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Jackie Robinson and the Jews

Robinson had a strong bond with New York’s large Jewish community, particularly in Brooklyn, where Jews were half of the residents of the city’s largest borough.
[additional-authors]
March 30, 2022
Jackie Robinson (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This year, Passover and Jackie Robinson Day both take place on April 15. That’s appropriate, because Robinson was baseball’s Moses.

It was on that date in 1947 that Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. To honor Robinson, each year every player, coach, manager and umpire in Major League Baseball wears Robinson’s uniform number, 42. This year is special because it marks the 75th anniversary of that transformative moment.

During his playing days—1947 to 1956, all with the Brooklyn Dodgers—Robinson was an exceptional athlete. He was Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949. An outstanding base runner with a .311 lifetime batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Robinson’s success on and off the baseball diamond was a symbol of the promise of a racially integrated society. It is difficult today to summon the excitement and fervor that greeted Robinson’s achievement. He did more than change the way baseball is played and who plays it. The dignity with which Robinson handled his encounters with racism among fellow players, fans and the media—as well as in hotels, restaurants, trains and other public places—drew public attention to the issue, stirred the consciences of many white Americans, and gave Black Americans a tremendous boost of pride and self-confidence.

By hiring Robinson, the Dodgers earned the loyalty of millions of Black Americans. But they also gained the allegiance of many white Americans, most fiercely Jews, especially those in immigrant and second-generation neighborhoods. They believed that integration within the national pastime was a critical steppingstone in tearing down other obstacles to equal treatment. Robinson had a strong bond with New York’s large Jewish community, particularly in Brooklyn, where Jews were half of the residents of the city’s largest borough.

But they also gained the allegiance of many white Americans, most fiercely Jews, especially those in immigrant and second-generation neighborhoods.

A number of Jews played key roles in shaping Robinson’s life and career.

Lester Rodney was an influential part of the campaign to end baseball’s Jim Crow system. Starting in 1936, he was the sports editor of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party’s newspaper. Led by Rodney, the paper forged an alliance with the Negro press, civil rights groups, radical politicians and left-wing labor unions to dismantle baseball’s color line. The protest movement—which began when Robinson was still a teenager—published open letters to baseball owners, polled white managers and players about their willingness to have Black players on major league rosters, picketed at baseball stadiums in New York and Chicago,  gathered signatures on petitions, kept the issue before the public, and put pressure on team owners.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Rodney was one of the few white sportswriters to cover the Negro Leagues and to protest baseball segregation. One of his editorials attacked “every rotten Jim Crow excuse offered by the magnates for this flagrant discrimination.” When baseball executives told Rodney that there were no Black players good enough to play in the majors, Rodney shot down the argument by reporting about exhibition games where Negro League players defeated teams comprised of top-flight white major leaguers. In 1941 he and sportswriters for Negro newspapers sent telegrams to team owners asking them to give tryouts to Black players. In 1942 the Chicago White Sox reluctantly invited the Negro League pitcher Nate Moreland and UCLA’s All-American football star Jackie Robinson to attend a tryout camp in Pasadena. Manager Jimmy Dykes raved about Robinson: “He’s worth $50,000 of anybody’s money. He stole everything but my infielders’ gloves.” The two ballplayers never heard from the White Sox again.

During World War 2,  Rodney, and other progressive sportswriters voiced their outrage about the hypocrisy of baseball’s establishment. In an open letter to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis published in the Daily Worker in May 1942, Rodney wrote: “Negro soldiers and sailors are among those beloved heroes of the American people who have already died for the preservation of this country and everything this country stands for—yes, including the great game of baseball. You, the self-proclaimed ‘Czar’ of baseball, are the man responsible for keeping Jim Crow in our National Pastime. You are the one refusing to say the word which would do more to justify baseball’s existence in this year of war than any other single thing.”

