Posted June 2, 2011

Alpert’s new book an out-of-the-park hit

A new book by Rebecca Alpert, associate professor of religion and women's studies at Temple, Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball, tells the story of Jews who were involved in the world of black segregated baseball during the Great Depression

It might seem a little unexpected that Rebecca Alpert, associate professor of religion and women's studies at Temple, would choose baseball as the topic of her new book.

You could even say that the book has come from out of left field.

And you would be correct — in more ways than one. The title of Alpert's book is, in fact, Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball.

The book tells the story of several groups of Jews during the Great Depression who were involved in the world of black segregated baseball known as the "Negro Leagues."

"The title came to me because I realized that these groups of Jews came seemingly from out of nowhere to make an impact on black baseball," said Alpert.

In her research, Alpert learned that Jewish businessmen were very involved in owning and promoting  Negro League teams.

"These entrepreneurs, who both played out and fell victim to the prevailing stereotypes of Jews as greedy middlemen and hucksters, were actually also extremely helpful to the Negro League in terms of providing it with some kind of financial security and helping to grow the business in the face of oppressive restrictions," she said.

One of her most interesting findings was the discovery of a black Jewish baseball team, the Belleville Grays, sponsored by the Temple Beth-El community in Virginia.

And there were the communist sports writers who championed the integration of baseball long before Jackie Robinson. 

"The communist sports writers at the Daily Worker were all Jewish,” she said. “They, in cooperation with African-American sports writers, were passionately asking questions like: 'Why shouldn't Satchel Paige pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers?'"

Indeed, Brooklyn is where the book started for Alpert, but not with the question about Paige. It all started with Jackie Robinson.


"I grew up in Brooklyn as a Brooklyn Dodgers' fan and Jackie Robinson was one of my heroes," said Alpert. "My mother taught me about Jackie Robinson, and what she taught me shaped my values as an American Jew."

Alpert soon learned that Robinson was not just her hero — he was the hero of an entire generation of Jews.

"There are hundreds of stories that Jews have written about how important Jackie Robinson was to Jews in Brooklyn," she said. “His story provided Jews with symbolic representation of the possibilities for becoming equal in American society.”

But Alpert noted that Jewish nostalgia for Jackie Robinson contrasted starkly with what he meant for black Americans.

“The world that Jackie Robinson and other blacks were forced to inhabit during segregation is an important and troubling part of American history that deserves serious attention,” said Alpert.

So, she began to explore that history.

"My book sheds light on the complex economic and social negotiations between blacks and Jews in the first half of the 20th century, the role of social justice as a primary Jewish value and the intersection of race, religion and sports in America."

Call it a home run.