The best books about Jews and sports

R.D. Rosen Author Of Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc., and the Rise of the Modern NFL
By R.D. Rosen

Who am I?

I am an author whose works have spanned several genres, from mysteries (I won an Edgar for Strike Three You’re Dead), to psychology (I coined the word “psychobabble” and wrote a book about it), to humor (Bad Cat and Bad Dog were both bestsellers), and, more lately to nonfiction, including Such Good Girls, true story of three Jewish women who survived the Holocaust. I have worked in television as a comedian, writer, and producer, and as a senior editor in the publishing industry, but my first and enduring love is the magic of writing.

I wrote...

Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc., and the Rise of the Modern NFL

By R.D. Rosen,

Book cover of Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc., and the Rise of the Modern NFL

What is my book about?

It would be impossible to have stumbled on a true story that aligned with so many of my interests: professional football, organized crime, Jewish families and their secrets, and my Chicago suburban childhood.

When I discovered by chance that, in 1935, future Hall of Famer Sid Luckman’s father made New York headlines as a mobbed-up murderer who went to Sing Sing, at the same time that young Sid was making football headlines in the same papers, I was shocked that this story had been swept under the rug of history. I couldn’t not dive into this amazing saga of an 80-year-old secret. I had to gain the cooperation and confidence of Sid Luckman’s children to let me tell their father’s tragic story, which even they knew little about. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams

Why did I love this book?

Cohen, whose father grew up in Brooklyn in the shadow of Murder, Inc., has written a savvy, almost affectionate portrait of a world he knew only through his dad. It was a world in which murder was cheap, and sometimes otherwise decent men learned to kill those near and dear. Although Albert Fried’s The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America is more historically detailed, Tough Jews is the more colorful introduction to the milieu of the mob and its rackets—a milieu that had Sid Luckman’s father in its clutches.

By Rich Cohen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Tough Jews as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning writer Rich Cohen excavates the real stories behind the legend of infamous criminal enforcers Murder, Inc. and contemplates the question: Where did the tough Jews go?

In 1930s Brooklyn, there lived a breed of men who now exist only in legend and in the memories of a few old-timers: Jewish gangsters, fearless thugs with nicknames like Kid Twist Reles and Pittsburgh Phil Strauss. Growing up in Brownsville, they made their way from street fights to underworld power, becoming the execution squad for a national crime syndicate. Murder Inc. did for organized crime what Henry Ford did for the automobile,…

Book cover of Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy

Why did I love this book?

This is a wonderfully readable and innovatively structured biography of one of the two greatest Jewish major leaguers in history (along with Hank Greenberg). The famously reclusive Koufax, who like Luckman grew up in Brooklyn, declined to cooperate, but Leavy alternates her second-hand chronicle of Koufax’s life with chapters recounting, inning-by-inning, the night he no-hit the Chicago Cubs in 1965. These chapters are full of fascinating tangents and “inside baseball.” Despite Koufax’s reticence, the book feels intimate, taking you inside one of the sport’s most unlikely success stories.

By Jane Leavy,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Sandy Koufax as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The incomparable and mysterious Sandy Koufax is revealed…. This is an absorbing book, beautifully written.” —Wall Street Journal

“Leavy has hit it out of the park…A lot more than a biography. It’s a consideration of how we create our heroes, and how this hero’s self perception distinguishes him from nearly every other great athlete in living memory… a remarkably rich portrait.” — Time

The instant New York Times bestseller about the baseball legend and famously reclusive Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax, from award-winning former Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy. Sandy Koufax reveals, for the first time, what drove the three-time Cy…

Book cover of The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg

Why did I love this book?

As Dawidoff writes in this account of elusive Berg (1902-72), the major league catcher who also worked for the US as a spy, “[Hank] Greenberg punctured the stereotype that Jews were unathletic. Berg suggests that you could get a top education and be a ballplayer too.” A Princeton graduate who could speak twelve languages (but couldn’t hit in any of them), the OSS sent him to Germany during World War II to determine the state of Germany’s atomic bomb capacity. Rebuffed by the CIA after the war, the secretive, impoverished, self-consciously Jewish Berg became a world-wandering Jew. One of his prized possessions: a card that let him in for free to any major league stadium.

By Nicholas Dawidoff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Catcher Was a Spy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now a major motion picture starring Paul Rudd

“A delightful book that recounts one of the strangest episodes in the history of espionage. . . . . Relentlessly entertaining.”—The New York Times Book Review

Moe Berg is the only major-league baseball player whose baseball card is on display at the headquarters of the CIA. For Berg was much more than a third-string catcher who played on several major league teams between 1923 and 1939. Educated at Princeton and the Sorbonne, he as reputed to speak a dozen languages (although it was also said he couldn't hit in any…

Book cover of The Sphas: The Life and Times of Basketball's Greatest Jewish Team

Why did I love this book?

The little-known story of promoter Eddie Gottlieb’s South Philadelphia Hebrew Association team begins in the 1920s when professional basketball in this country was often played in a cage-encircled court to protect the athletes from the rabid fans in Philly and other cities in the hard-scrabble Eastern League. The unathletic Gottlieb kept the SPHAs at the top of the pack, along with Harlem’s all-Black Renaissance team. The story ends in the 1940s when helped organize the whites-only Basketball Association of American, the forerunner to the NBA. Gottlieb, who coached the original Philadelphia Warriors, spent the last 30 years of his life preparing each NBA season’s schedule by hand with a pencil and a legal pad.

By Doug Stark,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sphas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association's basketball team and the legends it spawned

Book cover of Luckman at Quarterback: Football as a Sport and a Career

Why did I love this book?

In 1949, while still playing for the Chicago Bears, Luckman (and a ghostwriter) penned this appealingly modest account of the quarterback’s early life. Since Luckman left no other writing behind, it’s an invaluable account of a “scrawny runt's" rise to national football celebrity by his 24th birthday. The most moving aspect of the book, for those in the know, is his silence about his father’s murder of Sid’s favorite uncle. Instead, he used a cover story for Dad’s disappearance and then kept his mouth shut for the rest of his life. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in baseball, Jewish history, and Philadelphia?

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