddishkeit (the family name was originally Rabinowitz); his experiences with drugs, alcohol, and weight issues; or his relationship with his family. (Consider yourselves warned. To be honest, I wish I had the cajones to write like that, without worrying what other people would think. Maybe one day…)

As a homegrown basketball deity (born in Akron), “King James” was a beloved figure in Cleveland, who had had a long dry spell when it comes to quality sports. But after opportunity knocked in 2010 in the form of free agency, James wanted to “take my talents,” as he infamously said on an ESPN documentary (and I use that word in the loosest possible sense since they were fawningly in the bag).

How quickly did this commercial come out after James’ announcement?

Which brought on this entertaining response. (Am I the only one who thinks the “delicious pink doughnut” looks orange? And apologies, but the nature of the “beast” is that the video transitions to a new story after the James piece ends, so go ahead and click the “pause key.” Sorry.)


Talk about your spurned lovers. Raab joined the thousands of broken hearted who instantly wished James all sorts of evil, from career-ending injury to all sorts of mean, nasty, ugly things. Unlike regular fans, though, Raab was punished for expressing his displeasure in the form of withheld press credentials which prevented him from doing his job as a writer for Esquire Magazine, to which he has contributed dozens of profiles and articles.

But ultimately, whose fault is it? Why do we think these celebrities care at all about our hopes, thoughts, and happiness? When you get to that point, money isn’t enough; James obviously wanted the jewelry and believed his best chances for that championship ring came elsewhere.

Here’s a video of Raab discussing his work at an event hosted by The Cleveland State University Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing.


Posted on: July 10th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

Another attempt to clear out my mail box full of stories and links:

Hank Greenberg* Sports Illustrated published this dramatic excerpt from John Rosengren’s Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes in the July 8 issue.

* Burton Boxerman, co-author with his wife, Bonita, of the two-volume Jews and Baseball series published by McFarland a few years back, published this review of Larry Ruttman’s American Jews & America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball in a recent edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

* Rabbi Jeremy Fine writes about the difficulties finding kosher food at Dodger Stadium, despite Los Angeles’ large Jewish community. The issue is further complicated by just exactly what constitutes kashrut and who decides.

* Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer won her opening match against Xenia Knoll of Switzerland 6-2, 6-2 at the Budapest Open yesterday.

* As baseball heads to the unofficial midway point with the All-Star Game, get ready for more and more football stories, like this one on the Jets’ Antonio Garay and this one on Gabe Carimi, now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

* NHL free agent Eric Nystrom, who will serve as a coach for the USA hockey team at the Maccabiah games, signed  a four-year contract with the Nashville Predators.

* JML Ian Kinsler and Jice-man Jeff Halpern were among several athletes who shared their path to the pros with ESPN The Magazine.

* Finally, this hasidic “chorus” belted out the National Anthem when the Brooklyn Cyclones held their Jewish Heritage game recently, but not without a few little problems.


An oldie but a goodie: John Tunis

Posted on: June 24th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

One author that frequently comes up in comments about who I neglected in 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die is John Tunis, who published  a series of books for younger reader about fictitious players for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The list includes:

  • The Kid from Tomkinsville, 1940
  • Keystone Kids, 1943
  • World Series, 1944
  • Rookie of the Year, 1944
  • The Kid Comes Back, 1946
  • Highpockets, 1948
  • Young Razzle, 1949
  • Schoolboy Johnson, 1958

Tunis, who was not Jewish, also wrote novels about other sports, as well as non-fiction. I recently read Keystone Kids because of the anti-Semitic content. It is impossible to go through it without thinking of the recent feature bio-pic 42. It has been said you can’t compare the experiences of African-American and Jewish players because the latter group could always try to hide their religion, which the former obviously can’t hide the color of their skin. Nevertheless, Keystone Kids is a shocking commentary on anti-Jewish sentiment, especially given its publication during the midst of World War Two and the Holocaust.

Of course, given its audience, Keystone is full of the Pollyanna-ish sentiment of cooperation and acceptance in this great land of ours. And, of course, there’s a happy ending, although I must say I’m glad the Jewish player did not hit the pennant-clinching home run. It was sufficient that he stood up to the bullies on his own team (in addition to the opposition) and finally did win that acceptance.

The subtitle for the 1987 Odyssey Classic version I read asks, “Will prejudice cost the team the season?” From the introduction by Bruce Brooks, another author of books for young people,

What a simple trap it is, too: Hey guys, says the author, here’s out new rookie catcher. Name of Klein, Jewish boy, hits for power, good arm. Can really help the club. Okay, fellahs–play ball.

But the ballplaying changes around the presence of Jocko Klein. Sure, he hits for power, chucks a good ball — but he’s Jewish. That changes everything, right?

