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Jewish Sports Legends

May 8, 2009 | by Mark Miller

No, I'm not Kidding

There was an old joke that the Encyclopedia of Jewish Sports Stars would be the size of a pamphlet. The fact of the matter is, however, that there were (and are) a multitude of legendary Jewish sports figures. Why? Perhaps we're more athletic from being chased out of so many countries. In any case, here's an appreciative look at three of them – two classic figures from the past, and one current. Yet another example of Jews making notable contributions in virtually every field of human endeavor. Not sure about yodeling, but I'll look into it.

Here's an appreciative look at three Jewish sports legends.

Hank Greenberg – Baseball

Before television made professional football so popular, America's only national pastimes were drinking and baseball. The former will be dealt with in my upcoming column, Famous Jewish Drinkers. But for now, we'll stick to sports, and, in this case, baseball. Jews, African-Americans and other "outsiders" were not easily welcomed into the sport. Jackie Robinson, in 1947, broke through the major league color barrier. A decade earlier, Hank Greenberg crossed a different line: He became baseball's first Jewish superstar.

Henry Benjamin Greenberg was born in an Orthodox household in 1911. By the time he reached high school in the Bronx, Greenberg stood 6'3", thereby dashing any hopes of his becoming a jockey. He was, however, an All-City athlete in soccer and basketball, but his favorite sport was baseball. In 1934, led by Greenberg's .339 batting average, the Detroit Tigers jumped from fifth place in the American League to battle for the pennant. Never before had a player filled such a significant role for a major league team, and for the first time, Greenberg — and Jewish baseball fans all over the country — faced a dilemma. No, it wasn't trying to figure out a Jewish version of the "Wave." September 10 was Rosh Hashana, and the Tigers, who led the league by four games in the standings, were playing the Boston Red Sox. Fans and rabbis debated whether Greenberg, who by his accomplishments on the field was winning acceptance for Jews among non-Jewish Americans, should play on the High Holy Days. Greenberg came up with his own compromise: He played on Rosh Hashanah and hit two home runs that won the game, 2-1; ten days later, he spent Yom Kippur in a synagogue, and the Tigers lost. This was fortunate timing, because since Greenberg was already in temple for the Day of Atonement, he was able to atone for the Tigers losing (and for playing on Rosh Hashana).

A year later, the Tigers won the World Series and Greenberg was the first Jew voted Most Valuable Player in either major league. This brought him world-wide acclaim and a lifetime 25% discount card for Moishe's Blintz Emporium in the Bronx.

In 1954, Hank Greenberg became the first Jewish player to be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Although his fans' efforts to have the city renamed Jewperstown failed, Greenberg's pioneering efforts as a player and owner paved the way for Jews in the top ranks of major league baseball.

Fans efforts to have the city renamed Jewperstown failed.

Sid Luckman – Football

No American sport generates more interest and attention than football. Okay, maybe dating, but that's not really a sport. Because of its speed and excitement, physicality and strategy, football has replaced baseball and, as previously mentioned, dating, as America's "national pastime." One of the pioneers of modern football was Sid Luckman, a Brooklyn-born, observant Jew and All-Pro quarterback for the Chicago Bears. Luckman combined intelligence, toughness, talent and a love of toasted bialys with a smear of cream cheese, to help transform the position of quarterback into what experts claim is the most demanding role in American professional sports.

Luckman became interested in the sport in 1924, at the age of 8, when his father gave him a football as a gift, despite the fact that Luckman had requested a pony and a space ship. After he graduated as an All-City halfback for Erasmus Hall High School, Sid received more than a dozen athletic scholarship offers from colleges around the nation. His heart was set on attending Columbia University, where he could get a quality education and live close to his family, even though Columbia did not offer him a scholarship and is quite a challenging word to rhyme.

After his last college game, Luckman announced his retirement from football, but George Halas, owner-coach of the Chicago Bears, had other ambitions. Halas was certain that Luckman would make the ideal professional T-formation quarterback. So Luckman got some players together to have tea, then led the Bears to five Western Conference championships and four World Championships in seven years.
On "Sid Luckman Appreciation Day" against the home team New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, Luckman led his visiting Bears to a 56-7 triumph, passing for a record seven touchdowns and 443 yards. The day proved to be even more popular than the previous "Benito Mussolini Appreciation Day." That year, he set the league record for touchdown passes in a 10-game season with 28, including five touchdowns in Chicago's victory over the Redskins in the 1943 championship rematch between the teams. Unfortunately, Luckman died before attaining his dream of receiving a pony and a space ship.

Mark Spitz – Swimming

(1950 - )

Mark Andrew Spitz is an American swimmer best known for winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. This achievement was surpassed only when Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal of the 2008 Olympics, and, of course, when Joey Chestnut broke Takeru Kobayashi's record by eating 59.5 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Between 1968 and 1972, Spitz won nine Olympic gold medals, one silver, and one bronze; five Pan American golds; 31 National U.S. Amateur Athletic Union titles; and eight U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association Championships. During those years, he set 33 world records. He was named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972, and Most Likely to Impress Jewish Women in 1970 and 1973.

Spitz was born in Modesto, California, the first of three children of Arnold and Lenore Smith Spitz, a Jewish family. Lenore admits to have been taking Future Olympic Champion Child Hormone Treatments. When he was two years old, Spitz's family moved to Hawaii. Spitz swam at Waikiki Beach every day. "You should have seen that little boy dash into the ocean. He'd run like he was trying to commit suicide." Lenore Spitz told a reporter for TIME. No one ever said Lenore Spitz had a way with words. At age six, Mark's family returned to Sacramento, California, and he began to compete at his local swim club. At age nine, he was training at Arden Hills Swim Club in Sacramento with Sherm Chavoor, the swimming coach who mentored Spitz and six other Olympic medal winners. Despite all his honors, Spitz never mastered the ability to say "Sherm Chavoor" ten times really fast.

Spitz's moustache went on to coaches many promising young moustaches.

By the age of 10, when most children are just learning to pick their noses, Spitz continued to show his tremendous talents, holding 17 national age-group and one world record. At 14, his family moved to Santa Clara so Spitz could train with George F. Haines of the Santa Clara Swim Club. Plus, it was the family's life-long dream to live in a place that had "Clara" in its name. From 1964 to 1968 Mark trained with Haines at SCSC and Santa Clara High School. During his four years there, Mark held national high school records in every stroke and in every distance. It was a remarkable and unprecedented achievement. In 1966, at 16, he won the 100 meter butterfly at the National AAU Championships, the first of his 24 AAU titles. The following year, 1967 Mark set his first world record at a small California meet, in the 400 meter freestyle, with a time of 4:10.60, and emerged on the world swimming stage.
In an era when other swimmers were shaving body hair, Spitz swam with a mustache. When asked why he initially grew one, he stated "I grew the mustache because a coach in college said I couldn't grow one." Good thing the coach didn't tell him he couldn't rob a bank. Spitz said he originally grew the mustache as a form of rebellion against the clean-cut look imposed on him in college. "It took a long time to grow," he said. It took four months to grow, but Spitz was proud of it, he decided the mustache was a "good-luck piece." After Spitz retired from swimming, his moustache went on to achieve several world competition honors and today coaches many promising young moustaches.

Know of another Jewish sports legend? "Honor" him or her in the comments section below!

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