Baseball is so much more than the action on the field and in the box scores. Untold numbers of people have used the game to help shape who they are, and connect them with their ethnicities and national identities on whole new levels. Larry Ruttman’s American Jews & America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball (University of Nebraska Press) narrows that impact down to the influence the national pastime has had on American Jews, and visa-versa.
Ruttman, a longtime lawyer, who found his authorial voice in retirement, has combined an extensive collection of interviews with his own research to demonstrate the ongoing Judaic-baseball relationship. At 510 pages, he has attempted to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of telling the most complete story possible.
Having previously taught a college course on the art of interviewing, Ruttman puts his experience to use in conducting dozens of interviews with a variety of subjects who speak about their experiences with Judaism, baseball, and how the two have intertwined.
The attempt and success at providing a comprehensive view of the topic is one of the strongest suits of the book. Additionally, the roster of interviewees is impressive. Al Rosen, Congressman Barney Frank, Marvin Miller, Theo Epstein and Kevin Youkilis are highlights of those who Ruttman was able to get to sit down and talk about baseball and Judaism. He also balances the better known personalities with much more obscure figures, such as Martin Abramowitz, who produces his own set of baseball cards for Jewish players, and attorney Alan Dershowitz of O.J. Simpson trial fame, who is also apparently a big baseball fan.
Ruttman makes sure to have comprehensive sections on Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, undoubtedly two of the greatest Jewish baseball figures of all time. While Greenberg passed away in the 1980’s, Koufax proved to be just as elusive in this project. He spoke with Ruttman over the phone, but refused to do a formal interview, explaining, “I don’t want to do the interview. I have gotten to the age at which I decided not to do anything that I don’t want to do.” Despite the lack of direct material, both players are given due justice.
Occasionally, Ruttman does let his inner fan get carried away in the form of trying to ask leading questions. In one memorable instance, he asked Congressman Frank to discuss the leading off-field Jewish figures in baseball. When Frank responded that he couldn’t think of anyone, Ruttman suggests commissioner Bud Selig as a possibility. This innocent leading question earned him the sharp rebuke of “If you don’t like my answer, don’t suggest an answer—That’s not good journalism!”
The author’s enthusiasm at trying to get the type of answers he is looking for is good-natured but unnecessary. His interview subjects weave a rich tapestry connecting Judaism and baseball through their own memories. The occasional prodding for an answer suggests that Ruttman is seeking a specific answer, when in fact, reality more than suffices.
On the other hand, a strength of Ruttman’s interviewing technique is the consistency in which he asks similar questions to his subjects. He is most interested in how Judiasm and baseball have shaped their lives, hoping to draw connection between the two. Many actually divulge that their faith has been intermittent throughout their lives, while baseball has much more often been a steadier influence.
In the end, Ruttman can claim two primary accomplishments from American Jews & America’s Game.
He shows the impact baseball can have on people that extends well beyond the confines of the diamond. It also has an impressive reach into lives that many wouldn’t expect of a simple game played with a bat and a ball.
He can also be proud of his sheer compilation of material. First-person or oral histories are an integral part of preserving the past and encapsulating the emotion and detail that cannot be extracted later on from artifacts and second-person written material. The connection of Judaism and baseball may be a broad and somewhat confusing thesis, but readers should be left with little doubt about the relationship once they are done with this book.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.
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