The Author’s Corner With Rebecca Alpert


Rebecca T. Alpert is Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Temple University.  This interview is based on the forthcoming paperback release of her 2011 book Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (Oxford University Press).

JF: What led you to write Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. My mother taught me that the Dodgers were “Jewish” because they were responsible for breaking baseball’s color line, and racial equality is a fundamental Jewish value. As I began to do some research many years later, I discovered that my mother was not the only one who held that belief; many liberal Jews, like other ethnic groups in Brooklyn, believed that their support of Jackie Robinson integrating baseball was a big reason why that happened. (They weren’t entirely wrong; Branch Rickey could never have succeeded at his “Great Experiment” in St. Louis where he worked for many years; in fact, he never even tried.) I wrote an article about that topic entitled “Jackie Robinson: Jewish Icon.” But then I started to wonder, where were the Jews when baseball was segregated? Did they play any role in the Negro Leagues?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: In Out of Left Field I argue that Jews made a unique contribution to mid twentieth century black baseball, in three ways. They played ball–a community of black Jews in Virginia, known as Temple Beth El, had their own team that played against the Negro League teams when they barnstormed through the South; they owned teams—several second generation Eastern European Jews were instrumental in the operation of the Negro Leagues; and they fought to integrate baseball—the Jewish sportswriters at the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, both reported on Negro League games when other white newspapers ignored them, and led efforts to end segregation as early as the mid-1930s, working alongside the black press.

JF: Why do we need to read Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball?

RA: The book opens up a new perspective on the old question of the relationship between Jews and African Americans. It shows quite pointedly that there is some kernel of truth to the myth of the Black-Jewish alliance in the post-World War II era, but that the story is much more complicated, as illustrated through these case studies of black Jews, Jewish businessmen, and Jewish communists that took place before and during the war.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RAI actually don’t identify as an American historian; I’m a religious studies scholar who works primarily in the area of American Judaism. My interest in American Jewish history began when, as a religion major in college, I decided to spend my junior year in Israel to learn more about my Jewish identity. What I quickly discovered there was that I’m really an American Jew, and so when I went to graduate school I focused my studies on American Judaism. From there I quickly learned I couldn’t understand American Judaism without learning about American religion, and ultimately that I needed to understand American history to really comprehend American religion.

JF: What is your next project?

RA: I am continuing to work in the area of religion and sports, co-editing an anthology, Gods, Games, and Globalization: New Perspectives on Religion and Sports. It will include articles about religious groups of all shapes and sizes that have used sports as a vehicle for inclusion into the mainstream, as a recruitment device, or for developing spiritual and physical fitness. And beyond the “holy trinity” of American sports—baseball, basketball, and football—one finds the traces of transcendence in everything from mixed martial arts to soccer. All told, this collection will reveal the variety of religious experiences within sports on the global stage.

JF: Thanks, Rebecca!

“An Indefensible Hope”


Drew Dyrli Hermeling and I just recorded Episode 7 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.  It is our baseball episode and it will go public on Sunday.  Our guest is ESPN’s Paul Lukas, an expert on the history of baseball uniforms.  Stay tuned. Better yet, head over to the podcast page and download a few episodes.  Even better yet, tell your friends to download a few episodes.

As the baseball season gets underway this week, I have been trying to catch up on the work of sportswriters and commentators who usually use the first week of April to reflect on the meaning of baseball to American life.  So far that best thing I have read comes from Chris Gerhz at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.  Here is a taste of “Opening Day: ‘An Indefensible Hope.’“:

For my Twins and most other major league teams, today is Opening Day: the time each year when I’m reminded again that I love baseball far above every other sport — and that it’s hard to explain that love to non-fans. For example, the fact that baseball could inspire a writer as acclaimed as John Updike to do some of his best work speaks volumes about the National Pastime: why I love it, and why others roll their eyes at people like me.

Consider Updike’s 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams’ last game (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu“). Within three sentences, Updike has already described Fenway Park as “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” And he’s exactly right to do so… But that’s just the first classical reference in an essay that goes on to liken Williams to Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.

And to compare him to works by both Donatello and Leonardo.

And to use “Wordsworthian” as an adjective. And to record a joke about Thomas Aquinas.

As you may have heard, baseball is “the thinking man’s game.”

But even if you find such allusions pretentious, stick with Updike’s essay. You’ll eventually come to his riveting account of the 41-year old Williams stepping into the batter’s box in the 8th inning of an otherwise meaningless game:

This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

As a historian, I appreciate how Updike has all those memories of the past (each hearkening back to earlier sections of the essay) converging in a single moment. That’s a big part of baseball’s appeal for me: everything that happens adds a layer to the archeology of a game that would be recognizable to Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama alike.

