Local Jews in sports: Not an oxymoron

Local Jews in sports: Not an oxymoron

By Boris Kurbanov, Special to Jewish Sound

When I was 14, my friend Yoni and I took in a Yankees game on a late spring night. As we watched Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Shawn Green — first-round draft pick, two-time All-Star, Jew — take batting practice in the humid New York evening air, the conversation shifted from Green’s ability to launch the ball into the seats to just how many Jews played professional sports at the time.

“You’d be able to list them all on a leaflet the size of a Chinese takeout menu,” Yoni said.

Utter the words “Jewish sports legends,” and people will either think it’s a set-up to a punch line or that one-liner from the 1980 slapstick “Airplane.”

While Jews are noted for our prowess in many professions, we have long been stereotyped as having lackluster athleticism when compared to our gentile counterparts. Sure, there was Sandy Koufax, Hank “the Hebrew Hammer” Greenberg, NBA player and coach Red Holzman, and swimmer Mark Spitz. There was even Chicago Bears captain and quarterback Sid Luckman, or boxers Benny Leonard and Barney Ross, or even fencer Helene Mayer, who competed and placed gold for Hitler’s Germany at the 1936 Olympics.

But the history of Jewish athletics is much richer than most people realize. The Washington State Jewish Historical Society recently published “Distant Replay: Washington’s Jewish Sports Heroes,” a who’s-who of Jews who have contributed to virtually every aspect of sports. With so many Jewish kids looking up to the likes of Russell Wilson and LeBron James nowadays, it’s important they know Jews have the chops for the pros, too.

For every Koufax and Greenberg, there are guys like Lipman Pike, Moe Berg and Al Schacht, pioneers of the game who laid the foundation for today’s ballplayers. “Distant Replay” highlights the efforts and accomplishments of those in our Jewish community who have excelled in sports ranging from baseball to tennis to horse racing.

The book offers more than 180 stories illustrating how sports are about effort, teamwork, sportsmanship, preparation, cooperation, and toughness. Included are requisite pieces about local star athletes, like hurdler-turned-war-hero Harry Pruzan, Storm guard Sue Bird, and a team of resilient golfers who overcame anti-Semitism to create their own club.

“Distant Replay” isn’t just about athletes who performed and continue to perform on the field, court, gridiron, or in the ring. It is just as much about those who made the games possible to begin with, or those who preserve memories of past accomplishments, such as local historians David Eskenazi, Charles Kapner and Marc Blau.

Also included are the reporters, sports radio hosts, team owners, and the executives like Sounders co-owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer, and Sonics owners Barry Ackerly and Howard Schultz.

The book also profiles athletes who were shoe-ins to be pros, and those who had to deal with adversity. For every Magnolia-bred Taylor Mays (three-time All-American safety and son of a former NFL player), there are guys like Mercer Island’s Ben Mahdavi, a linebacker who made a name for himself at Montlake as a walk-on from the University of Utah and defied odds by earning a scholarship in his third season. Prior to his scholarship, Mahdavi’s single mother had to figure out a way to generate additional income to pay in the in-state tuition. Mahdavi went on to have a brief career in the NFL.

While there are only nine Jewish players in the NFL, and nine in Major League baseball today, Jews have made a name for themselves in boxing, which, for many living in urban ghettos and dealing with anti-Semitism, in addition to an inferiority complex as immigrants, was a way out. Some, such as Max Baer and Max Schmeling, made a living fighting in places like Madison Square Garden in pursuit of assimilation. The book profiles the fighter-turned jewelry magnate Herb Bridge, the Caston brothers, and Nate “Natty Nate” Druxman, who became Seattle’s leading boxing promoter after a decade of sparring.

“Distant Replay” offers compelling and creative narratives on both household names and folks you’ve likely never heard of, and promises to be a recurring birthday and Bar/Bat Mitzvah present.

“Distant Replay” is available at wsjhs.org or by calling 206-774-2250.