After Larry Ruttman retired from the law, he began a new career as an interviewer, and as he explains it, providence led him to a topic that combined his pride in Judaism and his love of baseball. For five years Ruttman sought out not only Jewish ballplayers but also executives, sportswriters, and notable fans to record the impact of baseball on Jews and Jews on baseball.
The interviews are as varied as their subjects’ connection to the game. Ostensibly what brings them together is the sport, but the interviews discuss childhood and family, Judaism and anti-Semitism, as much as baseball. Some of the most thoughtful and engrossing interviews are with fans — Rabbi Michael Paley, scholar in residence at UJA-Federation of New York whose son is an outstanding college pitcher; former congressman Barney Frank and former first baseman for his office softball team; Yeshiva University professor Jeffrey Gurock, from a family of athletes and author of Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports.
Off-field baseball is well covered in excellent interviews with Marvin Miller, executive director of the players association who definitively changed the business relationship between owners and players; Andrew Zimbalist, the baseball economist; Joel Mael, Florida Marlins executive who credits his Orthodox education with his ability to solve problems. For a little on-field information Ken Holtzman offers an insider’s view on pitching and how the game has changed.
Because the book is based on interviews, only living figures are covered, with the exception of Hank Greenberg, who is recalled by family and friends. This means that some outstanding Jewish baseball figures who are part of the Jewish baseball legacy —notably Moe Berg and Mel Allen — are mentioned only in passing, by people who remember them. In his interview the writer Roger Kahn gives a rundown of notable Jewish players, recalling some of the players who can no longer speak for themselves.
American Jews & America’s Game is handsomely produced and nicely illustrated, but the heart of the book is Larry Ruttman’s enthusiasm and total delight in meeting and talking with so many baseball personalities. The interviews are personal, with the unifying theme of Jewish identity, although both Ruttman and many of the people he speaks with call themselves cultural Jews and do not practice Judaism. But when Ruttman describes his excitement at sitting with Ian Kinsler in the visitors’ dugout at Fenway Park or receiving a phone call from Sandy Koufax, readers will share Ruttman’s sense of wonder and joy. Despite its overarching title, this is a personal book, one man’s immensely gratifying project. Only in America….
Related: Jews and Baseball Reading List
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.