G-d, Boys, and Brooklyn
by Rabbi David Zaslow
Good evening and welcome. I was born in 1947, and moved to Ashland to complete my graduate studies in 1970. When I first arrived here, at the height of the hippie movement, new friends would ask me “what’s your sign?” And I would answer “Jackie Robinson with Israel rising.” You see, my birthday is December 23, 1947 which is almost in the exact middle of when Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues on April 15, 1947, and when Israel was reborn as a nation on May 14, 1948. These two events as distinct as they are from each other shaped my childhood, and influenced our nation as well.
This evening I want to speak about how Jackie Robinson changed not just baseball, not just major-league sports, but America itself. I’m not alone in the belief that April 15, 1947 marks the beginning of the civil rights movement that came into its maturity in the 1950s culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s.
How can a sport like baseball, and a team like the Brooklyn Dodgers, affectionately known as the Bums, be credited with having sparked what soon would be called the civil rights movement? It’s simple really. Social change does not begin in the ivory tower of academia. It does not occur because of postulates, theories, and suppositions made in doctoral dissertations. Rather, good doctoral dissertations and academic studies are reflections and analyses of what is going on in the lives of everyday people.
Often, sports, entertainment, science fiction, and religion are well ahead of the academic curve. Sometimes entertainment is a reflection of the current situation in society, but sometimes entertainment is at the cutting edge of social change. Sports like it’s literary and entertainment counterparts do the same. If segregation is the norm in society, then sports and entertainment will reflect that segregation. But sometimes, just sometimes, the commercial interests of the business of sports intersects with an urgent need for social transformation. That is exactly what happened to major league baseball after World War II. Branch Rickey knew they had to build up attendance at Ebbets Field or the Bums would be doomed to continue playing second fiddle to the great dynasty we know as the New York Yankees. And he knew that the secret to success would come from the untapped talent in the Negro League.
Not coincidentally, Branch Rickey’s personal Christian religious faith gave him an abiding belief in the equality of all people – Black, Asian, Hispanic, and those Anglo- Americans of European descent. So when he met with Jackie Robinson to discuss the possibility of him coming onto the Brooklyn Dodgers he didn’t ask this great athlete if he had the courage to fight for his right to play baseball, but if he had the courage not to fight. Both men knew that every despicable racist epithet imaginable would be hurled at Robinson, and that those first years would be torturous for Robinson. But they knew that he represented not just himself, but all people of color, and that his success and acceptance as a ballplayer would be measured not by a belief in civil rights, or theories of social justice, but by his performance on the field.
Robinson performed brilliantly as an infielder, at-bat, and holding the record for stealing home twenty times in his short ten year career in the Majors. What a metaphor, the first Black player in professional baseball holding the record for “stealing home.” Jackie was truly the catapult that hurled the Brooklyn Dodgers into history when in 1955 they finally defeated the great Roman Empire of baseball, the dynasty of dynasties, the team that gave us both Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio – the despised and fantastic New York Yankees.
Okay, so what is it with me in baseball? Big deal, I was born between when Jackie Robinson came into the major leagues and the birth of Israel. Truth be told, it’s a pretty personal thing to me, as it was to so many kids who were born in the wake of World War II and grew up in one of the boroughs besides the Bronx. Brooklyn hosted a huge immigrant population, a population of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Gypsy, Puerto Rican, and black first and second generation families who themselves identified with the seemingly hopeless struggle of the Dodgers to defeat the Yankees. In a way, identifying the Dodgers as “Dem Bums” was to identify yourself with the struggle to make it in America.
In the mythic decade of 1947 to 1957 the Long Island Expressway hadn’t been built yet, and urban flight to the suburbs hadn’t begun. Brooklyn was home, a city unto itself. Many of its oldest citizens still believed that building the Brooklyn Bridge, linking Brooklyn to Manhattan, was actually a mistake, and that Brooklyn should have never left its status as a separate city in the late eighteenth century.