Read the entire post here.

Enjoy the Game Tonight

I hope you all saw CBS’s piece celebrating the 3oth anniversary of “One Shining Moment.”  (It is not up on-line yet).

Since it first premiered in the 1987 national championship game I have been staying up late to listen to this song.  After eight years of blogging here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home I now feel comfortable telling everyone that my wife surprised me at our wedding reception by having the band play this song.  It was great!

Here is the 2015 version:

Go Nova!  If they win I win the Messiah College pool.

The Religious Power of Baseball

Obama Cuba

Sean O’Neil starts his piece on the sacredness of baseball with Barack Obama’s comments in Cuba about the so-called national pastime.

I did not play a lot of baseball as a kid; I was more of a basketball player, but there is something about baseball that is so fundamentally woven into our culture. And in some ways, at a time in our lives where everything is a mile a minute and kids are on their phone all the time and there’s just this constant stream of information, there is nothing like going to a ball park and just everything slowing down a little bit, and the rhythm of the game gives you a sense of appreciation about all the blessings we have. It’s still a family game in a way that is really hard to match.

O’Neil ends his piece by bringing attention to ESPN radio personality  Dan Lebotard’s take on the recent game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Cuban National Team.  Here is a taste:

When Le Batard watched the video of a Cuban dissident momentarily seize ESPN’s broadcasting platform in Havana to yell against the human-rights abuses of the Castro regime, before being swiftly and forcefully apprehended and pushed into a car, Le Batard felt no ambiguity. Nor could he muster words. He choked on tears and motioned for a commercial break to his radio broadcast.

Sporting events, like civil religion, can provide pluralistic spaces of resiliency in the face of terror. Many claim baseball did that after 9/11. Obama is a believer in that legacy. But the power of sports to produce heightened emotional states of unity, which scholars call “collective effervescence,” can also give it a shared power with religion to occlude injustice in this world, to bury it in cheap, playful sentiment. Sports, like religion, and like the American Dream, will thus continue to be contested symbolic terrain, where the stakes can prove much more complicated than zero-sum games, and the vexed emotional legacies much longer-lasting than nine innings.

Did Donald Trump Kill the United States Football League?

Walt Michaels (coach of NJ Generals), Doug Flutie, and the Donald

Some of you may remember the United States Football League (USFL).  The league was in business from 1983-1985 and played their games in the Spring so as not to compete with the NFL. 

The USFL managed to attract some pretty serious talent, including Heisman Trophy winners Hershel Walker, Doug Flutie, and Mike Rozier.  Former Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly played in the league.  So did Brian Sipe, Reggie White (the “minister of defense”), and Steve Young. George Allen (of Redskins fame) and Marv Levy coached in the league.

In 1983, Donald Trump bought the New Jersey Generals, one of the USFL’s flagship franchises. And everything went downhill from there.

Brent Johnson tells the whole Trump-USFL saga at  Here is a taste of his article:

But Trump saw playing football in the spring as “a wasteland.” Experts said he came into the USFL with the idea to move the league to the fall and challenge the NFL directly. 

“If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball,” Trump said at the time.

The league voted to make the move in 1986. But there was a problem: The NFL was on all three TV networks.

So, the league — with Trump supplying the lawyers — filed an antitrust and monopoly lawsuit against NFL seeking $1.69 billion. Critics said Trump’s hope was that the USFL would become as powerful as the NFL, or that it would force a merger — leading the 
Generals to be absorbed into the NFL.

In the end, the jury ruled that the NFL did have a monopoly and that the USFL was injured. But it also felt the USFL contributed to its own demise with too much spending. The  jury awarded the USFL $3 in damages.

The league folded and never played a game in the fall.

The Brief History of the Seattle Pilots

Seattle Pilots, 1969

Some nice sportswriting here.  

Matt Blitz, writing at The Smart Set, tells the story of the Seattle Pilots and the history of baseball in Seattle.  This Major League Baseball team made their debut on April 11, 1969.  They finished the 1969 season in last place in the American League.  

On April 1, 1970 (just days before the start of the team’s second season) the team moved to Milwaukee and became the Milwaukee Brewers.  There was no time for new uniforms so the word “Pilots” was ripped off the current uniforms and replaced with “Brewers.”  (Milwaukee’s team–the Braves–had moved to Atlanta).

