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Enough Already With Koufax

A new book argues that the roster of Jewish jocks includes matadors, weightlifters, and competitive eaters

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Clockwise from top left: Benny Leonard, Renee Richards, Nancy Lieberman, Dolph Schayes, Daniel Mendoza, Bobby Fischer, and Howard Cosell.(Collage Tablet Magazine; Benny Leonard and Dolph Schayes illustrations Mark Ulriksen, courtesy of Twelve; Renee Richards photo Wikipedia; Nancy Lieberman photo Tim DeFrisco/Allsport/Getty Images; Daniel Mendoza Wikimedia; Bobby Fischer Wikimedia; Howard Cosell Wikimedia)

At first glance, the appeal of an essay collection titled Jewish Jocks might seem limited to a small, if fervent, readership. In fact, the anthology, edited by former Tablet writer Marc Tracy and New Republic editor Franklin Foer, is lively and full of surprises, even for readers with no horse in this race. In essays by writers as varied as Simon Schama, David Bezmozgis, Emily Bazelon, and David Brooks, there are entries on the usual suspects, such as Barney Ross and Sandy Koufax. But the collection also includes profiles of lesser-known talents like Soviet weightlifter Grigory Novak, Brooklyn-born matador Sidney Frumpkin, as well as downright mediocre (but beloved to some) players like Mets right-fielder Art Shamsky. Finally, there are those included in the collection for the ways they elevated sport (Raiders General Manager Al Davis, sportswriter Robert Lipsyte) or, conversely, besmirched it (basketball point-shaver Jack Molinas, Third Reich-representing fencer Helene Mayer). Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry is joined by Tracy and Foer to talk about how they determined whom to include and whom to leave out, and about some of their favorite contributions to the collection. [Running time: 25:00.] 

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herbcaen says:

Ill stick with Koufax, a true mensch. Especially compared to the vampire Cosell, basketball point-shaver Jack Molinas, Third Reich-representing fencer Helene Mayer. Koufax is the only person on the list who could serve as a role model to kids

Earl Ganz says:

Terrific interview Sarah! And you Marc, holding out on me,
the best all around athlete in my military school in 1950. I

once played backetball in the summer at Riis Park with Dolph

Shayes and I used to imitate Fatso Roth and Herb Cohen,
that is spin the ball off the backboard when you didn’t have
a clear shot at the basket. They played for Erasmus and were

city champs, then went to CCNY and won both the NIT which

was the bigger tournament and the NCAA. Later they were

convicted of point shaving.

Did you get Nabokov’s Grader & Other Stories, Marc? Read
“House of Israel” about football and being a Jew, and “Dick

Goodwin’s First Case” about me playing football at Tufts, and
“Irish Bob Murphy” about my boxing career. Maybe if there is
a sequel you can use one of these stories. They’re all about

being a Jew in the 1950s.

It sounds like a great book. I’m ordering two, one for myself
and one for my cousin who went through pretty much the

same growing up as I did and will appreciate these stories.

Earl Ganz

PhillipNagle says:

It always amazes me when people are suprised by Jewish athletes. My son was a star football player and wrestler. There were people, usually Jews, who were shocked that a Jewish boy would participate let alone succede in those sports, even though he always had several Jewish team mates.

There have been plenty of Jewish athletes. Boxing and basketball were once heavily Jewish sports. Jews have also been prominent as sports journalists and broadcasters. Marvin Miller was critical to the organization of the major league baseball players union.

Robert Starkand says:

Koufax is my hero. As for the rest, of passing interest only, although I like Mark Spitz, Hank Greenberg and Marty Glickman, a legendary announcer for the New York Football Giants and an Olympic runner for our country who was not allowed to compete in 1936 Berlin.

RickZucker says:

You asked about other suggestions for a volume 2. How about Moe Berg? He’s quite a story.

Irv Osterer says:

Terrific interview. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

I’ve been researching Jewish hockey for many years — I thought that I would learn all that I needed to know in two weeks and seven years later, I am still discovering more and more incredible Jewish hockey stories.

I note that in your book there is a chapter on Helen Mayer, who represented the Reich — hockey player Rudi Ball was also Jewish and represented Germany at the Olympics. He was of Europe’s finest hockey players (Spengler Cup and Lake Placid bronze medal) and has been posthumously inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in Zurich. Although Ball’s mishpocha (his brothers were also good players) escaped to South Africa, Ball somehow managed to stay in Germany during the war and play hockey even though it was widely known he had a Jewish father. He would be a great character to follow up on.

And continuing on a hockey theme, Benny Leonard was also a part of the ownership group of the NHL’s third US franchise – in Pittsburgh. His foray into pro hockey was compromised by the stock market crash. The Pirates folded in 1929 and moved to Philadelphia. That franchise also dissolved in 1936.


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Enough Already With Koufax

A new book argues that the roster of Jewish jocks includes matadors, weightlifters, and competitive eaters

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