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Jewish athletes have contributed their share to the history of sports all over the world, and have added to the legends of boxing, baseball, track and field, swimming, football, chess, and scores of other major and minor sports.

In ancient Israel, Jews did not show the kind of passion for sports which the ancient Greeks and Romans did, although some Jews were noted gladiators. Physical skills in biblical times were mainly associated with martial arts. In post-biblical times and almost until the 19th century, Jews did not have many opportunities to participate in sports. Beginning in the 19th century, however, Jews in Europe began to participate in sports and even organized such Jewish sports clubs as Ha-Koach of Vienna and the Maccabi clubs throughout Europe.

In the first Olympiad (Athens, 1896), a Hungarian Jew, Hache, won the 100 meter freestyle swimming contest. By the 1990’s, Jews won more than 300 Olympic medals.

The following are some of the better known examples of Jews excelling in specific sports:

Boxing. While few Jews box today, in the past there have been more than twenty Jewish boxing champions. In fact, in the late 1700’s, Daniel Mendoza of England was one of the greatest and earliest Jewish boxing kings, who contributed to the development of that sport. In the U.S., there have been equally outstanding Jewish prize fighters. Benny Leonard, who began to fight in 1912, was for nearly a decade the lightweight champion of the world, and ranks as perhaps the finest titleholder in the 135-pound class. There have been other notable Jewish lightweights, including Al Singer, Lew Tendler, and Jackie “Kid” Berg of England, who did much of his boxing on American shores. Barney Ross, who held both the lightweight and welterweight championships, also gained acclaim as one of boxing’s immortals. Battling Levinsky (U.S.) was light heavyweight world champion, 1916-1920. Louis “Kid” Kaplan (U.S.) was featherweight world champion in 1925-1927. Max Baer (U.S.) was heavyweight world champion in 1934. Jackie Fields, at 16, was the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal, for boxing (welterweight). As the social status of the Jew in America improved, fewer boys participated in boxing. Yet the records show that in one of the roughest sports in the world, Jews have done as well as the best.

Baseball. Few Jews have achieved excellence in baseball. As a game played mainly in small towns, it did not produced many Jewish stars. But those Jews who have excelled at baseball are among the top names in the game. Johnny Kling, who caught at the turn of the century and was the best receiver the Chicago Cubs ever had, is considered one of the three or four best catchers in baseball history. And, of course, Hank Greenberg, who played first base and the outfield for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930’s and 1940’s, is a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame and was one of the most potent home-run hitters in the annals of the sport. He hit 58 homers in one year, a mark bettered by Babe Ruth and equaled only by one other man in the game. More recently, Al Rosen, who started at third base for the Cleveland Indians, became a baseball notable when he was voted the Most Valuable Player Award for 1953 in the American League by a unanimous vote, the first time any player had won such an accolade. One of the greatest Jewish baseball stars of contemporary times has been Sandy Koufax, a left-handed pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Koufax pitched four no-hit, no-run games in his brilliant career, which was cut short at the age of 29 by a chronic arthritic elbow. But his diamond feats won him a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame, even though he had a comparatively brief career. His four no-hitters, in consecutive seasons, was a record in itself. In 11 years on the mound, he won acclaim for his remarkable fast ball and his “unhittability.” He won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher of the year three times and the Most Valuable National League Player Award (rarely given to a pitcher) in 1963. He also won the National League Player of the Year Award of the Sporting News in 1963-1965. He established many strikeout records and shutout marks. He was the first pitcher to fan more than 300 batters in two consecutive years. Before that he was the first to strike out 200 men in two years in succession. Koufax also was extraordinarily effective in the World Series. He gained the record of most strikeouts in a four-game Series (23) and the most in a single game (15) against the New York Yankees in 1963. That same year he won 25 games and 26 in 1965.

Other Jewish baseball players have included: Andy Cohen, a N.Y. Giant second baseman, who succeeded the famous Rogers Hornsby; Buddy Myer, who won the American League batting title once; Harry Danning and Sid Gordon of the N.Y. Giants; Ken Holtzmann, a fine left-handed pitcher who twirled a no-hitter himself; Mike Epstein, a pretty good home-run batter; and Ron Blomberg, who showed promise of stardom with the Yankees.

Football, both amateur and professional, also has produced prominent Jewish gridiron stars. The best of them were quarterbacks, the men who called the plays and pitched the passes. Thus, Benny Friedman, great quarterback of the 1920’s and later professional football player and coach at Brandeis University, Harry Newman of Michi_gan, and Sid Luckman of the Columbia Lions and the Chicago Bears, are among the football greats. Many other Jews have made All-American football teams, and are remembered by fans.

Basketball once was called “the Jewish game” because of the predominance of Jewish hoop stars. But today the players are extremely tall and no longer come exclusively from metropolitan areas. Still, the accomplishments of Jewish basketball players, in college and professional ranks, is impressive. Nat Holman, once known as “Mr. Basketball,” star of the Celtics, a famous professional team, later was the coach of CCNY and led his clubs to many victories. The Long Island University teams, loaded with Jewish players, also won national fame. New York University and St. John’s had Jewish stars and led their teams to prominence. Harry Boykoff was notable at St. John’s and Adolph Schayes at NYU. Schayes went on to a highly successful pro career. Others who won recognition include Art Heyman, Sid Tanenbaum, Max Zaslofsky and, in more recent years, Neal Walk, the professional star, and Bob Kaufmann, who has made the National Basketball League All-Star team. More notably, Red Holtzman has been a brilliant coach with the New York Knicks, and Red Auerbach was coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics.

