The Ballad of Abel Kiviat: Jews and Sports

December 6, 2012   •   By David Davis

Jewish Jocks

Marc Tracy

BACK WHEN TRACK AND FIELD was a popular spectator sport, my dad used to take me to Madison Square Garden to watch the Millrose Games in the dead of winter. Invariably, he would nudge me and point to an elderly gentleman in black tie standing in the infield.

“There's Abel Kiviat!” he'd exclaim. “Your grandfather knows him. He was the best.”

Kiviat was then in his 80s, a shrunken gnome with bowed legs. In his prime, just before World War I, he was a top-rated distance runner. He held the 1,500-meter world record and took the silver medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Family lore has it that Kiviat and my grandfather worked as counselors at the same summer camp. Later, as cogs in the judicial system, they would stop and chat in the marbled hallways of the state and federal courthouses.

The connection transcended the personal: Abel Kiviat was a Jew. This was of supreme importance to our family because so few Jewish athletes succeeded at the elite level. Those who did — the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax being the prime example — acquired a distinctive aura. Kiviat and Koufax were the real Chosen Ones, SuperJews, able to whip the Goyim on their AstroTurf.

I thought about Kiviat while reading Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, a fascinating, if uneven, collection co-edited by Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, and Marc Tracy, a staff writer with The New Republic, Jewish Jocks features essays about 50 sports notables by a lineup of journalists, novelists, and historians that includes David Remnick, Jane Leavy, Howard Jacobson, Buzz Bissinger, David Margolick, Tom Rachman, Sam Lipsyte, and Jonathan Safran Foer. (San Francisco-based artist Mark Ulriksen provides the sprightly illustrations.)

Previous books have explored the topic from a broad historical-sociological perspective. Peter Levine's Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience (1993) chronicled how sports helped transform Jewish immigrants into full-fledged citizens. Allen Bodner's When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport (1997) focused on the golden era of the 1920s and 1930s, when Jewish fighters vied for ring dominance against Italian- and Irish-American opponents.

Foer and Tracy, who grew up in the same Washington, DC, neighborhood, are more interested in the athletes and personalities who shaped America's jock culture in ways great and small. Foer himself profiles boxing champ Benny Leonard, whose fists disproved the stereotype of meek, bookish Jews. Hemingway "hated" Leonard's "scientific approach," according to Foer, considering it "the stuff of sissies." (F. Scott Fitzgerald persuaded Hemingway to delete a disparaging anecdote about Leonard at the beginning of the short story "Fifty Grand," a decision Hemingway regretted for the rest of his life.)

Within his own community, Leonard was a symbol of pride. He wore a six-pointed Star of David on his trunks and worshipped his mother. He made boxing — and thus professional sports — respectable for Jews. “[Leonard] was well groomed (he boasted that his opponents could not dislodge even a strand of his black hair) and well spoken (he once challenged Bertrand Russell to a debate),” Foer writes. “His image stood as the refutation of the immigrants’ anxiety that boxing would suck their children into a criminal underworld or somehow undermine the very rationale for fleeing to the Golden Land.”

The book offers requisite pieces about star athletes: boxer-turned-war-hero Barney Ross, baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, football’s Sid Luckman, gold-medal swimmer Mark Spitz, basketball’s Dolph Schayes. Leavy, Koufax's astute biographer, renders a wonderful, personal story about the pitcher’s graceful presence at her daughter’s bat mitzvah. Leavy doesn’t try to hide her admiration: “Sandy Koufax ruined me for other men,” she writes.

What Jewish Jocks does best is identify and celebrate those on the periphery of the arena: gay matador (and Hemingway pal) Sidney Franklin; transsexual tennis player Renée Richards (née Richard Raskind); gambler-fixers Arnold Rothstein (the model for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby) and Jack Molinas; irrepressible table tennis whiz Marty Reisman; and Hollywood producer Joel Silver, who in a younger incarnation helped invent the sport of Ultimate Frisbee.

Philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein traces how the settlement houses of the lower East Side produced a talent like hoops pioneer Barney Sedran. He was the "shortest player ever inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame," she writes, who excelled at a time "when Jews ruled basketball — and lest you think those last three words are a misprint, let me repeat: Jews ruled basketball."

Writer-editor Dahlia Lithwick explores how Marvin Miller organized the Major League Baseball Players Association into a robust union, ushering in free agency and a new economic paradigm in professional sports. She argues persuasively that Miller, who died this past week at age 95, deserves to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. “The conspiracy to deny him entry to Cooperstown is a powerful testament to his significance,” she writes.

Journalist Jonathan Mahler credits (and blames) author-editor Daniel Okrent with conjuring up fantasy sports, wherein the results of the actual games are subsumed by an individual player’s stats and the every-fan serves as team owner, general manager, and coach. Okrent likens himself to Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb. Mahler likens him to another game-changer: “Consider Okrent […] as a Jewish Hugh Hefner: just swap out the crimson silk pajamas for a red Shetland sweater.”

Like porn, fantasy sports is now a multibillion-dollar industry. Unlike Hefner, Okrent never earned a cent from his invention. There is no fantasy sports mansion.

The range of the subjects is impressive, but the quality of the articles varies considerably. Perhaps that’s to be expected in a single-themed compendium, no matter the topic. Deborah Lipstadt's four-page profile of Yosef Romano, an Israeli weightlifter who was killed during the Palestinian terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, devotes exactly two paragraphs to Romano himself. Yosef, we hardly knew ye.

It may also be that the book’s premise encourages excessive cheerleading. The urge to self-identify, for Jews (and every other culture), is as essential as breathing. This can lead to a prideful defensiveness. We don’t root for Abel Kiviat, the miler; we root for Abel Kiviat, the Jewish miler.

Thus, Lithwick concludes, Marvin Miller “stands as a refutation of the old anti-Semitic canard about the weak Jew. He dared to battle the most imposing forces in sports, and he beat them soundly.” Miller’s background surely shaped his labor philosophy. But his experience working for the National War Labor Relations and the United Steelworkers of America better prepared him for the sticky business of negotiating with baseball’s owners and commissioners, not his bar mitzvah.

The number of essays is capped at 50 — a round figure probably decreed by the publisher. Unfortunately, that excludes many who are, arguably, of greater interest than those in the book: Abe Saperstein, the owner-coach of the Harlem Globetrotters; NBA commissioner David Stern; broadcasters Mel Allen, Marty Glickman, and Marv Albert. (Glickman was also a track star who was pulled from the US relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics because of anti-Semitism.)

And how can you inaugurate an “unorthodox hall of fame” without catcher-turned-spy Moe Berg; surfing pioneer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz; Angels’ playboy pitcher Bo Belinsky; drag racer Kenny Bernstein; Ping-Pong diplomat Glenn Cowan; New York City Marathon organizer Fred Lebow; bodybuilder George Eiferman (who showed off his pecs in Mae West’s revue); photographers Neil Leifer and George Kalinsky; and any number of sportswriters (Roger Kahn, Stan Fischler)? Not to mention Abel Kiviat, although he was the subject of an excellent biography written by Alan Katchen a few years ago.

Only four women are profiled. That ignores the contributions of Senda Berenson Abbott, the godmother of women’s basketball; Charlotte Epstein, the godmother of women’s swimming; and Gladys Heldman, who brought women’s tennis into the modern era. The omission of Rusty Kanokogi, the judo pioneer who helped bring the sport into the Olympics, seems especially shortsighted.

Those limitations aside, Jewish Jocks forces all of us — Jews and non-Jews — to re-imagine our athletic halls of fame and make room for the likes of Marvin Miller, Howard Cosell, and Daniel Okrent. In the highly charged cosmos of sports, that is as powerful as a Sandy Koufax fastball.