Amer­i­can Jews and Amer­i­ca’s Game

  • Review
By – May 13, 2013

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.

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