Tennis, once a “social” sport with few Jewish players of the top rank, has undergone major changes. The professional game is now a great deal more important than the amateur sport. Nonetheless, there are not many outstanding Jews in tennis. Dick Savitt won the Wimbledon championship. Herb Flam was a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Tom Okker of Holland was one of the top pros in the sport. More recently, Israeli champions Shlomo Glickstein and Amos Mansdorf reached the ranks of the world’s best tennis players, and played with the best.

Swimming. Jews have produced some of the greatest swimmers of the 20th century. Johnny Weissmüller, known as the first and best Tarzan in the movies, was the first American to win five gold medals (in the 1920’s), and was elected the greatest swimmer of the half-century. Eva Szekely of Hungary set 10 world records in swimming. One of the greatest Jewish names in sports, Mark Spitz, emerged as a result of what happened in the swimming competition in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Spitz won 7 gold medals, the first time this feat has ever been accomplished in the long history of the Games. In 1968, Mark Spitz was considered to be a coming champion, but he was young and  failed to do well. By 1972, he had become battle-hard, for he already had competed in the Maccabiah Games in Israel and was ready for top competition. His first championship race was for the 200-meter butterfly. He broke his own world record in this event and immediately placed his foes on the watch for his later achievements. That same evening he won his second gold medal, the 400-meter free-style relay. He was one of a group, but his own contribution was a record time race. The next evening, he took part in the 200-meter free-style. He had to come from behind with a burst of speed to win. But he did. That made it three gold medals and Spitz had become the talk of the Olympic Games. He won 5 gold medals in three days. More were to come. In the end, he had 7, was named the Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, and entered sports history.
Track and Field. Here European and Canadian Jews have produced some of the best. Fanny Rosenfeld of Canada won Olympic gold in 400-meter relay in 1928, and was elected in 1950 Canada’s best female athlete of the half-century. Harold Abraham of England won the 100 meter dash in the Paris Olympics, and became one of England’s leading sprinters. Irena Kirszenstein-Szewinska of Poland is considered the greatest female track and field athlete of all time. In the Tokyo Olympics she won gold in the 400 meter relay and silver in the 200 meter. In Mexico she won gold in the 200 meter, totaling seven Olympic medals.
Gymnastics have seen many Jewish athletes excel. Agnes Kelety of Hungary, saved by Raoul Wallenberg during the Holocaust, won 5 gold and a total of 11 Olympic medals in the 1940’s and 1950’s, in gymnastics. She settled in Israel in 1957, and became a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Golf. Here not too many Jews have excelled, but one of the best female golfers of our time is Amy Alcott, who won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1980.
Bullfighting. One would hardly ever think to associate Jews with bullfighting, yet Spain did produce Jewish bullfighters, and one of the better known bullfighters of the 20th century is Brooklyn-born Sidney Franklin.
Chess, which is considered a sport, has seen scores of Jewish chess masters all over the world, as well as in the U.S. William Steinitz and Emmanuel Lasker held the world title suc­cessively for 57 years. Mikhail Botvinnik and Mikhail Tal, both Soviet chess masters, also where world champions. Samuel Reshevsky and Bobby Fischer held many American champion­ships and have ranked high on the world scene.
Sports in Israel. Israelis are avid sports fans who are primarily interested in soccer and in basketball, including American basketball. Military service, which prevents young men during the ages of 18 to 21 from training when they are in their physical prime, accounts for the fact that Israel has not produced more sports champions. However, Israel sends athletes to the Olympic and the Asian Games. Since 1932, the finest amateur Jewish athletes have been competing in Israel in the Maccabiah, a kind of Jewish Olympics.
At the Munich Olympics in August, 1972, Arab terrorists entered the Israeli quarters at the Olym­pic Village and held members of the Israeli Olym­pic team as hostages, demanding the release of fellow Arab terrorists jailed in Israel. The Israeli government refused to meet their demand, and after nightfall the German police took the ter­rorists and their hostages to a nearby airfield from where they expected to fly out of Germany. The police opened fire on the terrorists in an attempt to release the prisoners. Eleven Israeli athletes perished in the melee. The entire Olympiad came to a halt with a memorial in honor of the victims, after which the games were resumed.
In the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, a young Israeli woman, Yael Arad, finally brought an Olympic medal back to her country, when she won the silver in judo. In recent years, some of the former Soviet Union athletes and coaches have immigrated to Israel, raising expectations for more Olympic medals.
Israel won its first Olympic gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Gal Friedman sailed into fame. Another Israeli, Arik Ze’evi,  took the bronze in 100kg judo. Other Jewish gold medalists were Scott Goldblatt, USA in swimming 4X200 freestyle relay; Lenny Krayzelburg, USA in swimming 4×100 medley relay; Jason Lezak, USA in swimming, 4×100 medley relay; Nicolas Massu, Chile, in tennis, singles and doubles. Adriana Behar, Brazil, took the silver in beach volleyball, and Gavin Fingleson, Australia, in baseball. Other Jewish bronze medalists were Robert Dover, USA, in riding, team dressage; Sada Jacobson, USA, in fencing, individual saber; Deena Kastor, USA, in marathon; Jason Lezak, USA, in swimming, 4×100 freestyle relay; Sarah Poewe, Germany, in swimming, 4×100 medley relay; and Sergei Sharikov, Russia, in fencing, team saber.

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