Ellis Island to Ebbets Field

When the waves of immigration from Eastern Europe arrived in this country, before and after the turn of the century, Jewish newspapers and community leaders urged Jews and their children to engage in American sports as a way of learning American standards and assimilating into American culture. In cities where the new Americans were most numerous, organizations like the Young Mens Hebrew Association were founded to provide facilities and coaching for fledgling athletes.

Athletics were important for many other immigrant groups seeking fortune and approval, but as Levine shows this area was of special significance to a group whose public image suggested weakness and lack of physical ability. For leaders of the Jewish community, participation in sports could be a means of combating a demeaning stereotype. Whenever a Jewish boxer won a match or a Jewish basketball team won a championship the image of the scholarly, inhibited Jew was diminished. Levine successfully chronicles the entry of Jewish athletes into a variety of sports during the past hundred years.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading, since it suggests that baseball was the most significant sport for Jewish participation. In fact, since baseball requires open spaces, it was less suitable for participation by a predominantly urban group, and baseball attracted less Jewish activity than either boxing or basketball, both city sports. For every Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg, there were two or three boxers like Barney Ross, Abe Attell, Max Baer, and Maxie Rosenbloom, while Jewish promoters dominated the fight game for many years. And in the 1930’s and 1940’s Jewish players dominated college basketball in the East, up through the time of CCNY’s winning both the NCAA and National Invitation Tournament titles in 1950. Track and swimming have also had their share of Jewish stars.

Assimilation and consequent loss of Jewish identity, whether through athletics or not, is a problem that has troubled many Jews, and Levine deals with that concern at length. ELLIS ISLAND TO EBBETS FIELD is a thorough and detailed history of an important aspect of the history of American sports. If its prose is sometimes plodding, all the facts are here.