Jews Take the Field; Baseball Stumpers Test Fans: Books

Jews and baseball have always gone together. Trying to explain this connection has become something of a national pastime.

The latest effort is “American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball” by Larry Ruttman (Nebraska, $34.95), a large (510 pages!) collection of interviews with leading Jewish players and personalities.

The disgraced outfielder Ryan Braun, known as the Hebrew Hammer, merited only a brief mention and a picture even before he was suspended by the Brewers for his connections to a clinic accused of supplying banned drugs.

All the usual suspects are here: Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, Art Shamsky, Sandy Koufax, even Kevin Youkilis. Also in the lineup: a commissioner (Bud Selig, of course), a bigmouth (Alan Dershowitz, onetime Dodgers fan now firmly in the Red Sox camp) and a quiet scholar (Sol Gittleman, former Tufts provost).

Gittleman went to college at Drew University, a Methodist institution in New Jersey. The baseball coach asked him what he thought he’d pursue as a major.

“I came to play shortstop, not to major,” he said, proving that someone now regarded as a wise man could have started out as a wise guy.

The coach replied: “I’m the German teacher; you major in German, take care of the infield, and I’ll take care of you.” They both kept their word.

Cleveland Indians

“Cleveland Indians Legends” (Black Squirrel/Kent State, $29.95), sounds like an unlikely volume, but -- wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles -- it contains no snickers about the great failure of Cleveland teams to win any championships since 1964, when the Browns came out on top of the National Football League.

The Indians lack pennant titles and book titles, at least compared to their colleagues in New York, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. But Russell Schneider, a Cleveland legend himself for his years as a sportswriter, has assembled his own hall of fame in a coffee-table book.

Here’s Tris Speaker, Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Larry Doby, Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Jim “Mudcat” Grant -- and Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton. Schneider includes both Albert Belle and Buddy Bell, somehow resisting the urge to include Gary Bell, an Indian between 1958 and 1967, with 96 wins to his credit.

Tribe Member?

No, Gaylord Perry (who won 70 games and a Cy Young Award while on the Indians) isn’t here. He’s in the Hall of Fame but was not an MOT (member of the tribe) long enough to be included.

You don’t have to be a Clevelander to feel the pain of the Indians, who haven’t won a World Series since 1948, or to recognize that the lack of championships doesn’t mean there was any lack of legends. Hooray for the Indians, and for this book.

Long before “Moneyball,” Bill James and sabermetrics, baseball nerds of the late 1950s and ’60s buried themselves in “So You Think You Know Baseball,” which appeared first as a weekly column in the Saturday Evening Post and then in a Crest paperback cherished by teenagers like me with too much time on our hands and too little ability to play the game at a competitive level.

In that feature, a baseball savant named Harry Simmons created bizarre diamond situations designed to challenge our knowledge of the more obscure rules of the game.

Sports Snobs

Now comes a book by the very same name with the very same theme, this time using actual examples of baseball conundrums. Dip into this volume by Peter E. Meltzer (Norton, $16.95) for just a quarter-hour and all your illusions of a second career as a major-league umpire will wash away like a spring game postponed by a downpour.

Page after page of stumpers, this book is testimony to why sports snobs get away with calling baseball the “thinking-man’s game,” though any thoughtful fan knows some of the people doing the thinking are women.

Can a manager dispatch a pinch runner when a player ruptures his Achilles tendon rounding second base on a home-run trot? (Yes.) Is there an occasion besides a pitcher’s balk or a stolen base when a runner can advance a base while a ball is in the pitcher’s hand? (Yes, if the catcher sets up with a foot outside the catcher’s box.) You could look it up.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and a Lewis Lapham podcast.