Who Is the Greatest Jewish Athlete of All Time?

The stadium scene.
Oct. 23 2012 2:36 PM

Who’s the Greatest Jewish Athlete?

An interview with Franklin Foer about Jewish jocks, and how they changed sports history.

American baseball player Sandy Koufax circa 1965.
Sandy Koufax circa 1965

N.Y. Public Library Picture Collection/Wikimedia Commons.

When I was bar mitzvah'd in 1983, I received four Swiss Army knives as presents. Starting this week, and for decades to come, every Jewish bar mitzvah boy will probably get four copies of Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. Edited by Franklin Foer and Mark Tracy, Jewish Jocks collects dozens of short, opinionated biographical essays about the greatest Jewish athletes, coaches, team owners, trainers, and sports journalists of all time. Contributors include David Remnick, Howard Jacobson, Buzz Bissinger, Simon Schama, and Jane Leavy—not to mention Slate’s own Emily Bazelon, Josh Levin, Dahlia Lithwick, and me. Later this week Slate will run the essays from Steven Pinker (on Red Auerbach), Jonathan Safran Foer (on Bobby Fischer), and Bazelon (on Renee Richards).

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

I interviewed Franklin Foer about the book.

Great Jewish Athletes is supposedly the world’s shortest book. How did you manage to get 300 pages out of the subject?  

That old joke from the movie Airplane!: It's both true and a smear. Yes, Yeshiva Flatbush isn't winning many football championships these days. But the history of Jewish athletics is much richer than most folks realize. Basketball and boxing were both dominated by Jews during the interwar years. (Back then, a third of all boxing champions were Jews. You could find them in every weight class.) Football, not a very Jewish discipline on the surface, was practically invented by our people. Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman created the modern quarterback as we know him. Sid Gilman was the genius who conceived the basic structure of offense you see on your television sets each Sunday. Al Davis—yeah, we own him, too—reshaped the image of the game. That's to say nothing of the TV executives, the newspaper journalists, and marketing geniuses who left their sizable stamps on football.

Our thesis is that the Jewish contribution to sports is very much akin to the Jewish contribution to Hollywood. To paraphrase: We built that. 

What kind of sports have Jews been especially good at and why? And which ones have we struggled at?

Jewish Jocks, 2012.
Jewish Jocks, 2012.

Twelve/Hachette Book Group.

Jews were very good at any sport that thrived in New York City in the early 20th century, which is not surprising given their large presence in the five boroughs. That was also a time when Jews lived in working-class neighborhoods, where physical strength was an everyday imperative. You needed to know how to fight back against the Irish and Italian kids threatening to pound you. And credit must also be paid to the Settlement House movement, which built gyms across the Lower East Side in the first decades of the century. 

You can find Jewish champions in almost every sport, with one strange exception: golf. There are lots of Jewish country clubs and lots of Jewish doctors on the links, but there are stunningly few members of the tribe on the PGA tour. I have struggled to find a theory to explain this paucity. (Perhaps golf is a sport that punishes neurotics. Or perhaps there's some hangover from the era when country clubs excluded the Goldbergs and Epsteins.) The one great Jewish golfer in recent memory, Corey Pavin, became an evangelical Christian.

Is there any reason to believe that Jews are better or worse athletes than non-Jews?

My father has called this book the most triumphalist document to emerge from the Jewish community since the '67 war. Many of the essays hit the same theme: Jews compensate for their lack of physical acumen with their heads. They are innovators, who must devise new strategies and new techniques to win. Jewish boxers were invariably described as "scientific." That is, they used precision and creativity in order to foil their foes. Henry Ford, for one, hated the scientific fighters. He considered the use of feints and trickery to be less than manly. Yet, the slips and punches that Jewish boxers invented ultimately found their way into every gym in America. 

Who’s the greatest Jewish Jock of all time?

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The strongest (and most screamingly obvious) case can be made for Sandy Koufax. His image and career come very close to perfection. It helps that he retired before we could witness him at less than full strength. (In his final season, he won 27 times, each of them a complete game!) And his decision to sit out Yom Kippur—and the applause he received for it—certified Jewish assimilation in this country. 

I can also make a case for Benny Leonard, the greatest of the Jewish pugilists. He won the lightweight title in 1917 and didn't let it go until 1925. The authoritative Bert Sugar (also a Jew) has rated him the sixth best pound-for-pound fighter of all time—just one spot below Muhammad Ali.

Or, in the spirit of the book, I should mention Daniel Okrent. He is the journalist, the first public editor of the New York Times, who invented rotisserie baseball, a game that has transformed the experience of fandom. He took the quintessential Jewish obsession with stats and elevated it into a national obsession, the very definition of fantasy. In effect, Okrent made us a nation of Jewish nerds.

 A huge number of your Jewish Jocks are owners, lawyers, coaches, journalists—nonsportsmen. Why did you include them? You’re confirming the stereotype that we’re actually the moneymen, not the ballers!

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