“The Hebrew Hammer”: Hank Greenberg
Tired stereotypes about Jews and sports have existed for as long as the sports themselves. Jewish boxers were "crafty" rather than powerful. Jewish basketball players were "cunning". The shortest Soviet joke was always "Jewish athlete".
A new collection of essays, Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox History (Twelve Books USA, $26.99) disproves some of the old myths, but, as the reader delights in discovering, it includes a cast of wonderfully oddball characters, some of whom were not even successful, others who were not really athletes at all: Renée Richards (née Richard Raskind), tennis's first transsexual player; Don Lerman, the competitive eater who still holds the world record for amount of butter consumed in five minutes; wrestler Bill Goldberg-famous for his deadly "Jackhammer" finishing move-who refused an Anglicised name and went on to become the first undefeated WWE champion (who cares if it's all faked?); and a wonderful essay by Howard Jacobson on Marty Reisman details ping-pong's greatest showman's 60-year campaign to get rid of the sponge in table-tennis bats.
The collection of essays, whose authors include Simon Schama, Steven Pinker, David Remnick and Deborah Lipstadt, reads like a Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Jewish sports world, except directed by Woody Allen. (Indeed, two of the Jewish jocks in the book have acted in Allen's movies, including the late loudmouth sports pundit Howard Cosell, who commentated in his inimitable style on a sex scene in Bananas: "I have never seen action like this . . . That's it . . . it's . . . all . . . over!")
The good are the real stars: Mark Spitz, with his seven gold medals at an Olympic Games overshadowed by the murder of 11 members of the Israeli national team in the 1972 Munich massacre. Or Hank Greenberg, the "Hebrew Hammer", one of baseball's all-time greats, who famously refused to play on Yom Kippur. Or Red Auerbach, whose colourblindness as coach of the Boston Celtics helped to integrate basketball: he drafted the first African-American player in the league's history and sent out the first all-black starting line-up in 1964.
The bad include Jack Molinas, a prodigious basketball talent who fell in with a set of Bronx bookies and started throwing games. He played only 29 games in the NBA, was caught and banned for life. The irascible and misanthropic Al Davis (slogan: "Just win, baby"), head coach of a vicious, yet victorious, Oakland Raiders American Football team who specialised in injuring opponents, is presented somewhere between anti-hero and anti-villain.
The ugly is reflected in Jonathan Safran Foer's essay on Bobby Fischer's visceral anti-Semitism, a racism Safran Foer struggles to explain, but which he refuses to divorce from the chess player's genius: "Perhaps chess is an inherently paranoid game, and anti-Semitism is the paradigm of paranoids."
Although an American collection focused mainly on US athletes, this non-Jewish, British reader found Jewish Jocks both addictive and a brilliant and idiosyncratic refutation of the Soviet joke. But as its editors point out, Jewish Jocks is itself a Jewish joke. As well as featuring real-life he-menschen, it celebrates Jewish identity in all its ping-pong-bat-obsessing, choke-slamming, butter-eating glory.