THE BLOG

The Return of the Jewish Athlete

01/15/2014 09:07 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014
  • David Fontana Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C.

In the classic 1980 comedy movie Airplane, a restless airplane passenger turns to the stewardess to ask if she has something light to read. The stewardess answers that she does have a short leaflet titled "Famous Jewish Sports Legends." Thirty-three years later, that stewardess might have to offer the passenger a thicker book. The professional male athlete with Jewish heritage has returned to the important place in American sports that he occupied in the early and middle 20th century, after nearly half a century of playing a smaller role. Jewish athletes have returned to this place because of changes in where American Jews come from and where American Jews live in the United States.

Some might be surprised to hear that Jewish athletes ever played a meaningful role in major American pro sports at all. Indeed, Sigmund Freud once remarked that the Jewish community did not prioritize "harmonious development of spiritual and bodily activity." In the early years of American professional sports, though, Jews played a central role during complicated times for Jews in America. Because this was before the Internet, and before the era of Big Data, it's hard to locate precise records, but we know that many American sports featured famous Jewish players and numerous Jewish players.

When professional basketball was organized in the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, it was widely known as "Jew ball" because of the large and important role of Jewish players. A Jewish player named Ossie Schectman scored the first basket ever in the first American professional basketball league.

Football today is dominated by the discussion of the central role that the forward pass plays in the sport. This role would not have been possible without Sid Luckman, the Jewish quarterback who played for the Chicago Bears in the 1930s and 1940s. On his death, The New York Times noted that Luckman's skill with the forward pass "helped trigger a revolution in how the game of football was played" and that he was "the best all-around football player that New York City ever developed."

In major league baseball baseball, there were at least six Jewish All-Stars right before and after World War II, including some very prominent ones. Hank Greenberg, for example, was a Hall of Fame player and was twice named the Most Valuable Player in all of baseball. A debate still rages about whether pitchers avoided throwing him strikes in 1938 to ensure he did not break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.

In sports that were more popular in the past--like boxing--Jews played an even more important role. Many still call Benny Leonard the best lightweight fighter of all time. It was common to see Jewish boxers winning all of the major awards in boxing in the 1910s through the 1930s.

In the mid- to late 1950s, though, this changed. In the next five decades, Jewish athletes became far less common and far less prominent. Several unofficial sources, cobbled together, suggest that there were fewer NBA players in the second half of the 20th century combined than probably appeared in any given year in the late 1940s. Jewish players accounted for a tiny percentage of professional football league rosters in the second half of the 20th century.

Those years saw far fewer Jewish major league baseball players, too. In the decades before, there weren't just multiple Jewish players in the league at any given moment--there were multiple Jewish All-Star players. But if we extrapolate from some of the estimates provided by Joseph Epstein of The Wall Street Journal, there was, on average, less than one Jewish player in pro baseball in any given year between the mid-1950s and 2000. There were notable exceptions, to be sure--including Sandy Koufax, perhaps the best baseball pitcher of all time. But the total differences were still dramatic.

Sometime in the early to mid-2000s, though, Jewish players began to return to the major American professional sports. There's no central or comprehensive database that could be sure it listed every 20th-century Jewish pro athlete, unfortunately, but several sources considered together provide helpful information. It appears that there have been more Jewish football players in the NFL in the past 10 years than in the 50 years prior to that combined. In basketball, opening-day NBA rosters this year featured more Jewish players than played in the league in all of the 1980s combined.

In major league baseball, the numbers are even more dramatic. The average over the 130-plus years of major league baseball is around one Jewish player a year, according to The Wall Street Journal. There were around 16 Jewish players on major league rosters at any time during this past regular season, and in 2008, the All-Star Game featured three Jewish All-Stars.

So what happened? Why did Jewish athletes go from the front pages of the sports news to the source of jokes in classic comedies, and then back again to the front pages?

It's hard to be sure, of course, why the Jewish athlete has returned, as there is little to no direct research on the topic, although there is some helpful speculation on this topic as part of the general emergence of more serious studies about sports. A major part of any explanation has to be changing demographics. There are communities that perennially produce large numbers of professional athletes, and American Jews have started either to have a resurgence or make a first meaningful appearance in these communities.

Professional athletes often come from disadvantaged urban communities or from immigrant communities. In the early years of American professional sports, when Jewish athletes were more prominent, they tended to be from a combination of these communities. Luckman and Greenberg, for example, were born to immigrant parents living in Brooklyn. As Luckman said, "We played football, stickball, and baseball all the time, right out there on the city streets." Marty Glickman, another Jewish football (and track) standout from the city, played against Luckman in the annual football game between their rival high schools, Erasmus and Madison, and 20,000 spectators filled Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to cheer on these two Jewish star players.

For a period of time, when disadvantaged urban communities and immigrant communities became home to smaller Jewish populations, the number of Jewish professional athletes fell. Newfound economic mobility meant more Jews moved out of poorer urban communities like the Brooklyn neighborhoods that trained Luckman, Greenberg, and Glickman. And changes in immigration patterns meant immigrants who came to the United States in search of opportunities were less likely to be Jewish.

Now, though, American Jews once again have ties to these urban and immigrant communities, partly because more American Jews are now the product of inter-faith marriages. In 1970, only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith, while now 58 percent do. The rise in inter-faith marriage has meant more Jews who have a non-Jewish parent with ties to disadvantaged urban communities as we know them today. Jordan Farmar of the Los Angeles Lakers, for instance, was born to a Jewish mother and an African-American former major league baseball player from Los Angeles. His father's friend and Farmar's godfather is the former great major league baseball player Eric Davis (raised on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles), who served as a constant source of advice for Farmar.

Additionally, a new wave of Jewish immigrants--some from the former Soviet Union, some Israeli--started to move to the United States in the last several decades of the 20th century. Around half a million moved from the former Soviet Union to the United States in the last several decades of the 20th century alone, and around half a million Israelis hold American passports, a sign of the increasing traffic between the two countries. Several recent NFL players, for instance, are either Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (like former NFL player Igor Olshansky) or have family members who have immigrated to the United States that way (like former NFL player Greg Camarillo). The NBA features two Israeli players this year. Braun's father and Farmar's stepfather both immigrated from Tel Aviv to the United States.

Large numbers of professional athletes also come from "red" or "purple" regions (in other words, conservative-leaning or conservative-friendly areas). These regions can be rural parts of the country, or they can be the exurban or suburban communities that likewise produce large number of professional athletes. American Jews now have ties to these communities, too, and that may be part of why American Jews are professional athletes again in significant numbers.

Jews have moved to these communities in larger numbers just like others have moved to these communities in larger numbers. Part of this Jewish migration may also be because of the rise in the inter-faith marriage rate: Many American Jews have married into families with red- or purple-region family ties.

Several Jewish pro athletes playing today grew up in circumstances where these factors converged. Ian Kinsler, the three-time All-Star for the Texas Rangers, was raised in Tucson, Arizona, where the Jewish community has increased six-fold since 1948. Kinsler's father--a veteran of the playgrounds across the streets from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx--moved to Tucson for college and raised Kinsler on the baseball fields there.

These trends have led to some notable moments, with the most recent one being just last week. Northwestern University freshman basketball player Aaron Liberman took the court against Michigan in Ann Arbor wearing his kippah. Liberman, fresh off a year in Israel after high school and before Northwestern, became the first player to wear a kippah during a Big Ten basketball game.

The Jewish community in the United States has been changing, and who takes the court and the field has started to change in response. What passed for history in Ann Arbor last week might become a regular occurrence in the years to come.

David Fontana is Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University School of Law