Like Yiddishkeit, baseball is never what it used to be, and what used to be is often different than remembered. Legend tells us that fans were most loyal and passionate in Brooklyn.
Did anyone love Jackie Robinson more, or Sandy Koufax even more? And yet, despite Brooklyn finishing first or second nine times, with four World Series appearances and a championship in the years after Robinson’s debut (1947), Brooklyn attendance plunged some 780,000 in the next decade. Meanwhile, Koufax, of course, the beloved Brooklyn Jew who was a well-known athlete in the borough, was the starting pitcher 13 times in Brooklyn home games, but the average attendance was a very modest 16,289, with several of his starts attracting anemic turnouts in the range of 6,000-7,000.
“They were abandoning baseball all over,” Alan Dershowitz tells The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “I got my first television around that time, and you could watch the games. We were still very involved,” says the Harvard Law professor and baseball lover, “but attendance was diminishing, which is why franchises were beginning to move all over the place. I get to college in 1955 and I take an oath to myself: I am giving up baseball. It took too much of my time, of my energy … I was probably in Ebbets Field more often than in my Talmud class. Then, in college, I said no more. I can’t have both baseball and academia. So I gave up baseball.”
That was September 1955, just weeks before Brooklyn won its first and only World Series, the borough exploding in a joy such as only the first of anything can elicit. “My oath lasted exactly one month,” says Dershowitz. “The Dodgers get into the World Series, and it pulled me back in.” Somehow he did well in school, anyway.
Baseball, like Judaism, like no other sport, is about memory. “I can still give you the lineup of the ’50s Dodgers,” says Dershowitz. In winter, when the year-in-reviews with box scores came out, “We would memorize it like a blatt [page] of Gemara.”
It was more like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” — “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Fifty years later, Dershowitz is again enchanted, albeit in Boston where he now lives, and where the spirit of Ebbets Field still lives in Fenway as much as anywhere. Next week, though, Dershowitz; Larry Ruttman, author of the new book, “American Jews and America’s Game”; critic Jeffrey Lyons; and Bob Tufts, a pitcher for the Royals and Giants though more of an ace as a storyteller, as only can be nurtured in the bullpen through the middle innings, will be at the 92nd Street Y (May 13, 8 p.m.), to discuss the enduring grip of baseball, Jews and memory.
Ruttman, who is in his 80s, remembers the 1930s, when “Hank Greenberg came along just when the Jews needed somebody.” He’ll tell stories about Ken Holtzman, who kept two sets of dishes, and the polyamorous Mensa member Leon Feingold, who played for Cleveland and in the Israel Baseball League while romantically keeping several sets of “dishes.” In baseball, says Ruttman, “you can be anything you like.”