Here is a taste:

As the season wore on, it became evident the team was losing money, though not millions like some pessimistic projections showed, but closer to the half million dollar range. Still, money is money and losing it is never a good thing. It became evident more money was going to be needed in order for the team to stay afloat and the Soriano brothers had to turn to William Daley. In a 1979 interview with the Associated Press, Max Soriano said, “Sure, he had the money to do so, but I don’t think he was a careless person with his dollars. I think he looked at it as the odds being too much against Seattle being a viable franchise until a new stadium was built…I’ve never told anybody this, but Daly wanted to leave Seattle as soon as the first game ended.” In early September, William Daley took to grandstanding and told the Pilots fans that if they didn’t come to games, he would be forced to sell the team. Mayor Floyd Miller (who was actually an interim mayor and never elected) responded by saying he would evict the team if they didn’t put up a bond guaranteeing they would pay the rent on Sick’s, for the Pilots had refused to pay in June. National news reports started coming out that the Pilots were moving at the end of season, most likely to Dallas. In the final month of the season, attendance plummeted to only about 4,500 fans on average a game.

Around this time, a Milwaukee ownership group led by a young, millionaire, car salesman named Bud Selig (yes, current commissioner of Major League Baseball) was looking to buy a team and move them back to the cheese state of Wisconsin. In 1966, the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, despite Bud Selig arguing against this by saying “a baseball team owed it to its community to remain loyal, and not seek new homes, because the loss of a baseball team meant the loss identity.” So, when the Pilots own financial troubles arose, Selig jumped on the chance to move the team from Seattle to Milwaukee, in a twist of irony. After secret negotiations, a deal was struck during game one of the World Series in Baltimore. An ownership group led by Bud Selig was going to buy the Pilots for 10.8 million dollars.

"The Allrounder" Needs Your Support

Are you a sports fan?  Are you an intellectual, scholar, or teacher who has been looking for a deeper conversation about the connections between sports and society?  Then you need to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign for “The Allrounder.”

My friend Bruce Berglund of Calvin College and a few of his colleagues around the world have started an online sports journal that will feature academics and journalists writing about the broader connections of sports to history, politics, science, even philosophy and theology.  Here is a small taste of what you can expect:

They also have a really nice group of contributors lined up, including Amy Bass, a friend of the blog, director of NBC’s Olympic research room (for which she won an Emmy), and one of our most thoughtful commentators on the relationship between sports, race, and American culture.  Oh yes–did I mention we went to graduate school together?
I should say up front that we at The Way of Improvement Leads Home only support Kickstarter campaigns for projects that have potential and promise and can make a contribution to the kinds of discourse and subject matter we value here.  The Allrounder fits the bill on all these fronts.

Perhaps some of you may not be familiar with Kickstarter campaigns.   Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform with a mission to “help bring creative projects to life.” Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are designed to gather money from the public thus circumventing traditional avenues of investment.  Project creators choose a deadline and a minimum funding goal.  If the goal is not met by the deadline, no funds are collected.  Money pledged by donors is collected using Amazon Payments.

CLICK HERE to go to the Kickstarter project page for The Allrounder

CLICK HERE to see the The Allrounder preview site.  The full site will go up in September.

Who is the Greatest Coach of All Time?

The New York Times says it is Sir Alex Ferguson, recently retired coach of Manchester United Football ClubHe won 13 league championships, five F.A. cups, and 2 Champions League titles.  According to this chart, he also won 65% of his matches.

Here are some of the North American contenders:

Phil Jackson:  11 NBA titles and won roughly 68% of his games.

Gino Auriemma: 8 NCAA titles and won 86% of his games.

Pat Summitt:  8 NCAA titles and won 84% of her games.

John Wooden: 10 NCAA titles and won 80% of his games.

Red Auerbach: 9 NBA titles and won rougly 58% of his games.

Scotty Bowman: 9 Stanley Cup titles and won roughly 66% of his games.

Casey Stengel: Won the World Series 7 times with a 51 winning percentage.

Bear Bryant: Won 76% of his games along with 6 national championships.

Mike Krzyzewski: Won four national championships and roughly 76% of his games.

Paul Brown: Won roughly 67% of his games along with seven NFL titles.

Joe McCarthy:  Won the World Series seven times and had a 62 winning percentage.

George Halas:  Six NFL championships and a roughly 68 winning percentage.

Who would you choose as the greatest coach of all time?