Which leads me to ask an obvious question: Why did the character asking the introductions feel compelled to include that Klein is a “Jewish boy.” After all, neither of the real-life Kleins — Chuck, the Hall of Fame outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, or Lou, who played five years in the Majors before managing for parts of three more — were Jewish, so you couldn’t just go by the surname. (Then, too, the players start calling the rookie him “Buglenose,” another stereotype regarding the Jewish appearance.)

To read such a book now (Keystone was recently re-issued as an e-book by Open Road Media) , is a bit jarring. It’s like watching the classic film Gentlemen’s Agreement, in which an enterprising magazine writer has the brilliant idea of tearing the cover off anti-Semitism by pretending to be Jewish. For the most part (thank goodness), it’s hard for contemporary young people to fathom that this was the situation and that such conditions were practically considered the norm. Then again you have a Paula Deen situation, which is quite sad, regardless of those who would “excuse” her because she is a member of a generation and culture for whom such disparaging was considered the norm.

As I maintain on my Bookshelf blog, I do not include juvenile literature for the most part. There is too much duplication of subject matter and too much lesson-teaching for my adult interests, although it is practically a requirement of that genre. That said, my curiosity is piqued, and I will continue to explore the Tunis’ baseball oeuvre.


Book Review: The Jewish Jordan's Triple Threat

Posted on: June 6th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

JNS, a Jewish news service, posted this review of Tamir Goodman’s new memoir about “physical, mental and spiritual lessons.”

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of "Jewish Jordan's Triple Threat," the new book by Tamir Goodman. Jeffrey F. Barken, who writes a book review for JNS.org, calls the volume an important guide for players and coaches. Credit: Diversion Books.


House cleaning

Posted on: May 24th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

In an attempt to clean out my Google Alerts, here is a “links dump” of accumulated knowledge:

And that’s it! All nice and empty.

So have a good holiday folks, see you next week.


Book review: Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes

Posted on: March 18th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

The Wall Street Journal published this review of John Rosengren’s Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes. Upshot: “A new biography of Greenberg, written by John Rosengren, offers much interesting information admixed with hyperbole. The book’s subtitle, The Hero of Heroes, is characteristic of the approach. The English call exaggerated expression ‘over-egging the pudding’; of Mr. Rosengren’s biography, centered on Greenberg’s Jewishness, we might more accurately say that he over-eggs the kugel. ‘Hank had not bettered Ruth and he had not stopped Hitler, but he had single-handedly succeeded in changing the way Americans saw Jews. . . . A single word that could stand up to any form of prejudice: Greenberg.’ Wouldn’t it, as Jake Barnes says in The Sun Also Rises, ‘be pretty to think so’?”

The reviewer, one Joseph Epstein (not wanting to assume anything here), asks a fair question:

Would Hank Greenberg be as well-known today if he weren’t Jewish? Although he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, his statistics, owing to his war-shortened career, are not as impressive as they might otherwise be. He hit 331 career home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .313, numbers that are respectable but less than dazzling. Statistically he resembles Johnny Mize and Chuck Klein, both deserving hall-of-famers but not the sort of ballplayers who get their biographies written.

What do you think?

I also have another question: To which heroes exactly is Greenberg a hero?

Here’s another review of Greenberg from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Upshot: “Rosengren has researched and written a first-rate biography of a professional athlete who was also an interesting human being off the playing field — and interesting in part because an entire religion looked to him to ameliorate its unhappy history of persecution.”

Book review: Jewish Jocks

Posted on: March 5th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

From JTA (better late than never).
Jewish Jocks: Plenty of Jews, not enough jocks (What would Howard Cosell say?)

By Ami Eden

NEW YORK (JTA) — Near the end of 2012, during the showdown over the fiscal cliff, The New York Times published a profile of Bernie Sanders and his fight to keep Social Security benefit cuts out of any budget deal.

The article described Sanders as an unlikely member of the world’s most exclusive club (aka the U.S. Senate), citing several details: He’s the brusque son of an immigrant father; he has a thick Brooklyn accent; he is a self-described socialist who carries around the key chain from the early 20th century presidential campaign of Eugene V. Debs; and he once led a sit-in back in 1962 at the University of Chicago to protest discriminatory housing policies.

One thing the article didn’t mention was that Sanders is Jewish. Perhaps it was implied (have you ever met a non-Jew fitting even half of that description?). Or perhaps the newspaper thought his being Jewish just wasn’t worth a mention (after all, the Senate has more than a minyan of Jews).

But the New York Yankees tapping a Jewish slugger to play third base — now that’s news fit to the print. Just a day before publishing its no-direct-mention-of-his-Jewishness profile of Sanders, the Times devoted a full page and multiple articles in the sports section to the signing of Kevin Youkilis (the family name was changed several generations back, from Weiner).

So it’s not just Jewish media and a few Jewish sports obsessives who think an athletically gifted Member of the Tribe is a big deal. If the Semitic roots of one fading slugger attracts such treatment in the Times, how much ink do the rest of the Jewish athletes out there deserve?

