The Encyclopedia Of Jewish Sports Heroes

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

The inspiration for my 1999 comic novel THE PIGSKIN RABBI came when someone at a publishing party made a joke about the size of a fellow writer's new book: "It's almost as skinny as THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF JEWISH FOOTBALL HEROES."

This brought a smile, then a protest to my lips because witty as the quip was, it simply wasn't true. While football isn't a game normally associated with Jews--Jews are supposed to be funny, intellectual and non-violent: think Seinfeld or Woody Allen--there have been innumerable great Jewish football players.

Let's start with Benny Friedman. Born in Cleveland in 1905, he went on to become quarterback of the University of Michigan Wolverines--and the game's pioneering passer. He was helped in the 1920s by a change in the football's shape, which went from a blob resembling a kugel to a sphere you could wrap your fingers around and hurl 50 or 60 yards. Friedman did just that--he was not only uncannily accurate but nervy, being the first player to ever throw a forward pass from behind his own goal line.

In 1925 he became a first-team All-American. In a game against Indiana, he ran 55 yards to score a touchdown, threw another five touchdown passes and drop-kicked eight extra points. He was personally responsible for 44 of Michigan's 63 points that day. An inventive playcaller--no "offensive coordinator" ever dared send in a play when he was on the field!--he was once described by coach Fielding Yost as "the quarterback who never makes a mistake." Red Grange, the legendary runner, called Friedman the best quarterback he had ever seen.

Benny was only five-foot-eight but he went into pro football and played seven years without sustaining a serious injury. In 1928, Tim Mara of the New York Giants bought the entire Detroit Wolverines team just to get Friedman, whom he knew would be a big local draw. Friedman was a target for the anti-semites in the league, but he was never knocked out of a game.

He attributed his good fortune to his family's faith in Judaism. "We had an Orthodox home and on the wall was a pushke (charity box)," he said. "I noticed when I was a high school player mother would go over after serving me lunch and drop some coins in the box. I would see her lips moving as though she was saying a prayer. I asked what she was doing and she said she was protecting me by putting 18 cents in the pushke. I asked why. She told me that 18 in Hebrew stands for chai, which means life.

"Mother would come out to the game and watch. On occasion someone would be hurt or laid out. She never worried that it was I, because she had taken care of me through her faith. I never was hurt and throughout my high school and college career mother continued her vigil. I never questioned whether it was my ability that kept me aloof from injury. I let it go that it was chai working for me."

Another--and earlier--good Jewish football player was Sig Harris. Son of a Polish immigrant, he grew up in Minneapolis and was an All-American quarterback at the University of Minnesota in 1903 and l904. Then came Joseph Alexander, who played guard at Syracuse University between 1917-1919. A brainy chap, he called the offensive plays from his line position!

Once, during a spirited game against Notre Dame, Alexander was knocked down hard. He let out a Yiddish curse and was surprised when one of his opponents answered him in the same tongue. "What's a Jew doing playing for Notre Dame?" Alexander demanded. "I'm not a Jew, I'm Irish," came the reply. "But I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and had to speak Yiddish to survive."

Alexander later played pro ball for the Milwaukee Badgers, Rochester Jeffersons and the Philadelphia Quakers--the first pacifist football team, I suppose. When the Giants were granted a National Football League franchise in 1925, Alexander was the first player signed by the team. By then he was a practicing radiologist, a career he combined with pro ball over the next five years. He took over as Giants' head coach in 1926, but relinquished the job in his final year with the team.

Other names like Sid Gillman, the innovative college and pro coach, and Marshall "Biggie" Goldberg, who came out of West Virginia--he might have been the only Jew in the entire state!--to star at the University of Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cardinals in the 1940s, were also on my mind when I wrote THE PIGSKIN RABBI.

But the player I most admired was Sidney "Sid" Luckman. Born Nov. 21, 1916 in Brooklyn, New York, Luckman attended Erasmus Hall high school, where he excelled in baseball as well as football, and chose to go to Columbia University--despite the fact that 40 other colleges wanted him, many of whom were offering scholarships and under-the-table payments. The Ivy League had no athletic scholarship program, but Luckman still chose Columbia, even though it meant having to pay for his education by painting houses and washing dishes.

Why did he pick Columbia? Because of its coach, Lou Little. "As soon as I met him, I was impressed," said Luckman. "The way he dressed, the way he spoke. I knew I wanted to play for him."

Luckman's college years, 1936-38, were disappointing ones for the team (whose record was 10-14-1), but Luckman's star shone nonetheless. He became one of the best triple-threat men in the game. From his tailback position--he was rather small and stocky, by the way--he did amazing things. In 1937 he returned a kickoff 82 yards against Army, boomed a 72-yard punt against Syracuse, and threw a 60-yard pass against Pittsburgh. He also kicked all the extra points for his team.

