The secular Jew’s religion, or why Paul Simon worships baseball

Even if he’d grown up in Chicago Paul Simon would never have rooted for the Cubs. The White Sox would have been a downer for him, too — all those decades of major league futility just aren’t his style. Simon doesn’t like losers, and doesn’t sympathize with them, either. He was, and remains, an acolyte of the New York Yankees, whose twenty-seven World Series championships (nearly three times the number of wins enjoyed by the St. Louis Cardinals, the second-most successful team) make them the most triumphant team in the history of Major League Baseball, hands, gloves, bats and caps down.

A lot of American kids (most? nearly all?) fixated on major league baseball during the first half of the 20th century, and the game held special meaning for assimilationist Jewish immigrants, and particularly for their American-born children, for whom their forebears’ old ways — the ancient rites of the synagogue; the vampiric garb of the orthodox; the Yiddish garbles of the motormouths on the corner — symbolized the older, deader world they had fled.

Born to immigrant parents in New York in 1915, Paul Simon’s father Louis grew quickly into a fervent baseball fan. In the New York of the 1920s the sport was inescapable. The dirt-and-grass fields next to the schools, the boys playing catch in the streets and sawing off broom handles to whack balls in every direction. It was on the front page of the newspaper, playing in the radio, babbling out of every boy’s open mouth. More than a pastime baseball was an American obsession. A heavily symbolic ritual that both bonded its citizens and struck immediate and overwhelming terror into the hearts of old-school Jewish parents. They were thinkers, intellectuals, tea-drinkers, ears-deep in the life of the mind. But this thing, this baseball game, was lawless and wild. Grown men waving bats and hurling hard balls at one another’s heads, leaping into the air, smashing the outfield walls, running headlong into another

The scene plays out vividly in the 1975 film Hester Street. Set among fresh immigrants in 1896, the central character Yankl — who quickly changes his name to Jake and rids himself of his traditional beard — horrifies his just-arrived wife when he welcomes his son to his new life by changing his name to Joey and snipping off his payot. To seal the deal Jake hands Joey a baseball and teaches him how to throw and catch. Based on an 1896 story by Abraham Cahan,  the pregnant imagery in the scene both reflected the ongoing controversy and foretold a public exchange the author would have seven years later in his column in the Jewish newspaper Forward with a newly-landed father desperate to steer his son away from the “crazy game” that threatened to physically shatter his sweet, fragile boy (“The children can get crippled!”) and, perhaps worse, transform him into “a wild American runner.” Cahan tried to steer the man to more reasonable ground, but a glance between the lines of his response revealed his own frustration with the image of the awkward, clueless American Jew. “It is a mistake to keep children locked up in the house,” he wrote. “Bring them up to be educated, ethical and decent, but also to be physically strong so they should not feel inferior.”

And so for young Jews the strong, wily baseballers were the opposite of the caricatures their bearded, brittle and determinedly out-of-it elders embodied. To appreciate the game’s many nuances, and perhaps even pick up a glove and learn to catch, hit, throw and slide into home, was to make a statement about who you were, or who you were in the process of becoming.

Nearly 50 years later the same fears of inferiority guided the formation of young Paul Simon’s major league belief system. His memories of his indoctrination into the game flutter with stick-waved pennants and bunting. There he is sitting on his father’s lap in front of the living room radio, the muttering ruminations and crisp report of the bat, the distant cheers and authoritative thump of a white ball snared by a thick leather glove. Louis was a Yankees man and so his tales described the pinstriped heroics of Gehrig and Ruth, the mightiest giants of their, or any, age. Paul adopted his father’s loyalties from the get-go, as young boys do. As he grew old enough to develop his own tastes and associations it would have been easy for Paul to switch one of the city’s other teams. So many other kids opted for the Brooklyn Dodgers or the Giants or even the not-so-distant Philadelphia Phillies. But Paul stuck with his pinstripes, and not by accident, either. If some fans were drawn to the Dodgers for being the Brooklyn Bums; the hard-luck warriors whose triumphs were sweeter for their rarity, or for their gutsy commitment to Jackie Robinson and desegregation, there was at least one kid in Queens who couldn’t look away from the Yankees’ triumphant legacy and perennially bright prospects.

Paul was in it for the long haul. So if he could choose between associating himself with a proven winner or a slightly battered underdog his decision was only too obvious. And the boy took his pin-striped allegiance seriously. So seriously that when Louis took him to see the Brooklyn team at Ebbets Field during their pennant-winning summer of 1949 the seven-year-old was so frightened someone would mistake him for a Dodgers fan he spent the afternoon wearing a Lone Ranger mask. He already had taller shoulders upon which to stand.


Homeward Bound
The Life of Paul Simon

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