Jewish Racial Relations and the Heyday of New York Sports
For New Yorkers, the pinnacle of “the golden age” of sports came after World War II. The Yankees won five straight World Series, and the Dodgers gave America Jackie Robinson.
New York Jews were at the center of the intersection of sports and politics. The baseball biopic 42 managed to leave Jews out of the Jackie Robinson story. In fact, a Jewish politician pressured Major League Baseball to hold the first interracial tryouts in Boston that paved the way for Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier. Jewish sports writers including the Daily Worker’s Lester Rodney loudly championed his cause, Jewish slugger Hank Greenberg befriended him, and Brooklyn’s Jewish fans outnumbered African-Americans in the Ebbets Field bleachers.
A distinctive style of basketball — the two-handed set shot — was perfected between the world wars by the sons of mostly Jewish immigrants who carried over the game from the city streets and East Side settlement houses to City College and other schools when admission to CCNY was free and the Ivy League kept out Jews.
A key figure in that movement, first as a player then as a coach, was Nat Holman. The son of Jewish immigrants, he earned an MA from NYU and starred in early pro leagues before becoming a fixture for decades as City College’s coach, calling himself “The Master.” His apotheosis was when his team became the first and only winner of both the NIT and NCAA tournaments in the 1949-1950 season. Then the scandals exploded.
There were allegations that he fixed grades. The major scandals involved “point shaving” — not “dumping games,” but keeping winning margins under the betting odds. The gamblers — mostly from Jewish or Italian backgrounds — paid hundreds or thousands per game to hook poor young men who, if they wavered, might be threatened with violence.
Cold War politics intruded on sports as early as 1949, about the same time that Jackie Robinson, after resisting pressure for two years, testified as “a friendly witness” before Congressional inquisitors condemning athlete-actor-activist Paul Robeson for communist leanings, despite his earlier lobbying baseball owners against the color barrier.
The college basketball scandals of 1951 rocked six New York teams as well as others across small town America. The prosecutor of the Rosenbergs for atomic espionage also prosecuted New York gamblers for tax evasion. Jewish resorts in the Catskills where players worked in the offseason were portrayed as cesspools of iniquity.
New York’s heyday as the mecca of sports was over.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).