Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball

Oxford University Press  2011

A pair of new books with vastly differing, yet enjoyable styles, offer Jewish baseball fans insights into the esoteric topics of the Negro Leagues and Israel Baseball League.

Rebecca T. Alpert writes of Jews’ involvement in the Negro Leagues from the 1930’s through the 1950’s in Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball. Alpert examines three groups of Jews who “remained outsiders, intimately involved but never belonging,” who nevertheless “had a profound influence on black baseball, both negative and positive.” 

These were the team owners and business managers; sportswriters who advocated for racial equality in the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, and the Belleville Grays, a team of “Hebrew Israelites” (black Jews). 

Tim Wiles, the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum’s director of research, says Out of Left Field is “a work of highly original research.” Indeed, Alpert’s detailing of the Grays is a groundbreaking effort. 

The Belleville Grays, the team owner and players, receive scant attention in Leslie Heaphy’s The Negro Leagues, 1860–1960 and James A. Riley’s The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, two of the most detailed books on black baseball. Likewise, when Heaphy and Riley do mention team owners Ed Gottlieb, Syd Pollack, and Abe Sapperstein, the few paragraphs the authors spend on the subjects make no references to the men’s religious affiliations. 

Out of Left Field is written in a scholarly fashion. Heavily footnoted, it offers an extensive bibliography and provides in-depth analysis of the “complicated history” of black-Jewish relations, in addition to discussing black baseball. 

Alpert’s book will likely appeal more to academics and serious baseball historians than casual fans. Despite the effort it may require, Out of Left Field is a both a worthy read and a valuable addition to the bookshelf of Negro League and Jewish baseball fans. Aaron Pribble’s Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League, is, conversely, a much easier read. 

Based on the journals he kept during the Israel Baseball League’s 2007, and only, season, Pribble details his on-the-field exploits and his off-the-field adventures in alternating chapters. 

As seemingly all baseball memoirs do, Pribble’s story is heavy on game details, uses salty language, and describes the sexual conquests and drinking habits of players. At times this seems excessive. 

Pitching in the Promised Land is, however, more than a simple baseball diary. Pribble is both a crafty pitcher and author, and he does a nice job changing speeds. The book capably mixes Pribble’s recaps of baseball games with his changing views on Middle East politics, memories of a brief but intense romance with a Yemenite Jew, and the general absurdity of playing baseball in Israel in a faltering league. 

Perhaps, most interestingly, Pribble also offers a touching first-person account of how “a peculiar season, a once-in-a-lifetime summer” shaped and solidified his own Jewish identity and spirituality. 

With a writing style that is approachable, warm, effective, and engrossing, Pitching in the Promised Land will likely appeal to both Jewish seamheads and casual fans.

Additional books featured in this review:

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