It wasn’t so much that the Dodgers were bums because they couldn’t beat the Yankees, but that there was a little bit of the bum in every one of us, or should I say in every one of our parents and grandparents. If Brooklyn was our holy land, then Flatbush was Jerusalem and Ebbets Field was our holy Temple. Yeah, we were all monotheists, but rabbis and priests alike who visited this holy shrine worshiped the likes of Robinson, Da Duke, Pee-wee, Campy, Oisk, Gil Hodges, and Johnny Padres. We were not just fans, we were fanatics. True believers. Orthodox, ultra Orthodox. Missionaries. Crusaders!
In 1947 my brother, Jerry Stern, was twelve years older than I was. His new baby brother was like his little monkey, his little parrot, his 10 pounds of clay that he could shape it will. My first words of English, and this is no family legend, were the names of all the players on the Brooklyn Dodgers. My brother would bring me around to his teenage friends and show me off like we would a new iPad today. He would say Peewee and I would respond Reese. He would say Duke and I would respond Snyder. He would say Carl and I would say Erskine. He would say Jackie and I would dutifully respond Robinson. By the summer of 1950 rumor has it that he could do this forwards or backwards with me. He would say Furillo and I would say Carl, he would say Hodges and I would say Gil. He took me to my first games at Ebbett’s FieldI, and ingrained in me the ethos of civil rights. It sounds so naïve today, but in the early 1960s white Americans were asking the question to each other, “do you believe in integration?” We asked the question as if there really could be two possible legitimate answers. I was one of those kids in the 1960s who asked that question, and one of the ones who answered in the affirmative when asked.
Is it a coincidence that when my daughter graduated from college she moved back to Brooklyn after having grown up breathing the rarefied air of Ashland Oregon? And just last month she gave birth to my granddaughter, Amaya Zahar, my first grandchild with a Jewish mom an African American dad. How cool is that? My granddaughter born in Brooklyn, born in the wake of the civil rights movement, born just one mile from Israel Zion Hospital where I was born, and 1 mile in the other direction from Ebbets Field, where my conscience as an American was born and shaped.
So where does G-d come into all of this? The question really is, where is G-d not in all of this? Someone once asked a rabbi, “why do you always answer a question with a question?” The rabbi responded, “why do you ask?” G-d was everywhere in Ebbets Field when Jackie first stepped up to the plate on April 15, 1947. G-d was everywhere in the hearts of every Brooklyn kid, and dad, and big brother who rooted for the Bums, who usually ended the year with a broken heart, who said Hail Mary every time the Duke got up to bat. Even the Jewish kids knew how to say chant Hail Mary in Latin. Gd was in the incredible sense of common unity felt between every fan from every ethnic group imaginable that lived in Brooklyn after the war. The cries of “please Lord” or “Sweet Jesus” or “Ribbono Shel Olam” echoed like the sacred notes of the synagogue choir invoked on the Day of Atonement.
Where was G-d not in Brooklyn in those days? Robert Moses broke our hearts when he wouldn’t let Walter O’Malley build a new stadium for the Dodgers in the late 1950s. We boys wept when the Dodgers won the World Series in 1955. We were stunned into catatonic silence when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. We never forgave O’Malley, but the truth is we now know they tried to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.
For years we had no team to root for. Certainly we couldn?t root for the Yankees, or our National League rivals the Giants. We tried St. Louis but that didn’t really fit. The Cubs, the Red Sox – now those teams had some resonance to us (they were also bums), but they were in Chicago in Boston. Who could we root for?
Robert Moses got his dream and saw a stadium built in Queens, Shea Stadium. Many of the Brooklyn ballplayers who didn’t want to move to Los Angeles played for the Mets. They became the people’s team, a team we could root for. And today their new stadium is a veritable tribute in stone to number 42, Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Ebbets Field. I haven’t seen the new stadium yet. I’m going back to meet my granddaughter for the first time in two weeks. So, don?t dare tell my daughter, but maybe I’ll take my granddaughter there this coming Memorial Day. Maybe I’ll teach her her first words in English. I’ll say Jackie and she’ll say Robinson. I’ll say Pee-wee and she’ll say Reese. I’ll say Roy she’ll say Campanella.