Enough to fill an entire book, according to Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, editors of the anthology Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame (Twelve 2012).

I hated this book. Not in the way one hates a bad book. More like the way I, as a Philadelphia sports nut, grew up hating the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Cowboys. You only boo the great teams; the cellar dwellers aren’t worth the effort.

As far as Jewish sports books go — yes, there’s enough of them to constitute a genre — this is a great one. It features plenty of great writers and great writing.

Then why heckle Jewish Jocks?

Because this anthology has so much trouble staying on topic. Yes, the subtitle of the book is “an unorthodox hall of fame.” So I welcomed the essays on all-time greats in areas of competition that many people would not think of as sports — ping-pong champ Marty Reisman; world-class fencer Helen Mayer; professional wrestler Bill Goldberg; ultimate Frisbee player/pioneer Joel Silver; handball great Jimmy Jacobs; bullfighting legend Sidney Franklin; martial arts expert  Harvey “Sifu” Sober; enigmatic chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer; and competitive eater Don Lerman. And in the spirit of the big tent, I’m also embracing the essays on mediocre players worth remembering  — like Mose Solomon, who the New York Giants and their legendary manager John McGraw had hoped to turn into the Jewish Babe Ruth.

Jeez, I’m even holding my objection (and my nose) at the inclusion of Corey Pavin, the greatest Messianic Jewish golfer of all time.

In some cases, their sports might not be sports. Or their talent might not be so great. Or their Jewish bona fides not so Jewish. But at least they’ve all put on the uniform — or in Lerman’s case, the bib — and competed.

Unfortunately, Foer, the editor of The New Republic, and Tracy, formerly a writer-blogger at Tablet and now a member of Foer’s TNR staff, don’t stop there when it comes to stretching the definition of Jewish jocks.

Nearly a third of the 50 essays in their anthology center on figures who simply are not jocks. They include owners (Al Davis, Mark Cuban); coaches (Red Auerbach, Red Holzman); a commissioner (Bud Selig); two sportswriters (Shirley Povich, Robert Lipsyte); a broadcaster (Howard Cosell); a labor leader (Marvin Miller); a boxing cutman (Whitey Bimstein); a bookie (Arnold Rothstein); and an early Zionist leader (Max Nordau).

Worst of all is the decision to include the first public editor of The New York Times, Daniel Okrent, for creating Rotisserie baseball. So what we have now is a book that purports to celebrate Jewish jockdom but somehow confuses poring over stats on a computer with hitting home runs, knocking down jump shots and scoring touchdowns in real-life games.


How do you include Theo Epstein, for using his perch as general manager of the Boston Red Sox to embrace an increasingly stats-driven system of player evaluation, but not Youkilis — the embodiment of the revolutionary approach, whose efficiency at the plate helped Boston end its legendary World Series schneid and whose fielding inspired the greatest anti-Mel Gibson rant of all time (courtesy of Red Sox diehard and standup comic Dennis Leary).

All these non-jocks, but no room for Lenny Krayzelburg? A year after winning gold at the Olympics in 2000, he skipped the World Championships to compete in the Maccabiah Games?

What about Ryan Braun? OK, he may have juiced, but he also won the National League MVP in 2011. Or hoopster Jordan Farmar, whose multiracial background reflects the changing makeup of the Jewish community (not to mention his having led UCLA to the Final Four, winning back-to-back NBA titles with the L.A. Lakers and playing for Tel Aviv Maccabi in 2011)? Or Farmar’s teammate in Israel, Jon Scheyer, who played a lead role in helping Duke win the NCAA title in 2010?

Foer and Tracy insist they’re just cracking  a “Jewish joke” by reserving slots in their pantheon for non-jocks, with the punchline seeming to be: What do you expect from two journalists (presumably with no game) who went to the same progressive Jewish day school (with no football team)?

“It would be as absurd to ask us to enjoy sports without engaging our Jewishness as it would be to ask us to live our lives without engaging our love of sports,” the duo writes. “So we have gone ahead and made Howard Cosell a Jewish Jock. If you want to blast that out of the park, be warned: it’s our curveball, the only kind we know how to throw — in part because when we were kids, we never did learn the traditional kind.”

Talk about a hanging curve. The joke is on them: Cosell hated the idea of ex-jocks serving as broadcast analysts. And presumably he’d give Foer and Tracy a Cosell-style talking-to about applying the jock label to a man of such intelligence and erudition.

By blurring the lines, Foer and Tracy end up contributing to the perpetuation of a mass Jewish psychosis — that we are fated to stink at sports. And that’s too bad. First, because the book is a great read, with compelling and creative takes on well-known stars and folks you’ve never heard of. But, more importantly, because a people that can lay claim to all-time greats like Sandy Koufax and Mark Spitz has no business suffering from a sports inadequacy complex.


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