Luckman's star shone even brighter when he turned pro. The Steelers had drafted him but George Halas, owner and coach of the Chicago Bears, finagled mightily to get the rights to Luckman, who he turned into the first T-formation quarterback. "Sid made himself a great quarterback," Halas commented later. "No one else did it for him. He worked hard, he stayed up nights studying and really learned the T. Sid wasn't built for quarterback. He wasn't fast and he wasn't a great passer. But he was smart and dedicated. He used to spend hours practicing pivots, feints and handoffs in the dressing room, at home and in hotels on road trips."

The year 1943 was Sid's greatest. On Nov. 14, playing at the Polo Grounds in New York--I was there, watching from the bleachers--he gave the greatest performance of his life. He passed for a record seven touchdowns against my beloved team, the Giants. He did this while playing sixty minutes of football. There was no platooning in those days, no going to the sidelines for cups of Gatorade. Players like Luckman, Benny Friedman and Marshall Goldberg played both ways, taking knocks the whole time. The only way you came out of a game was feet first.

On Jan. 4, 1944 Luckman entered the U.S. Navy as an ensign in the Merchant Marine stationed in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He was assigned to an oil tanker plying the Atlantic and did eight months of hazardous sea duty. When the war ended he rejoined the Bears and played football for another two years, throwing for 24 touchdowns in his final season.

That was when Luckman's yiddische momma finally decided to watch her first football game. Sid got her a seat behind the Bears' bench. During one play he dropped back to pass, but was chased out of the pocket. His opponents pursued him all over the field, trying to bring him down, but Sid kept dodging and ducking. Finally his mother couldn't take it any longer. She jumped up and yelled, "Sidney, give them the ball already, I'll buy you another one!"

When Luckman was inducted into Football Hall of Fame in 1965, his college coach Lou Little said, "Sid was a fine passer of course, and a real football brain, but people forget he was a great teacher. That was some gang he had to handle, those Chicago Bears. But they responded to his leadership."

New York City has had a long tradition of Jewish athletes, going back to the early 1900s and the first wave of German immigrants.

They brought with them values that held sport and physicality in high esteem. When the Gentiles denied them access to their private clubs, the Jews formed the Young Men's Hebrew Association, branches of which were equipped with gymnasiums and other athletic facilities as well as libraries and synagogues. The notion of a "muscular Judaism" evolved out of that movement, which fostered immigrant assimilation by also offering classes in English, civics and home economics.

Numerous German-American Jews were involved in professional sport at the turn of the century, owning baseball clubs in such cities as Atlanta, Augusta, Birmingham, Houston, Macon, Mobile and New Orleans. The most colorful owner was Andrew Freedman, a New York Tammanyite who owned the Giants between 1895-1902. Freedman encouraged rowdyism on the field, fought with fans, ballplayers, umpires and sportswriters alike, and went through sixteen managers in eight years. After he died he was reincarnated as George Steinbrenner.

The cultural experience of the two million eastern European Jews who next arrived in the United States was considerably different from that of the German Jews. They came from the static, ingrown world of the shtetl and had almost no familiarity with games. It was New York's settlement houses and cultural centers that gave these immigrants their first taste of sport.

These first-generation Jews saw sports as a threat to their ethnic identity, but they couldn't keep their children from embracing those Gentile pursuits. Taking part in sports provided a quick way to become Americanized; and Jewish athletes who became especially proficient were much admired by their peers.

A case in point are the boxers who came out of such gritty neighborhoods as Brownsville and the Lower East Side. One of the best was Benny Leonard (born Benjamin Leiner in 1896), considered by many to be the greatest Jewish sports hero of all time--except perhaps for swimmer Mark Spitz or the Babe Ruths of handball, Vic Hershkowitz and Jimmy Jacobs.

The son of Orthodox Jews, Benny Leonard grew up with Italians to the south, Irish to the north. The public baths were on Benny's street; to reach them one had to walk past his house.

"You had to be ready to fight when the Italian and Irish kids came through on their way to the baths," Benny recalled. The weapons of choice were not only fists but sticks, stones and bottles. Because of some of the beatings he took, Benny disliked this kind of brawling intensely.

He fought with gloves for the first time at age eleven. Six years later he became the lightweight champ, and eventually took part in over 200 matches. He would enter the ring with a part in his slicked-down hair and leave the same way. As sportswriter Dan Parker said, "Leonard moved with the grace of a ballet dancer and wore an air of arrogance that belonged to royalty. His profile might have been chiseled by a master sculptor and there wasn't a mark of his trade upon it to mar its classic perfection."

