Simon Biesheuvel was an esteemed South African psychologist. Achievement, he maintained, was never a matter of race but one of bent or aptitude. Yes, but he should have added that one isn’t born with bent — it is something you are nurtured to, and socialised in, within a particular cultural and geographic setting. We’ve seen Jews fence, swim, box, run, wield rackets and ping-pong bats in their American and European Jewish contexts. But what of ball skills, as in American gridiron football, Australian Rules football, baseball, basketball, cricket, golf, the rugby codes, soccer, volleyball and water polo? Much joy in some, little in others.
Baseball, basketball and gridiron rule in America. Down Under these games and the big names mean little to general sports fans. The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (IJSHF) lists 11 baseball players, 17 hoops players (only one a Russian) and 15 gridiron footballers. Fans here perhaps will have heard of two sets of gridiron brothers in the 1920s, Ralph and Arnold Hoween, and two current brothers, Mitch Schwartz (all 320 US pounds or 146 kg of him) and brother Geoff, and a few baseball immortals, pitcher Sandy Koufax, batter Hank Greenberg, and possibly of twice All–Star player Shawn Green.
Like fencing and soccer, water polo has always been a Hungarian specialty and it isn’t surprising that three Jews have achieved international stardom. Volleyball, invented in America in 1895, has long been an American domain, with two great Jewish stars and now two Israelis in the IJSHF.
Despite endless (and often silly) attempts to spread Australian Rules Football abroad, it remains a particularly parochial game, deeply-rooted in Victoria, South Australia and the West. Only a fistful of Jews have played this game: Ian Synman for St Kilda (154 games) in the late 1950s to the mid-1960s; Keith Baskin for South Melbourne and Mordecai Bromberg for St Kilda in the late 1970s; North Melbourne’s Todd Goldstein and Essendon’s Ariel Steinberg are the only Jews in sight right now. But there is one good Jewish story. In the 1966 grand final, St Kilda played Collingwood before 102,055 spectators. The Saints won 74 to 73, their only premiership. One of St Kilda’s senior executives, Jewish, didn’t attend. When I told my friend Ted Egan, the historian and balladeer, that it was Yom Kippur that Saturday, he paused and said: ‘Ah, now I understand what Judaism means.’ (Synman, it is said, was given a special dispensation by ‘the Jewish church’ to play that game.)
Cricket is a puzzle in Diaspora communities. With many Jewish fans, alas, there are very few players of note. South Africa has had four Test players: Reggie Schwarz with 20 Tests and Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1908; the respected former captain, Aron (‘Ali’) Bacher, with 12 Tests, the man who demolished Australia in the 1966–67 series; Ali’s nephew Adam Bacher who played 19 Tests in the 1990s and wicketkeeper Dennis Gamsy with two Tests. Ali was to become a key administrator in the politics of world cricket.
Legions of Jews play golf but only a handful of Americans have made it to the top. Herman Barron was the first Jew to win a PGA title in America, the Philadelphia Open in 1934; Bruce Fleisher won one PGA title, waited until he became a senior, and has won 18 Championship Tour events, making him a wealthy man. Corey Pavin won the 1981 Maccabi Games title, turned pro and won 15 PGA tournaments. Alas, he is now a frum Christian. ‘My son the golf pro’ is one thing, ‘my daughter the golf pro’ is another: Amy Alcott won 29 Ladies PGA titles and five majors, including the US Open in 1980. Amy designed the course for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Morgan Pressel has won twice on the Ladies PGA circuit and is now in the top 30 in the women’s rankings. And Israel’s first woman pro of note, Belgian-born Laetitia Beck, is in the top 100.
A pioneer of rugby league, Albert Aaron Rosenfeld played five games for Australia in the initial years of the game, 1908–1909. A ‘try-scoring machine’, he played a total of 388 games, mainly for Wakefield Trinity and Bradford North in England. Louis Harris had 255 games for Hull Kingston Rovers in the 1920s — and that seems to be it until Springbok rugby centre Wilf Rosenberg switched codes to play 81 games for Leeds. Ian Rubin, born in Odessa, has played for both Souths and the Roosters here in Sydney and in 2000 represented Russia in a World Cup qualifier.
English rugby union has had a few Jewish players: Frank Moss in the 1880s, John Raphael who captained the British Lions to Argentina in 1910, and Reggie Schwarz, with three caps for England in 1899–1901 (as well as his cricket Tests for South Africa). Bethel Solomon had ten representative games for Ireland in 1908–1910.
In the land where a Springbok blazer is the ultimate badge of distinction, some sterling Jews have made their marks. The golden era was the 1930s: quite remarkably, six Sieff brothers played for the Pirates club in Johannesburg, with ‘Bollie’ and Reuben Sieff stellar players for the strong Transvaal province in the late 1920s–early 30s; Morris Zimmerman, the first Jewish representative, won five caps in 1931, Fred Smollan three in 1933, and Louis Babrow had five Tests in 1937. A good story about Louis: he was set to play an away Test against the All-Blacks on Yom Kippur, figured it was only the High Holy Day back home and it was okay to play in the land of the Maori and the pakehas.
In 1949 two Jewish Springboks were esteemed. One was prop forward Aaron (‘Okey’) Geffin, considered the best goal kicker in Springbok history, said to have practised his kicking in a Polish POW camp, close to mass graves. He played seven Tests. The other was winger Cecil Moss (with four), later the Springbok coach between 1982 and 1989. The 1950s celebrated Joe Kaminer (one Test) and Wilf Rosenberg (five), devastating together in the backline for Transvaal. The 1960s had two players: Syd Nomis, with 25 caps and Alan Menter with two.
Okey Geffin meticulously setting the ball
There were two more giants: fly-half Joel Stransky whose 22 caps culminated in the appalling rugby boss, Dr Louis Luyt, acclaiming after a 1995 World Cup game that ‘the Jew boy did us proud today’; and referee Jonathan Kaplan, in charge of 13 World Cups and 68 Tests. The Wallabies weren’t fond of him.
The daddy of them all has to be the speedy flanker Josh Kronfeld, with 54 kippahs for the All-Blacks, starting in 1995. He is a grand-nephew of capped players Frank and David Solomon — names that excited me briefly until they turned out to be Samoans.
Australia boasted two internationals, father and son. Myer Rosenblum, with four internationals in 1928, later became a successful lawyers and major philanthropist, noted, among other things, for employing prime minister-to-be John Howard. Son Rupert played three games for the Wallabies in 1969–1970.
As one would expect, the greatest number of Jewish ball players have been in the universal game of association football (soccer). Yet, for all the numbers, only two Austrians (Hugo Meisl and Arthur Baar) and two Hungarians (Gyula Mandl and Bela Guttman) have made it into the IJSHF. Two Argentinian Jews have played over 50 games for their country; twelve Israelis have passed the 50-game mark in internationals; Andriy Voronin played 74 matches for Ukraine, and literally hundreds of games for German and Russian clubs; and Swiss-born Jeff Agoos achieved a remarkable 134 caps for the United States between 1988 and 2003.
For centuries, certainly for most decades, the gymkhana set and the country club have been outside the social and sporting reach of Jews. We won’t be finding high-ranking or even low-ranking Jewish polo players any time soon. The contexts of sporting achievements need further explanation, and that will come in the sixth and final essay of this series.
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