By WILL LEITCH
"Most great Jewish athletes have at least this in common: They overcome God's gifts." That joke—the only one in Jonathan Safran Foer's depressing essay about Bobby Fisher, the Jewish chess genius turned mad anti-Semitic ranter—is at the heart of just about everything every writer in the "Jewish Jocks" anthology has to say. "Free-spiritedness, joie de vivre, ease in the world—these are not what we do," Mr. Foer writes. "We do scrappiness, resilience, hard work, self-questioning." "Jewish Jocks" demands you to stow your "wait, with that title, is this a book full of blank pages?" gags, but the book is, you know, a mensch about it.
Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy asked a number of writers (most of whom are Jewish, but many of whom aren't known for writing about sports) to craft a short reflection on a figure from the past century. The resulting pantheon—ranging from Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg to golfer Corey Pavin—is diverse enough to cover the range of Jewish sports history. Jewish boxers, the editors remind us, were once so popular in America that other boxers used to pretend to be Jewish. We also meet some tragic stories, like Jack Molinas, the game-fixer who never realized he was in trouble with the mob until it was too late, or Sidney Franklin, the Brooklyn matador beloved by Hemingway, who turned into a tragic, barnstorming caricature of himself.
Edited by Franklin Foer & Marc Tracy
Twelve, 285 pages, $26.99
The book has impressively few duds, considering all of the pieces were written to order and the editors have compiled an eclectic mix of writers for the project. It is tough to figure out a universe vast enough to include both Buzz Bissinger and David Brooks in it, let alone a book. Those two authors provide two of the weaker, more half-hearted essays, actually, on boxer Barney Ross and New York Mets outfielder Art Shamsky, respectively. But unlike most anthologies, "Jewish Jocks" ends up convincing you of its theme: The history of Jews in sports is, in important ways, the history of sports.
Some of the great innovations in American sports were introduced by Jews, the authors remind us, including but not limited to the motion offense, players' unions, fantasy sports and, essentially, the quarterback (1940s Chicago Bears star Sid Luckman, the "Big Yid," notes Rich Cohen). The book includes executives (MLB commissioner Bud Selig, journalists (Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich) and coaches (Celtics legend Red Auerbach) among the "jocks" of the title, not out of necessity—there would, in fact, be plenty of jocks to fill a book—but because such figures "forced the rest of the world either to copy their methods or be left on the outside looking in."
So we have a lively essay about Howard Cosell by David Remnick, an oddly humorless and strident riposte on gambler Arnold Rothstein (widely thought to have rigged the 1919 World Series) by Ron Rosenbaum and, most memorably, a charming sit-down between Mark Leibovich and Cubs general manager Theo Epstein. They openly wonder whether or not Steve Bartman, the fan whose interference with a live ball foiled the Cubs' last postseason chance, is Jewish. It drives Mr. Epstein a bit mad that he doesn't know.
"Jewish Jocks" doesn't want for righteous indignation, and numerous contributors refer to the 1972 massacre of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, which shows up in at least 10 of the 50 essays. Some address it directly—Deborah Lipstadt's harrowing essay recalls the brutal details of the attack—while others focus on it in passing. In Judith Shulevitz's telling, the primary reaction Mark Spitz can muster is anger that the incident didn't allow him to pick up the Mercedes-Benz he'd been promised by a sponsor. The 1936 Berlin Olympics figure almost as prominently, particularly in Joshua Cohen's plaintive confusion as to how the German-Jewish fencer Helene Mayer, wearing a swastika, could possibly have given the Nazi salute while on the gold medal dais.
But the book is mostly funny. Sam Lipsyte writes a touching, quite hilarious tribute to his father, legendary sportswriter Robert Lipsyte. (He has always told his son how much of a jerk all his heroes are, and not to waste time watching sports.) David Hirshey has a grand old time with his old friend the lunatic Shep Messing, goalkeeper for the New York Cosmos during the brief time that—thanks to players like Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia—soccer was chic in New York City. Messrs. Hirshey and Messing looked similar enough in the 1970s that the former could sometimes swoop up the latter's confused groupies. Best of all, Jeffrey Goldberg writes about how, in the 1990s, when he was reporting on Hezbollah, the only thing the terrorists he interviewed ever asked him was whether or not he was related to the WWE wrestler Goldberg.
"Jewish Jocks" is full of fun tidbits I never knew. Mr. Spitz never had a mustache until the Munich games, and he grew it only out of rebellion against his coach. He convinced some Russian competitors it made him faster; the next time he saw them, they all had mustaches. The Frisbee-based game "Ultimate" was partially invented by, of all freaking people, film producer Joel Silver of "Die Hard" fame.
But the best essay is David Plotz's short, weirdly moving paean to gymnast Kerri Strug. Everyone recalls how Ms. Strug famously landed, on shredded ligaments, to clinch the U.S. team's gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics: "For a second or two, she crawled like a wounded animal," Mr. Plotz notes. Then, as everyone also recalls, coach Béla Károlyi had to carry her to the medal platform. But Mr. Plotz asks us to look again at the tape, and points out that her face did not register triumph; she was furious because she would no longer be able to compete in the individual events. She wanted to beat the teammates she had just won the gold for. She didn't even know how beloved she had become nationwide until the next day.
In describing that moment, Mr. Plotz illustrates what "Jewish Jocks" is all about: Jews who strive, fight, train and, sometimes, triumph.—Mr. Leitch is a contributing editor for New York magazine and
author of "Are We Winning?
Fathers and Sons in the New
Golden Age of Baseball."