A seven-year-old boy looked over my shoulder on the subway and saw that I was reading a book called Jewish Jocks. "Is that a book about Jewish jokes?" he asked. "No," I told him, "it's about Jewish sporting figures." I told him there are also a lot of funny Jewish comedians, but only one—unfunny—joke about Jewish jocks: "Q. What's the shortest book ever written? A. Jewish Sports Heroes."
This new collection, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, belies that cheap punch line. The book's 49 original essays—plus one on Howard Cosell by David Remnick that appeared in slightly different form in The New Yorker—prove that the Jewish sporting tradition is as rich as it is varied.
Jewish Jocks features notable writers in peak form: Jonathan Safran Foer on Bobby Fischer, Jane Leavy on Sandy Koufax, Rich Cohen on Sid Luckman. Buzz Bissinger delivers a tour de force on the fighter Barney Ross, a don't-try-this-at-home piece of bravura writing that expertly marries style and substance. It also carries a fierce sense of pride in its subject that can be found throughout the book.
Of course, the most famous Jewish sporting figures—Hank Greenberg, Mark Spitz, Al Davis—are represented, but what makes this book such an appealing read are the essays on lesser-known characters such as boxing cutman Whitey Bimstein, table-tennis champion Marty Reisman and competitive-eating champ Don Lerman. Jonathan Mahler's essay on Daniel Okrent, the distinguished author who invented Rotisserie baseball, notes that in the "grand tradition of the schlimazel, Okrent has not made a dime from his invention." And in more than 30 years of playing the game he has never won his league. Now, that's funny.