The son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Shirley Povich, the Washington Post’s sports editor and columnist, consistently challenged baseball’s color line. Reporting from spring training in Florida in 1941, he watched several Negro League games and reminded readers that Black players were as good or better than their white counterparts. The major leagues, he wrote, were missing out on  “a couple of million dollars worth of talent” by excluding Black players. When the Dodgers signed Robinson to a contract in 1947, Povich wrote, “Four hundred and fifty-five years after Columbus eagerly discovered America, major league baseball reluctantly discovered the American Negro.”

In 1945, Isadore Muchnick, a progressive Jewish member of the Boston City Council, determined to push the Boston Red Sox to hire Black players. Owner Tom Yawkey was among baseball’s strongest opponents of integration, so Muchnick threatened to deny the Red Sox a permit needed to play on Sundays. Working with Wendell Smith (the Black sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential Black newspaper) and Dave Egan (a white sportswriter for the Boston Record) Muchnick persuaded reluctant Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins to give three Negro League players—Robinson, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams—a tryout at Fenway Park on April 16.  Having endured the bogus tryout with the White Sox four years earlier, Robinson was skeptical about the Red Sox’ motives. On the night before the tryout, Robinson went to Muchnick’s home for dinner. During the 90-minute tryout, the three players performed well. Robinson, the most impressive of the three, hit line drives to all fields. “Bang, bang, bang; he rattled it,” Muchnick recalled. “Jackie hit balls over the fence and against the wall,” echoed Jethroe. “What a ballplayer,” said Hugh Duffy, the Red Sox’ chief scout and one-time outstanding hitter. “Too bad he’s the wrong color.” But public pressure and media publicity helped raise awareness and furthered the cause.

After the phony Fenway Park tryout, Smith headed to Brooklyn to tell Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey—who did want to integrate his team and was looking for the right player to do it—about Robinson’s outstanding performance. Rickey picked Robinson. Muchnick and Robinson remained friends. When the Dodgers came to Boston to play the National League’s Braves (who later moved to Milwaukee, then Atlanta), Robinson would visit Muchnik at his home. Robinson once spoke at a father-and-son breakfast at Muchnick’s synagogue, bringing one of his sons with him.

Sam Nahem grew up within New York’s Syrian Jewish community and starred in football and baseball at Brooklyn College, where he was also involved in radical political groups that challenged antisemitism and racism. He pitched for the Dodgers, Cardinals and Phillies in the late 1930s and early 1940s, earning a law degree during the off seasons. In 1945, while stationed in France during World War 2, Nahem was asked to organize a baseball team comprised of American soldiers on his base to compete with the teams from other bases in Europe. Nahem recruited players for his team, the OISE All-Stars, comprised mainly of semi-pro, college, and ex-minor-league players. Besides Nahem, only one other OISE player had major league experience. Nahem boldly insisted on putting two Negro League stars, Leon Day and Willard Brown, on the roster, even though military baseball was segregated.

With Nahem pitching, playing first base, and leading the team in hitting, the OISE All-Stars won 17 games and lost only one, attracting as many as 10,000 fans to their games, and advancing to the finals of the European GI World Series. The other team that reached the finals was the 71st Infantry Red Circlers, representing the 3rd Army, commanded by General George Patton. Patton’s team included nine major leaguers and was heavily favored to win. The GI World Series  took place in September, a few months after the U.S. and the Allies had defeated Germany. The OISE All-Stars and the Red Circlers each won two of the first four games. The final game, played on September 8, 1945, took place in Nuremberg, Germany, in the same stadium where Hitler had addressed Nazi Party rallies. Allied bombings had destroyed the city but somehow spared the stadium. The U.S. Army laid out a baseball diamond and renamed the stadium Soldiers Field. Nahem’s team won final game 2-1. The Sporting News adorned its report on the contest with a photo of Nahem. A month later, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson—who had been barred from playing on the military team at Ft. Riley, Kansas because of his race—to a contract to play for the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal.

