The initial success of an Israeli squad as the “Cinderella team” in the World Baseball Classic has stirred fans in Israel; especially U.S. expatriates, particularly since nearly all of the players are American Jews. And as the team has advanced in the tournament, some American Jews took notice of, and maybe even pride in, their exploits, though presently their baseball alliances are largely with the Major League teams in their hometowns.
But whatever the reactions from Tel Aviv to New York and Los Angeles, the response pales in comparison to the excitement American Jews showed when the greatest all-Jewish team of all time visited the United States some 90 years ago. Generations ago, American Jews needed a victorious Jewish team more than today.
In 1924, the Hakoah –Vienna soccer team (the “Power”) achieved almost the unthinkable when it captured the Austrian national professional football. They did so without a home field advantage and often had to put up with chants of “Jewish pigs” from anti-Semites in the crowd. Sadly today, Israeli soccer teams are forced to endure similar catcalls and worse when they play on foreign soil. In strident response to their enemies, Hakoah’s star player was Alex Neufeld who patrolled the outside–left position. He earned the nickname of “Emes” (The Truth) and reportedly was “as popular in Austria as Babe Ruth in America,” except among ant-Semites who were pained by Jewish athletic success.
Neufeld and his teammates got the chance to see how popular they could be in the States, when they embarked on a triumphant tour to America in 1926. They received a “Freedom of New York” medal from Mayor James J. Walker and the taciturn President Calvin Coolidge, who rarely greeted guests, feted the players in the White House. Even more impressively, they played before sell-out crowds in some of the great sports stadium in this country. In fact, on May 1, 1926, 46,000 fans turned out at the Polo Grounds to see the club play against an all-star team from the American Soccer League. It was then the largest crowd to ever see a soccer game in this country. That record stood until 1977, when Pele attracted 76,000 backers to one of his N.Y. Cosmos games.
Greatly enthused fans wanted to get close to their heroes because they personified a vital response to stereotyping that depicted Jews as physically unfit.
American Jews not only showed up en masse to the games but when the club came to town — in addition to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis were on their itinerary — communal groups wined and dined them. Greatly enthused fans wanted to get close to their heroes because they personified a vital response to stereotyping that depicted Jews as physically unfit; so different from other Americans. Jews in the U.S. were then still fighting against enduring canards that these newcomers to America were undersized and weak-muscled and believed that physical weakness is a virtue. Notwithstanding the visibility some second –generation Jews were achieving in sports by the 1920s — Nat Holman in basketball, Benny Leonard the boxer and quarterback Benny Friedman headed the list of the day’s high profile sportsmen in a renewed era of nativism — the perception of Jews as un-athletic lingered. Indeed, at a time when some American Jews may have feared that nasty statements about them might turn into violent ant-Semitism, Hakoah’s message to their fans was to get into the gym weight room and be prepared to fight just like they did when games got out of hand.
So devoted were these fans to their team that when a group of rabbis of all Jewish denominations complained that four of their 11 games were scheduled for Saturday afternoon — no time for a Jewish team to play on their faith’s day of rest — their attempt at organizing a boycott fell totally on deaf ears. Religious commitments took a back seat for a fortnight as even many habitual synagogue-goers were swept up in the excitement that these standard bearers of Jewish pride generated within an adoring public.
Today in an America far more accepting of Jews, there is no need to prove — or score — points about the Jews’ place in this country through athletic successes. Thus, the tournament has not generated great excitement in American Jewish circles even though the Israel advanced past the opening round, defying all predictions. Even if we don’t need the blue and white to win it all, it is nice when our people win.
Jeffrey S. Gurock is the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and the author of Constant Challenge: Sports and American Judaism.