I, TOO, WANT TO RUN….BUT THERE’S STILL NOWHERE TO GO (Memory Lane: 1998, 1966–1974)

Detroit Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg, the first great Jewish-American baseball star. Also subject of the fine documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, whereby hangs a tale, of identity…and other things.

I found this (which I strongly recommend to all my readers) linked to a Terry Teachout re-tweet.

The original tweet read, in part: “I have had two Jewish friends in the last week tell me that their families have moved money out of the UK ‘just in case we have to leave’.”

I imagine the feeling in the rest of “civilized” Europe is, if anything, more widespread.

Should this general unease turn to panic (rational or irrational), Jews will be down to, at most, a few destinations: Israel, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and here.

The tweet, and Mr. Jacobson’s column, brought to mind a memory.

About twenty years ago, Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ baseball star of the 1930s and 40s (despite missing three years serving in WWII, he led the American League in home runs and RBIs four times apiece), was the subject of a good documentary which made the rounds of the art-house circuit.

There was a theater in Tallahassee (now long gone, alas) which showed offbeat movies, so I had a chance to see it on the big screen. The nominal narrative thread was Greenberg’s 1938 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record (60, set in 1927–Greenberg’s attempt, which came up two short, perhaps because umpires wishing, for especially unsavory reasons, to preserve Ruth’s record, squeezed the strike zone on him in the season’s final weeks, was the last real run at it until Roger Maris broke the record in 1961).

But the movie’s real reason for being was to showcase Greenberg’s struggles–and triumphs–as the first great Jewish-American baseball star.

I saw it with a close friend. When we were walking out, she asked if I had ever heard of Hank Greenberg before (she hadn’t). I had been a baseball stat freak in my youth so, yes, I had heard of him.

“I never knew he was Jewish, though,” I added.

“Seriously?” she said. “Greenberg?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.”

It’s true. I wasn’t.

She still found my ignorance a little hard to believe, so, for proof, I gave her another, better, example.

My first eight years of public school, in any class where seats were assigned alphabetically (which was most of them), I was always seated next to a girl whose last name was Roth. She was quiet, soft-spoken, studious, got exceptional grades. Her best friends were other girls–not always as soft-spoken–who also got exceptional grades. But even among them, she was counted elite. Not just by girls. The same boys (who also got exceptional grades–their fathers were doctors, lawyers, NASA engineers) who were awed by my ability to recite the batting and home run champions for every year the National and American Leagues had been in existence, were even more in awe of her–every single day.

I moved after the eighth grade and it was only years later, after I saw the Godfather movies (one of which featured a Jewish gangster named Hyman Roth) and read a novel called Goodbye, Columbus, a plainly autobiographical story by an author named Philip Roth, that I realized it was just possible the girl I sat next to all those years was also Jewish.

To this day, I don’t know it for sure. It just seems a pretty safe assumption.

Had I known it then, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it.

Except to note it as an interesting anecdote about my childhood (that I probably sat next to a Jewish girl in school without having any clue she was Jewish), I don’t think anything about it now.

Like I told my friend: I wasn’t raised to pay attention to people’s names.

Assuming she was Jewish, though, my knowing it would have made one possible difference.

It would have meant that, if she was ever attacked or insulted for her Jewishness (or any other quality that left her in a lonely minority), it would have been my duty to come to her defense.

Whether I would have had the courage to do so–or the wit or strength to do so effectively–there is no way of knowing. Of all our motley public school crew, I may have been the only person less likely than she was to speak without being spoken to, to break my own public persona and assert myself in a circumstance where all of us–not just the studious ones–were expected to be quiet.

Had I acted according to my conscience, it would have been a supreme act of the will.

Instinct and my nature would have played no part.

My instinct–then as now–was to stay in the shadows, and observe.

As it happens, it never came to that. If the girl I sat next to in the deep South of the 1960s and 70s was ever made uncomfortable for having a Jewish name–and I don’t say she wasn’t–I wasn’t aware of it.

But if it had come to pass that she was insulted for being Jewish, and I knew it and failed to defend her, I would have been both keenly aware of my failure and ashamed of it. I would have known I needed to ask forgiveness for the sin of forgoing my faith in a testing hour.

I was raised to pay no attention to people’s names. and I was raised to ask, of my own volition, without prompting by ritual, for forgiveness of my sins–all sins, conscious (as this would have been) and unconscious–from the God of my faith.

