Joseph Siegman is a Los Angeles–based entertainment executive and author of Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (Nebraska, 2020). He founded the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1979 and is its past chairman.
Stereotyping can be dangerous, hurtful, and often a source of humor. It depends upon the stereotype, the stereotyper, and the stereotypee.
In Paramount Picture’s 1980 comedy Airplane, a stewardess carrying an armful of magazines asks an elderly passenger if she’d like something to read. “Do you have something light,” asks the lady. Thumbing through her bundle of magazines: “How about this leaflet?” offers the flight attendant, ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends’.”
The brief dialogue famously generated big laughs in the theater. Myself too. After all, it’s common perception that Jews don’t do sports. Jewish lawyers or doctors, or accountants? Of course. Jewish athletes? You’re kidding!
That was more than forty years ago. My curiosity led me to follow the trail of that movie leaflet humor to research and write a series of books titled, Jewish Sports Legends. The new 2020 edition––a 364 page volume––features among other historic information, biographies of nearly 400 Jewish men and women who are or have been world champions, Olympic gold medalists, world record holders, seminal movers and shakers, and those elected to the hall of fame of their competitive sport.
It’s pretty amazing what you can learn when you look stereotypes and old wives tales in the eye. For instance, some things I’ve learned about Jews in the world of sports:
That from 1968 to 2016, Jewish-American swimmers captured 48 Olympic medals, 29 of them gold.
That several sports owe their existence to Jewish mothers––the “mothers” of women’s sports: SENDA BERENSON-basketball, CHARLOTTE EPSTEIN-swimming, and RENA KANOKOGI (aka RUSTY GLICKMAN)-Judo.
That 3-time ‘Indy 500’ champion MAURI ROSE invented the device that allows amputees to drive an automobile.
That St. John University All-American HARRY BOYKOFF’s shot blocking feats sparked basketball’s original goal-tending rule in 1944.
That the late Washington Post sportswriter SHIRLEY POVICH was once listed in Who’s Who of American Women. The celebrated MLB Hall of Famer is the father of TV personality Maury Povich.
That 16-year old 1936 World Table Tennis champion RUTH AARONS grew-up to be the personal manager of Oscar winner Shirley Jones and teen record/actor idol David Cassidy.
That athletes who had won 10 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze Olympic medals, plus two World Championships and set three World records, died at WWII Nazi concentration camps.
That 1950s through 60s American Olympic and World weightlifting champion ISAAC BERGER is a Jerusalem-born ordained cantor.
That Princeton’s 1911 and 1912 football All-America BLUEY BLUETHENTHAL was a WWI French Escadrille volunteer posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm and the Medailie Miltaire.
That the New York Giants NFL football team purchased the entire Detroit Wolverine team in 1929 to acquire the contract of triple-threat star BENNY FRIEDMAN.
That Great Britain’s ANGELA BUXTON was the first Jewish woman to win a Wimbledon championship (Doubles, with Althea Gibson in 1956), but at least 50 years later had not yet been invited to membership in the posh All England Club, an honor that comes with the Wimbledon prize.
That HOWARD COSELL’s first broadcasting assignment was calling Little League baseball on New York radio.
That when she wasn’t winning Olympic medals and setting world records, 1930s American track and field phenom LILLIAN COPELAND was a juvenile officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff.’s Department
That reality TV star Bethany Frankel is the daughter of thoroughbred racing’s super-trainer BOBBY FRANKEL, who amassed 3,654 first place victories and $227,946,775 in career earnings.
That basketball used to “center jump” after each field goal until it was eliminated at the 1936 Olympic Games at the suggestion of Canadian coach JULIUS GOLDMAN. Goldman was an American who became a star college player in Canada and qualified for the Canadian Olympic basketball team. But he wasn’t permitted to play for Canada because of his U.S. citizenship, so the Canucks named him their assistant coach and representative on the Olympic rules committee, where his proposal changed the game.
That EDDIE GOTTLIEB purchased full ownership of the NBAs Philadelphia Warriors for $25,000 in 1952 and sold the franchise to new San Francisco owners in 1962 for $315 million.
That HANK GREENBERG was the first Major League player to enlist in U.S. military service after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941). Two days before Pearl Harbor, Hank had been honorably discharged from his original military service! He re-enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and served 45 months, the longest of any MLB player.
That leading German neurosurgeon LUDWIG GUTTMANN, who fled to England at the outbreak of World War II, created the Stoke-Mandeville Games, later renamed the Paralympics.
That 1901-02 World Bantamweight boxing champion HARRY HARRIS weighed 96 lbs. when he began his pro boxing career at age 16. Likely the reason he was known as “The Human Hairpin.”
That JIMMY JACOBS, undefeated for 15 years and considered the greatest handball player of his era (1955-69), was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame! (He managed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson).
That the Brooklyn Dodgers signed University of Cincinnati pitcher SANDY KOUFAX in 1955 for $6,000 (plus a $14,000 signing bonus). The signing gave the Dodgers a pair of rookie southpaw pitchers, so they sent the other lefty, Tom Lasorda, to the minors.
And many, many more found in the new edition of Jewish Sports Legends!