Jews and Sports…Stop Laughing: Decision Makers and Game Changers

Bud Selig. Definitely not the only Jew in sports.

There’s a joke that asks, “Where is baseball first mentioned in the Bible?”  Genesis 1:1, “In the big inning.”

(Please keep reading because at least you know this blog could not get any lamer.)

Since Jews are so involved as executive decision makers in sports, how about, “Who is the first sports executive mentioned in the Bible?”  A week ago synagogues around the world read the story of Noah and the flood, and Noah was responsible for choosing the animals that would go on the ark—kind of like the first skipper/general manager for G-d’s America’s Cup team.

(Sorry, I thought the blog would not get any lamer.)

The point is that while Jews are not always on the field of play, many of them are behind the scenes as team or league decision makers.  And Washington, D.C, has an especially high proportion of leading Jewish sports executives for many of the city’s major professional sports teams.

Most of the commissioners for the major professional team sports in the United States are Jewish.  Bud Selig (Jew) has been commissioner of Major League Baseball since 1998 and has left an indelible impression on the national pastime with expanded playoffs and interleague play.  In March, Selig named John Thorn (Jew) the official historian of Major League Baseball, succeeding another Jew, Jerome Holtzman.

No confirmation on whether or not baseball’s official historians have been working on a new book of the Prophets about “Koufax” or “Greenberg,” but I’m definitely hoping that one day Rabbis Shemtov, Freundel, Teitelbaum, and others in Washington will announce that the Haftorah for Parshat Noah, taken from the book of “Koufax,” can be found on page 1,111.

(If any of the above rabbis were offended by that blatantly sacrilegious joke, I offer as teshuvah free tickets to a Nationals game and a kosher hot dog.)

David Stern (Jew) has run the National Basketball League since 1984, and basketball has experienced tremendous popularity around the world through the league’s globalization efforts under Stern.

Gary Bettman (Jew) has been commissioner the National Hockey League since 1993, and the icy sport has expanded to the sunny west and south and grown to a billion-dollar business under his auspices.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is not Jewish, but he deals with a minyan/beit din of Jewish owners: Al Davis (Oakland Raiders…baruch dayan ha’emet…who died this year on Shabbat Yom Kippur and whose soul is immediately admitted to heaven according to the Jewish tradition about this special day); Dan Snyder (Washington Redskins); Arthur Blank (Atlanta Falcons); Stan Kroenke (St. Louis Rams); Randy Lerner (Cleveland Browns); Robert Kraft (New England Patriots); Malcolm Glazer (Tampa Bay Buccaneers); Zygi Wilf (Minnesota Vikings); Jeffrey Lurie (Philadelphia Eagles); John Mara and Steve Tisch (New York Giants).

When Gather the Jews expands to London we can talk more about how Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber is Jewish, how many of the English Premier League owners are Jewish, and how the English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur is even nicknamed “The Yids.”

In Washington, D.C, many of the top sports officials are Jewish.  Dan Snyder, a fan of the Redskins from growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, has owned the team and its FedEx Field stadium since 1999.  The Redskins are the second-most valuable franchise in the NFL at $1.55 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

When he died in 2009, the Washington Wizard’s Abe Pollin had owned an NBA franchise for 46 years, longer than any other basketball owner.  The Jewish sports pioneer also owned the Washington Capitals of the NHL.  The Washington Wizards still have a Jewish president in charge of the team’s operations, Ernie Grunfeld.

Grunfeld joined the Wizards organization in 2003 and immediately put together a team that won a playoff series in 2005 for the first time in more than 20 years.  Born in Romania, Grunfeld came to the United States as a child and earned American citizenship right before representing the United States on the 1976 Olympic gold medal basketball team.  The current principal owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals, Ted Leonsis, has several Jewish partners through his Monumental Sports & Entertainment ownership group.

When professional baseball returned to Washington, D.C, with the Nationals, Major League Baseball operated the team until transferring ownership to the Jewish Lerner family.  Not only has the Lerner family been instrumental in giving the national pastime back to the national capital, but the family has also been tremendously philanthropic at community schools and George Washington University.

However the most colorful Washington sports owner of all time is Red Klotz.  Klotz formed the Washington Generals basketball team in 1953.  For over half a century the Generals have toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, who have wowed royalty and even popes with their basketball exhibitions that mix sports with showmanship and circus.  The Generals are the Globetrotters’ foil and have lost thousands of games while their wins have been in the single digits.  The Globetrotters are the heroes and the Generals the villains.  The Globetrotters get their story told all the time, but few actually know about how amazing the lovable losing Generals are.  Their story will be told in the next blog/parshah about Jews and sports…stay tuned…stop laughing.

Gather the Jews member Jonathan Horowitz (www.jjhorowitz.com) is the horse race announcer at Arapahoe Park and host of the show “A Day at the Races” on Altitude Sports TV in Denver. He also has authored The ONE and ONLY: A Sports Quiz Deck of Definitive Games, Teams, Players, and Events that will be published by Pomegranate Publishers in January 2012. If you would like to purchase a personal copy ($9.95), please contact him at jjhorowitz@gmail.com for details.