And to seek to redress the consequences of those sins where possible. That would have included apologizing to Miss Roth and making my future willingness to stand by her side known to any possible tormentors.

Else living with immense guilt and a moral assurance that I was a coward.

It was a hard school, my faith.

It still is.

These days, it is most often called Evangelical Christianity. How it came to be called that in common parlance (when we never used the term ourselves in any church I attended growing up), and then came to be mingled with, and deliberately mistaken for, any number of other things–including, most ridiculously, the Shadow Force that runs the Republican party–is a subject for another day.

I will only say for now that, having known literally thousands of my fellow “evangelicals,” and having been made familiar with their carefully deliberated core beliefs in the most stringent intellectual and moral circumstances (among other things, my father attended a bible college when I was in high school–that was the reason we left the place where I had sat next to Miss Roth in school all those years), I have always found it amusing to note the tendency of the great thinkers of the age to mock us for our unwavering support of Israel one minute and accuse us of the rankest anti-Semitism the next.

That, too, is a story for another day.

Don’t worry. If I live long enough, I’ll get to all of it sooner or later.

These days, however, reading stories like Mr. Jacobsen’s, I find it all a bit less amusing, a bit more alarming.

Well aware as I am of my tribe’s actual sins–more aware than any without it, and most within it I assure you–I take cold comfort in knowing that, of all the tribes who might produce a person likely to spit on a Jew, in modern England or anywhere else, none is as unlikely as mine.

But, as we are all forced to contemplate the next run for the shadows–as Evangelicals themselves begin wondering, not without some justification, whether we’ll be left standing when the world is through with accusing us of being the secret cabal that runs everything and thirsts for the Apocalypse (supposed to be the real reason we support Israel, for instance)–I still haven’t forgotten my tribe’s most valuable lesson, one I’d have learned from no other that operated in my world, not even Miss Roth’s or Mr. Jacobson’s, concerned, as they must be, with their own interests and their own survival:

When you raise your children in the way they should go, teach them to pay no attention to people’s names.

And, like those who are not afforded this luxury, be ready to depart for some other land–or the next life–at a moment’s notice.

GAME CHANGERS….OR, ANOTHER WORD OR TWO ON GREATNESS (Occasional Sports Moment #22)

Dec 8, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) is guarded by Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Golden State defeats Indiana 131-123. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often that we get to see a major American sport essentially redefined by one man. That’s what the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry, a seven-year NBA veteran who, remarkably, was only the seventh pick in the draft coming out of college (i.e., he was projected as a fine player, but literally no one saw this coming), has been doing for the last several years, culminating this week in leading his team to a staggering (and record-setting) 73-9 regular season record, basically by shooting three-pointers at such a rate that he’s literally expanded the area of a basketball court that needs to be defended by a couple of hundred cubic feet and more or less brought his teammates along with him.

The ways in which this changes the game both physically and psychologically are too numerous and subtle for me to go into in depth. All you really need to know is the last phrase of that first paragraph: A couple of hundred extra cubic feet now need to be defended by the same five men who have guarded the traditional area since basketball went full court many decades ago (and which did not fundamentally change when the three point shot was implemented in the seventies). Granted those men have gotten considerably bigger and faster, so much so that the game is almost unrecognizable from what it was fifty years ago.

But no player has ever changed the dimensions of the sport so radically in such a short time. For some perspective, Curry’s fabulous season just past allowed him to join the NBA’s 50-40-90 club (fifty percent from the field, 40 percent from the three-point line, 90 percent from the free throw line).

He’s the seventh to have done it (Larry Bird (2) and Steve Nash (4) did it multiple times). But that doesn’t come close to measuring the dimension of Curry’s achievement. He’s the first guard to do it while averaging twenty points (Nash averaged nineteen in his best year). He’s the first player period, to do it while averaging thirty points (Bird fell half a point shy in his best attempt). In other words, he averaged thirty, while doing something no player at his position had ever done while averaging twenty.

That’s changing the game dramatically.

And that’s just for starters.

Bird, the first man to achieve the feat, attempted 225 three point shots (1986-87). In the thirty years since, the most three point shots attempted by any player who achieved the feat was by Nash, who shot 381 in 2007-08. That’s a substantial, but perfectly reasonable increase, fully explained by coaches and players gradually reassessing the risk/reward of the three point shot attempt in a perfectly feasible and foreseeable fashion.

