(Tablet) — In the 1930s, Hank Greenberg chased Babe Ruth’s records and won the 1934 World Series with the Detroit Tigers. The national pastime wasn’t friendly territory for a Jewish athlete then, but by proudly staking out a claim, Greenberg proved that Jews could play the game as well as anyone else. To his co-religionists cheering in the stands, this was proof that they could participate in American society.
Greenberg was progress incarnate. But there was another Jewish sports story of that decade — one far less uplifting and therefore far less retold.
Once upon a time, Jews ruled basketball. Not the way they do now — the NBA’s commissioner and a majority of its owners are Jews — but on the court. If baseball was Middle America’s sport, basketball at the time, like boxing, was redolent of city squalor and shady dealings. Images of those short, pale men in belted shorts launching set shots in poorly lit, makeshift gyms are today virtually ignored; basketball has just evolved too much since then, and Jews played too little of a part in its development. That history is like a dream or, at worst, a bad joke.
But that history is also the subject of “Jewball,” Neal Pollack’s new Kindle novel about the real-life Jewish team that is generally regarded as the best basketball squad of the era. The Philadelphia Sphas — the name came from the acronym for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, which sponsored the team — dominated early pro-
basketball, winning seven championships in 13 seasons with the American Basketball League in the 1930s and 1940s.
Pollack delivers crisp, vivid episodes of the team in pitched battle, capturing the era’s style as well as that of key players. Around these scenes he weaves a fast-moving tale of underworld intrigue, the looming Nazi threat, love lost and found, and plenty of sharp-tongued banter.
In “Alternadad” and “Stretch,” Pollack brought his outwardly prickly but secretly warm persona to bear on parenting and then yoga; he was an outsider learning to fit in on his own terms. In “Jewball,” described in the acknowledgements as “a true labor of love,” Pollack pays homage to these unsung Jewish athletes and their colorful milieu. But for all his historical detail, “Jewball” ultimately tells us not only what was, but what Pollack would like to have seen.
Take Inky Lautman, the Sphas’ sure-handed point guard from 1937 to 1947. Though plenty is known about Lautman’s on-court exploits — he was one of the top scorers in the league — and about the Philadelphia of the time, Pollack creates his Lautman from scratch, bringing to life a cynical, scarred anti-hero for whom basketball is an escape from doing dirty work on the streets. (The real Lautman did quit high school at 15 to earn money for his family.) This kind of invention allows Pollack room to provide both startlingly well-researched game scenes and a madcap adventure that, plausible or not, makes the sports go down easier for those who aren’t fans.
In Pollack’s story, Eddie Gottlieb, the coach-owner-impresario of the Sphas, owes money to the German-American Bund, U.S. Nazi sympathizers with a strong base in Philadelphia. To pay off his debt, Gottlieb must have the Sphas take a dive against a team of Aryan supermen in Minneapolis, thus demonstrating the inferiority of the Jewish race and ceding their sport to the Nazis. Inky Lautman, so alienated and broke that he occasionally works for the Bund on what the character calls “non-Jew matters,” finds himself asked to make sure Gottlieb complies. Inky gets religion, so to speak, after being forced to attend an enormous Bund rally at Madison Square Garden. But the debt remains, Minnesota beckons, and the Bund isn’t exactly out for a fair game.
How will the Sphas get out of this jam? Answer: lots of violence. And a barnstorming tour that allows Pollack to show us more of the great teams of the 1930s, like the African-American Harlem Rens or the all-female All-American Redheads. The history is fascinating but at times can drag, especially given the pending collision with the Bund.
Historical novels are inherently speculative, but “Jewball” is something else altogether: a fantasy that doesn’t politely look for space to imagine but instead proposes that an entire period is one best understood through the imagination. As Pollack explains in a “Notes on History” section at the end of the book, Gottlieb was never in debt to the Bund, and Lautman had no affiliation with it. The Minnesota game, too, is his invention. So little is known about the off-court lives of most of the Sphas, including Lautman, that Pollack created characters where history had left none.
The book’s bad guys — figures such as William Dudley Pelley, founder of the American fascist group the Silver Legion, and German-American Bund leaders Fritz Julius Kuhn and Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze — are more faithfully portrayed, perhaps because they left more of a historical record with which to work.
Thus Pollack’s characterization of Lautman is less about revealing a real person than it is about imagining the ideal protagonist for the “Jewball” era — a nasty, uproarious, and at times glorious one. This isn’t a historical novel so much as it is a tall tale, or better yet, an attempt to at once reclaim the past and lend it the same antic, outrageous quality that the shtetl took on for I.B. Singer. Pollack wants to find new ways to revitalize a dead era.
The brand of nostalgia in “Jewball” may play right into the hands of the book’s villains, or the history that has deified Hank Greenberg and consigned Inky Lautman to the shadows. Or just maybe it’s entirely the right note to strike when reclaiming Lautman — not as a source of shame or consternation, but as another kind of Jewish hero who not only fought back, but liked to fight — and almost always fought dirty.
Bethlehem Shoals (the pen name of Nathaniel Friedman) is a founding member of basketball writers’ collective FreeDarko.com and co-author of “The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History.” He has also contributed to GQ, The Awl, Sports Illustrated, The Nation and McSweeney’s. This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com.