The  protest movement that included Rodney, Povich, Muchnick, and Nahem—part of a broader postwar movement for civil rights—set the stage for Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues in 1947. During his rookie year, Robinson faced racist epithets on and off the field, including by opposing players.

When Robinson joined the Montreal Royals for the 1946 season, his biggest booster was Sam Maltin, a Jewish sports columnist for the Montreal Herald and a stringer for the Pittsburgh Courier, the influential Black newspaper. When Robinson led the Royals to the minor league World Series championship, the fans surrounded him and carried him on their shoulders in celebration. In the Courier, Maltin, a socialist, wrote: “It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind.” Maltin and his wife Belle (who introduced Jackie’s wife Rachel to Jewish cooking) were the Robinsons’ closest friends in Montreal, a friendship that continued after Robinson joined the Dodgers. 

Hank Greenberg was baseball’s first Jewish super-star. As a first baseman for the Detroit Tigers, he led the American League in homers and RBIs four times, played in three World Series, was a five-time All-Star, and was the Most Valuable Player in 1935 and 1940. He attracted national attention in 1934 when he refused to play on Yom Kippur,  even though the Tigers were in the middle of a pennant race. During his playing career, the 6-foot-4 Greenberg—who hit 58 home runs in 1938, two short of Babe Ruth’s 1927 record—faced antisemitic slurs and occasionally challenged bigots to fight him one-on-one. Greenberg was occasionally denied entry to hotels where he teammates were staying. He often said that he felt every home run he hit was a home run against Hitler.

Greenberg was occasionally denied entry to hotels where he teammates were staying. He often said that he felt every home run he hit was a home run against Hitler.

After spending the equivalent of four full seasons in the military during World War 2, Greenberg returned to the Tigers for two years but was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for the 1947 season, which turned out to be his final year in the majors. When the Dodgers traveled to Pittsburgh for a three-game stand in May, some Pirates players hurled racial slurs at Robinson from the dugout. In the first inning of the third game on May 17, Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller hit the Dodger rookie on the wrist, sending Robinson to the ground writhing in pain. (That season, Robinson was often the target of “beanball” pitches aimed at his head). In the top of the seventh inning, Robinson laid down a perfect bunt, making it difficult for Ostermueller to throw the ball to first baseman Greenberg. As he  reached the base, Robinson collided with Greenberg. The next inning Greenberg was intentionally walked. When he arrived at first base, he asked Robinson (who played first base during his rookie season) if he had been hurt in the earlier collision. Robinson told Greenberg that he was OK, at which point Greenberg said, “Don’t pay any attention to these guys who are trying to make it hard for you. Stick in there. You’re doing fine. Keep your chin up.” After the game, Robinson told reporters, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”

Robinson appreciated Greenberg’s support and the two athletes remained friends. They were the only two former super-stars who in 1970 testified in court on behalf of Curt Flood’s challenge to baseball reserve clause, which players considered a form of indentured servitude. When Greenberg became the Cleveland Indians’ general manager, he refused to let the team stay in hotels that denied entry to Black players.

***

In 1954, Robinson and his wife Rachel decided to move from their home in Queens to the suburbs to accommodate their growing family. Rachel took the lead in scouting potential towns and sites. She found houses in Westchester County and Greenwich, Conn. that they both liked, but as soon as the Robinsons expressed interesting in buying them, the real estate brokers or homeowners took them off the market. Not even the famous Robinsons were immune to these racist practices, which were widespread in post-war America. A reporter from the Bridgeport Herald, who was writing a story about housing discrimination, learned about the Robinsons’ problems, interviewed Rachel, and wrote a story.