This season, Curry reached the same club while making 402 threes, or twenty-one more than Nash attempted. Put another way: He made more threes this season than Nash, who previously had the two highest marks for made threes by members of this particular club, made in his two highest seasons combined. Not one or two more: 73 more. For more perspective: The year Bird established the club, he made a total of 90.

Again, this is not incrementalism. It’s a complete re-imagining of what is possible in your sport.

Even more remarkably, Curry generated all this massive offense while playing the point guard position, which is designed for ball-distribution to his teammates, at an elite level. That is, even while leading the league in scoring and expanding the entire sport’s comfort-shooting range by 3-5 feet (the sport has to deal with it, even if he’s the only player at present who can really take advantage of this expansion–they dealt with it this season by holding the Warriors to 73 wins), he’s still one of the two or three best pure point guards in the league.

Oh, by the way, he also led the league in steals, a stat that complements his expansion of the floor’s scoring space by speeding up the game and leaves Curry running free in the middle of the court where, unlike any player in history, he can literally pull up at any point past the mid-court line or, if a game clock is running out, any point beyond it and make shots previously regarded as “prayers” way more often than real prayers have been answered since Moses got shut out of the Promised Land.

I mention all this because the emphasis from the basketball press all season (and the sporting press at large) has been on silly things like whether this Warriors team (assuming it wins the championship) could beat the Chicago Bulls team that held the previous wins record (hint: we’ll never know), or whether Curry could get to 400 made threes (hint: they played the entire 82 game season, just like always, and, in a season where he absolutely either would or would not, he did). Easy narratives prevailed, as usual.

But the real story is that, in theory, any great shooter who has had the benefit of the three point line could have done what Steph Curry did, and, more significantly, any number of players could have at least built a bridge across the yawning gap that now divides Curry from the history of the game.

None did.

None did, because that’s the way a sport usually works and the way human nature usually works. The unthinkable is always impossible….until it isn’t.

And sporting breakthroughs are just like breakthroughs in art, science or general human enlightenment: First, somebody has to dream it.

The only act of pure sporting imagination I can compare Curry’s last two seasons to are Babe Ruth’s home run barrage in the early twenties. Baseball answered the impending challenge to their business model’s competitive balance by introducing a “lively” ball. We’ll see what, if anything, basketball does to bring the rest of the sport up to Curry’s startling new standard, or, more likely, bring him back to the existing standard.

Let’s hope it’s not with the reintroduction of clotheslining.**

tycobb3Speaking of a return to the primitive, and players who define their sport for an era, I am definitely looking forward to getting hold of this author’s book. Among other things, it gives the catcher’s side of this famous photograph, taken roughly a century ago, of a player who defined his own sport for an era, while, in legend at least, remaining too crude, on and off the field, to be a role model for history….

TYCOBB2

I’ve always suspected that Ty Cobb’s “virulent” racism, etc–which, along with the absence of compelling video footage, has rather overshadowed his own imaginative sporting genius (the best account we’ll ever have is from this man)–has lost nothing in the telling. That there might be a kernel of truth there is still likely, and I’m also wary of easy revisionism. Counter-myths can distort as easily as any other kind.

But if the quotes in the link are indicative, it certainly looks as though the story might have another side. Look for an assessment of that developing narrative in some upcoming monthly book report.

Meanwhile we can all amuse ourselves wondering what legends the famously mild-mannered Steph Curry will inspire a hundred years from now…if his team keeps wining championships.

**If you need a definition of “clotheslining,” the action around 0.35 to 0.38 should suffice. For the record, the NBA used to encourage this kind of thing.

AH BASEBALL…(Sports Moment #3)

Pablo Sandoval is a good ball player and a fine major league hitter. But watching him hit three home runs in the first game of the World Series (thus joining Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols–three of history’s greatest sluggers–as the only men to do so), was like watching a tight end who has been to the Pro Bowl a couple of times run for two hundred and seventy yards on reverses in a Super Bowl.

If Vegas allowed betting on such things (and for all I know, they do) you could have made just about as much money predicting one as the other.

Which reminds me…allowing for first experiences as a kid, I’ve never seen anything happen in a professional football game that truly surprised me. (College is different–the sport of football isn’t the problem, the NFL is.)

Baseball?

Still surprises me all the time.

I suspect that’s the real reason it’s no longer the national sport.

Too….disorienting.