Jews in Sports

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax in 1964. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Joe Dorinson
A common fallacy–perpetuated in stereotype—is that Jews are inept in sports because they lack athletic talent as well as physical strength. The Brooklyn Jewish experience gives the lie to this absurd view. In basketball alone, Jews from our borough dominated the game for decades. Their names are legion; their deeds, immortal.

In the early years of “Hoop” lore, one finds Nat Krinsky and Sammy Kaplan. Later, we encounter college greats at LIU-Brooklyn like Julie Bender, Irv Torgoff (pro-basketball’s first sixth man), Butch Schwartz, the Rader twins, Lou Lippman, and Ossie Schectman who scored the first basket in what is now the NBA. Even Catholic schools like St. John’s University recruited talented Jewish hoopsters like Jack “Dutch” Garfinkel, Harry Boykoff, the Gotkin Brothers (Hy & Dave), and Max Zaslofsky.

NYU, not to be outdone, summoned Donnie Forman, Sid Tannenbaum, Jerry Fleischman, Abe Becker, Boris Nachamkin, Mal Seeman, Bruce Kaplan, and Mark “Whitey” Reiner. Other luminaries attended CCNY, namely, Moe Goldman, William “Red” Holtzman, Jerry Domerschick (the only team captain for three consecutive years), Al Roth, and Mike Witlin to name only a few. Of course, we must now praise famous men such as Rudy LaRusso who went out of town to Dartmouth, an Ivy League sanctuary and stardom with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and also praise famous women like Nancy Lieberman who pioneered women’s entry into a once exclusive male club in basketball.
Breaking barriers, Jack Laub, Abraham Lincoln High School grad, played six years of varsity basketball; two years at CCNY interrupted by World War II, and four years at the University of Cincinnati. In another forum, Normie Drucker set a very high bar as NBA referee in preserving law and order on basketball courts throughout America. Although Jerry Reinsdorf, an Erasmus graduate, did not play the game, he now owns basketball’s Chicago Bulls and baseball’s Chicago White Sox. Probably, basketball’s greatest coach and judge of talent issued from Brooklyn roots though he gained glory in Boston; his name: Arnold “Red” Auerbach.

Brooklyn football produced a superstar in Sid Luckman at Erasmus Hall High School, Columbia College, and the first prototypical T-Formation quarterback with the dynastic Chicago Bears, gridiron royalty. Another Erasmus alum, Al Davis became a coach, owner, and commissioner in pro football. As the owner/ general manager of the Oakland Raiders, he resurrected the career of a brilliant defensive end, Lyle Alzado, a Brooklyn native whose life ended prematurely due to steroids. Other players of note include Abraham Lincoln High School’s Sid Youngelman who excelled in basketball as well as in football. Allie Sherman, who played quarterback at Brooklyn College, went on to coach the New York Giants to several division titles. Finally, Sonny Werblin as co-owner of the New York Jets signed Joe Namath to a lucrative contract leading to a merger of two competing leagues and the transformation of professional football. Werblin later ran Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks and the New York Ranger, local basketball and hockey teams, respectively, under his able aegis.

Media stars, from print journalism to raid and television, also deserve mention. They span two radical journalists, Lester Rodney and Bill Mardo who promoted racial integration in professional baseball before it was fashionable. The enormously prolific sportswriter, Maury Allen (Rosenberg) made sports stories accessible without sacrificing literary elegance. Howard Cosell, ne Cohen, raised a powerful Brooklyn if nasal voice for defending Muhammad Ali and “telling it like it is” when discoursing on controversial issues. Speaking of mellifluous voices, none did it better than Marty Glickman, a great athlete in football and track at James Madison High School and Syracuse University and legendary broadcaster of major events in football and basketball. Marv Albert (ne Aufrichtig) carved out a highly successful career along with his younger brothers, Al and Steve.

Because baseball remains our national pastime, “attention,” to echo the wife of Brooklyn salesman Willy Loman, “must be paid.” Present at the creation, Lipmann Pike, of Dutch Jewish origin not only is regarded as baseball’s first professional; he also earned the distinction of being baseball’s initial home-run hitter. Later local favorites emerged: they include Sid Gordon, Goodie Rosen, Harry Eisenstat, Cal Abrams, Saul Rogovin, and Sandy Koufax, According to Hall of Famer Bob Feller‘s expert assessment, Koufax ranks as the best pitcher in modern baseball. And lest we forget, Sandy’s teammate at Lafayette High School, Fred Wilpon owns the New York Mets.[/expand]