Shmini Atzeret

Shmini Atzeret 5774

Jackie, the Jews, and Ethnicity in Post-War America

By Michael Berenbaum

Because Jackie was the first, he played for everyone who had been denied a chance, whose future was closed because of racism and segregation; he was the forerunner of the civil rights movement and the struggles by women and gays for equality that would follow. He would do anything to win.

I was but a toddler when Jackie broke in. My mother was often ill and my father, a decorated World War II veteran, struggled to make up for lost time in the post-war years. In 1945, the year I was born, he was 35 and just beginning his career, working all hours of the day and night – 24/6. So we had an African-American cleaning lady, Minnie—an intelligent, stately woman who in our era would have gone to school and become a professional, but in those days struggled to survive. Minnie loved me and she loved the Dodgers, and the Dodger she most loved was Jackie. My father loved Jackie too, and their admiration for Robinson was race blind, the great equalizer between men, women, and children of all backgrounds.

Robinson was chosen to overcome the weight of centuries. My father and Minnie understood his struggle. Orthodox Jew and underprivileged black, they both saw in his daily battle a mirror of their own life and the hope for future generations. If he made it, they could; if not them, then their children.

Pee Wee Reese was the Dodger Captain. Kentucky bred and almost a decade older than his teammates, he had come up before World War II and was a star before his career was interrupted by wartime duties. Reese was serving in World War II when he heard that the Dodgers were interested in Robinson as a shortstop, the next choice to replace him, and he was burning. The taunts of his fellow soldiers did not diminish his anger. But he decided then and there that if Robinson could beat him in competition for the job, then he deserved it. Combat, the defining experience of the “Greatest Generation,” was also a meritocracy. What you did earned the respect or the scorn of your comrades. So when Reese answered for Robinson,  when he braved the taunts of fans and the displeasure of his southern friends by embracing Robinson as a teammate, America took note.

Roy Campanella, the Dodger catcher, was all heart. In his every move one experienced the joy of the game, the love of baseball. Stocky and compact, Campy could be surprisingly swift on the base path and a stone wall protecting the plate. Campy would kibitz with the batters and the umpires. He was as masterful at banter as at handling pitchers, speaking to them not just with his mouth, but by pounding his fists, gesturing in every direction. Three times the National League’s Most Valuable Player, when Campy played well, the Dodgers would win.

Campanella was formed by his experience in the Negro Leagues. Prior to being signed by the Dodgers, Campy had played baseball year round. He reported to the Negro Leagues each spring; he barnstormed in the fall, and went down to Venezuela to play winter ball. His alternatives were few. With a bat in his hand, he would club his way to a future. Double headers were routine, and teams often played in two different cities during the same day. Negro Leaguers brought their own lights and polls to play nighttime baseball in unlit stadiums. Travel was by bus where players often ate and slept, denied entry into hotels in the segregated South and the inhospitable North. By the time he began his 10 year major league career, Campanella had played professional baseball for twelve long years. And until Robinson was signed, Campanella could not dream of a big league career. He forever remained grateful that he was given his chance just in time.

My father never spoke about his life in combat, never uttered a word about the enemy he faced and with two Bronze stars and a couple of Purple Hearts on his discharge papers, he must have fought the enemy fiercely and directly. But his children and theirs grew up hearing story after story about his pride in being Jewish and his refusal to let an antisemitic comment slide. Like Robinson — or so he taught us — you don’t put up with assaults on your pride or attacks on your people.

But that was not the only message told by father to son in the confusing 1950s.  In my New York Yeshiva on the tony Upper East Side, we were taught that a yarmulke was an indoor garment. Hats were to be worn in the street. Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, its formidable founder, wanted to show that Orthodoxy could be first rate, not only a practice restricted to poor accented Jews. Philip Roth was writing of Eli the Fanatic, the fearsome Jew who practiced his piety in public and embarrassed his assimilating neighbors. When our fathers also told us not to make waves, to celebrate how far we had come, to remember with gratitude the opportunities we had been afforded, we thought of Roy Campanella. Ever thankful, he could not be angry. So I did as I was told by my father; we flew the flag on Memorial Day or July 4th so the non-Jewish neighbors would know that Jews are patriotic, and I had to mow the lawn so that they could see that Jews are proud of manual labor.

First generation Jews, Italians, and Irish and other ethnics understood Campy. The talented sons of pushcart peddlers and small merchants, of factory workers mechanics and machinists, were grateful to get their chance to attend City College, let alone Harvard or Yale. So while my father and Minnie rooted for Jackie; more often than not, they played the racial and ethnic game like Campy. Jackie was respected, Campy was loved.

Our loyalty to the Dodgers was ethnic. We Dodger fans never understood how the Yankees could arouse anyone’s passion. They were the WASPs, the prep school kids, corporate types! When the rich get richer, there is no drama, it offers little inspiration. Rooting for the Yankees in the 1950s was like rooting for General Motors. You respected the pin stripers’ class, elegance and talent, but how could you get passionate about them? They were the men in the gray suits–cold, ruthless, efficient. We understood Bronx Jews who rooted for them, they had to cheer for their neighbors. It was expected that Manhattan Jews from “certain” neighborhoods and the Jews of Westchester and Connecticut would root for their own kind.

But Brooklyn was for those who aspired to greatness and were but one or two games away. The Yankees won five pennants in a row, not once but twice.  Brooklyn was two games away from greatness. Had they won the last games of the 1950 and 1951 season, they too, like the Yankees, would have won five pennants in a row, but they lost the last game of the 1950 season to the Philadelphia Phillies and Bobby Thompson hit. the “shot  heard round the world,” ended the Dodger’s 1951 hopes.

We learned Jewish theology from the Dodgers. Twice a year, at the end of Yom Kippur and the conclusion of the Passover Seder, Jews chant “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Each year – except for that magical year of 1955, pious Dodger rooters called out “wait ‘til next year.”

We learned tribal loyalty from the Dodgers. Brooklyn Jews thought of the Giants as the primitive goyim – not polite gentiles — evil men set for a pogrom. Dodger-rooting Blacks thought of the Giants — even with Willie Mays — as ”white,” ready to dominate, destroy, rape, pillage. Catholics thought of the Giants as Protestants, renegades, rebellious, destructive. The Giants knew no shame. When Walter O’Malley traded Robinson, traded a legend, to the Giants at the end of the 1956 season, Robinson walked away from the game. He retired rather than don the hated uniform – the man would not, could not, convert.

And we learned Jewish history from the Dodgers, who went into exile after the 1957 season. The Dodgers followed the population shift westward and made the National Pastime into a coast-to-coast game. Prior to their departure, the furthest west a baseball had to travel was St. Louis, Chicago,  or Cincinnati. The Dodgers were not the first to abandon their city, the Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee, the St. Louis Browns had gone to Baltimore where they became Orioles, but the Dodgers were different. They had been making money. The team had enjoyed fan support and, above all, the Dodgers were Brooklyn, inexplicably linked to the borough and its citizens.  It was betrayal, abandonment of the faithful.

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