When she read the story, Andrea Simon (wife of Richard Simon, cofounder of Simon & Schuster publishers and mother of Carly Simon, who would become a well-known singer) invited Rachel Robinson, some local clergy, and some real estate agents to their summer home in the affluent suburb of Stamford, Conn. to find a way to help the Robinsons. After the meeting, Andrea (a Jew), a real estate broker, and Rachel went house-hunting. Rachel liked a five-acre property at 103 Cascade Road overlooking a reservoir in Stamford. Banks routinely denied mortgages to Black home-seekers, but State National Bank of Connecticut—run by  Jewish brothers Norman and Harold Spelke—provided the loan and the Robinsons purchased the site. While the 12-room home (that included a small lake) was under construction, the Robinsons stayed in the Simons’ home while the Simons lived in their main house in Riverdale. When the Robinsons moved into their new home, at least one family moved away. The Robinsons became active members of the community and their children made friends among the predominantly white kids in the area. In 1963, they hosted a jazz concert on their lawn featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Duke Ellington. This became the first of the Robinsons’ annual “Afternoons of Jazz” to raise money for civil rights causes, including bail funds for members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrested at lunch counter sit-ins. After Jackie died from diabetes and a heart attack in 1973 at 53, Rachel and the children remained in the house for another 12 years.

After he retired from baseball in 1956, no team offered Robinson a position as a coach, manager, or executive. William Black, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, offered Robinson a position as a vice president of personnel with Chock Full O’ Nuts, a restaurant chain that had a reputation as an unusually decent employer. Black had earned an engineering degree from Columbia but quickly discovered that most firms didn’t want to hire a Jew. He shifted gears, selling nuts on the street before opening his first restaurant and marketing his popular coffee. His experience with bigotry shaped Black’s business practices. African Americans comprised most of the company’s employees, who enjoyed health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits that were unusual at the time. Robinson wasn’t simply a token figure. As one of the few Black top executives of a major American company, he was given considerable management responsibilities.

Black also allowed Robinson to engage in his civil rights activities, even though much of it was controversial. That gave Robinson an opportunity to spend a great deal of time traveling around the country, including the Jim Crow South, on behalf of the civil rights movement. He was a constant presence on picket lines and at civil rights rallies. He served on the NAACP board and raised money for that group as well as Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  He used his regular columns for the New York Post and the New York Amsterdam News (a Black weekly) to support the student sit-ins at Southern lunch counters, the Freedom Riders, and the voter registration drives. In effect, Black subsidized Robinson’s activism. Facing criticism, Black insisted that he supported Robinson’s “right to think and speak his mind.”

Facing criticism, Black insisted that he supported Robinson’s “right to think and speak his mind.”

But the two men had a falling out in 1963 when, while Robinson was away from the office for a month engaged in civil rights work, and without his approval, Black fired six workers who attempted to form a union. Robinson was angry that he was not consulted. Within a few months, he left Chock Full o’Nuts after seven years with the company.

When they lived in Montreal, New York City, and Connecticut, most of the Robinsons close white friends were Jews. They recognized that Jews were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, including two of the three activists who were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964. Not surprisingly, Robinson was an outspoken opponent of antisemitism, whether it came from white or Black bigots. For example, in 1962, Harlem residents marched outside the legendary Apollo Theater to protest plans by its Jewish owner, Frank Schiffman, to lease space to the white owner of a low-cost steak restaurant which, they claimed, threatened a nearby Black-owned eatery with higher prices. Some demonstrators carried antisemitic posters and made antisemitic slurs against Schiffman. Robinson spoke out against the protesters’ bigotry. “Anti-Semitism is as rotten as anti-Negroism,” he wrote in his syndicated newspaper column. “How could we stand against anti-black prejudice,” he recalled in his 1972 autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” “if we were willing to practice or condone a similar intolerance?”

At this year’s Passover seders, it would be wise to remember Robinson’s heroism and courage, his close ties to the Jewish community, and his motto, carved on his gravestone, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Is there a better definition of tikkun olam?


Peter Dreier is professor of Politics at Occidental College and co-author of “Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America” and “Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles Over Workers’ Rights and American Empire.” Both books will be published in early April.

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