Jim Thorpe’s Body is Leaving Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe is buried in Jim Thorpe, PA, but his remains will not be there for long. His sons will be moving them to the Sac and Fox lands in Oklahoma where he was raised.  Here is a taste of a recent editorial in The New York Times:

Thorpe won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, but he was soon stripped of his medals for violating stiff-necked rules of amateurism for having played minor league baseball for token remuneration. In a fit of conscience, Olympic officials restored the medals in 1982, but, by then, Thorpe was long dead and entombed via a bizarre arrangement in which two Pennsylvania mining towns Thorpe had never visited — Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk — officially changed their name to Jim Thorpe, Pa. The 1954 deal with Thorpe’s widow provided a red granite mausoleum for the great athlete’s remains and hope that his name and grave would stir a boom in tourism and local pride amid the hard times of recession.
All that was prelude to a judge’s ruling this month that Thorpe’s two surviving sons had the right under American Indian ancestral law to move his remains from Jim Thorpe, Pa., to the Sac and Fox lands in Oklahoma where he was raised. The ruling was another chapter in the meandering ways of the Thorpe legend. He was rightly acclaimed as one of the surpassing athletes of the 20th century but ultimately pitied for being exploited by handlers and promoters amid his fall into alcoholism. Thorpe proved his true worth as a competitor. His spectacular time for the grueling decathlon test in the 1,500 meters — 4 minutes 40.1 seconds — stood for 60 years.

The New ABA

Remember the American Basketball Association?  This wild and wooly professional basketball league from the 1970s was known for the red, white, and blue basketball, the 3-point shot, a fast-paced “run and gun” style, a lot of dunks, and some of the game’s greatest players, including Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Rick Barry, George Gervin, David Thompson, and Artis Gilmore.  I grew up relatively close to an ABA city (Piscataway, NJ) and rooted hard for the New Jersey Nets.  (I also saw them play a few games at the Nassau Coliseum).  My favorite players were Erving, Super John Williamson, Billy Paultz (“The Whopper”), and Larry Kenon.

Those of you who remember the ABA may not realize that the league was revived (sort of) in 2000.  The new manifestation of the league seems to be even more “fly by the seat of the pants” than the original ABA.  They use the red, white, and blue ball, have a four-point shot (and a five-point shot), and include teams from Gainesville, Birmingham, San Francisco, Lynchburg, Fayetteville, Lima, Pontiac, Connecticut, Calgary, Olympia, Fresno, Little Rock, Colorado Springs, Grand Rapids, Modesto, Portsmouth, Savannah, and Yakima. The league website currently features a picture of a skydiver. The 2012-2013 champions were the Jacksonville Giants. (Christian Laettner actually played a few games with them in 2011-2012). The Giants defeated the North Dallas Vandals in the ABA championship game.

Yesterday’s New York Times has a great feature article on the ABA.  Here is a taste of Mary Pilon’s “A.B.A., or Something Unlike It.”
If it’s not yet considered a premier league, A.B.A. fans and team owners argue that it offers a scruffy alternative to the sleek, corporate atmosphere of most pro sports.
The league does not record statistics, and its standings — even simply who won and lost — have been disputed. Some teams fill their rosters through open tryouts. The Albany (Ga.) Shockwave required only that the prospects be at least 18 and “have previous basketball experience.”
The rules are just as quirky. Shots from beyond

halfcourt are worth 4 points, unless “the Official A.B.A. 3-D Light” is on, in which case those shots are worth 5. In fact, with the light on, a point is added to every field goal. The light goes on if the team with the ball loses it in the backcourt through either a turnover or a violation. If this all sounds a bit ridiculous, remember that the 3-point line was once seen as a gimmick, too.

“It’s the flexibility that’s the charm of the A.B.A., not the plague,” Newman said.
The N.B.A., which owns the trademark to the A.B.A., keeps the league at arm’s length, but has licensed the name to A.B.A. league officials, said Tim Frank, an N.B.A. spokesman.

Maybe One Day I Will Get To Teach a Course Like This

Chris Beneke on why he teaches baseball history. A taste:

So what particular things do college-level students of baseball history actually need to think about? Well, they should grapple with all the implications of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 arrival as the first African-American player in the modern major leagues and the 1956 decision to uproot the Dodgers from their languishing Brooklyn home and deposit them in the glistening, automobile-centric environs of Los Angeles. They should also be able to explain the significance of the 1975 “Seitz decision” that transformed a labor system premised on depriving its chief employees of nearly every shred of autonomy into a system that bestowed vast treasures on free agents who had the audacity to play a game for a living.

Part of what makes baseball so appealing as a tool for teaching American history is the happy coincidence of professional baseball history with the chronology of the modern survey course. Baseball was already considered the “National Game” in the 1860s, by which time its regnant metaphors such as “fair play” were beginning to saturate American life. As Jim Crow took hold and segregation hardened at the tail end of 19th century, the major leagues imposed their own unofficial bans on African-American players. The “Latinization” of baseball over the last two decades, and the secondary impact on the Dominican Republic in particular, also tracks neatly with larger changes in American society.