Leonard later became a boxing referee and sadly died in the ring while officiating a bout.

Love of sport soon spread to the Jewish women who were growing up in America. An early role model was Adah Isaacs Menken, the mistress of boxing champion James C. Heenan. Although married several times, Menken was a free spirit who gained worldwide fame as an actress, dancer and acrobat. Walt Whitman was smitten by her and called her "the most perfectly developed woman in the world." Another remarkable Jewish sports heroine was Tillie Eisen, star of the All-American Girls' Baseball League, the only professsional women's league in baseball history. The league, which operated from 1943 to 1954, was the subject of the 1992 movie "In a League of Their Own."

One of four Jewish women in the league, Eisen was its only superstar. A native of Los Angeles, she started playing semi-pro softball at age 14. In 1940, at age 18, her all-around ability led her to try her hand at women's professional football. California investors had started a short-lived, war-time women's professional football league and she played fullback for a local team. When the city council passed an ordinance forbidding women to play football within the confines of Los Angeles, Eisen's team relocated to Guadalajara, Mexico, where, according to her, it "filled the stadium."

Eisen's best baseball season was in 1946, when she led the league in triples, stole 128 bases, and made the all-star team. In an interview she could recall only one instance in which her religion became an issue. "When I was playing for Fort Wayne," she said, "I thought there were three outs. There were only two, but I ran in from the outfield only to see my manager waving at me, 'go back, go back.' Then he turned to one of the other players and said, 'I never heard of a Jew that couldn't count.'"

In 1993, Eisen helped establish the women's exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

When it comes to baseball, the book of Jewish sports heroes swells significantly in size. Between 1920 and 1960 there were 76 Jewish major-leaguers, including Bob Berman, a Bronx boy who played briefly for the Washington Senators, and Andy Cohen, who in 1926 was signed by the Giants and touted as "the Great Jewish Hope." He was preceded in that role by Moses Solomon, a first baseman known as the "Rabbi of Swat."

Later heroes were Sid Gordon, Al "Goody" Rosen, Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, the preeminent Jewish baseball player in the first half of the 20th century. A big, powerful man--6'4, 215 pounds--Greenberg was the precise opposite of the stereotyped effete Jew. He batted .313 during his career and had the highest slugging percentage of all time. He grew up in the Bronx in an observant middle-class family that owned a textile business. Because he preferred sports to school, he was considered the neighborhood bum.

Greenberg played most of his career in Detroit, which in the 1930s and 40s was a hotbed of anti-semitism, thanks to infamous rabble-rousers like Father Coughlin and Henry Ford. The latter once said, "If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words--too much Jew."

Despite that kind of bigotry, Greenberg led the Detroit Tigers to four pennants and won an MVP award in 1937 with 183 runs driven in. Like Jackie Robinson after him, he was considered a standard-bearer for his race, a symbol not only of its athletic prowess but of its ability to triumph over bigotry.

Baseball took second place to basketball when I was growing up in New York, if only because every schoolyard had a court, whereas baseball and football fields were hard to come by. There wasn't much greenery in the concrete jungle of the Bronx.

The city had Jewish basketball players galore, including some who went on to leave their imprint on the game. To mention just a few: Arnold "Red' Auerbach, of Boston Celtics fame; Larry Brown, the veteran NBA coach; Nat Holman, who played with the legendary Original Celtics and became, at age 23, head coach of CCNY (where, by the way, Benny Friedman ended up coaching football), William "Red" Holzman, Harry Boykoff, Sid Tanenbaum, Hy Gotkin, Dolph Schayes, Barney Sedran and Max Zaslofsky.

The accomplishments of these superb Jewish basketball players were duplicated in other sports, including swimming and cricket. You read that right: one of the finest cricketeers in South African history was Aron "Ali" Bacher. There have also been champion Jewish jai-lai players (Joey Kornblit)--and bullfighters!

Sidney Franklin, born in Brooklyn in 1903, went to Mexico in 1922 and found himself drawn to the corridas. By 1939 he was fighting the bulls in Spain, Portugal and Mexico, earning over $100,000 a year. Ernest Hemingway, one of his closest friends, described him thusly in 'Death in the Afternoon': "Sidney Franklin is brave with a cold, serene and intelligent valor. No history of bullfighting that is ever written could be complete unless it gives him the space he is entitled to."

Franklin died in 1976 while residing at the Village Nursing Home in New York, where he had lived since 1970. His obituary in the New York Times included this terse statement: "Sidney Franklin was the only matador ever born at 14 Jackson Place in the Park Slope of Brooklyn."