Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Jewish Sports Journalist

I finally got around to seeing the play "Ernie" last week. The play focuses on the life of the late Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who in Detroit is just as legendary a figure as the greats who actually played the game like Greenberg and Kaline. The play was as good as the reviews, but as I exited the theater my mind focused less on the life of Ernie Harwell and more on the life of the writer of the play, Mitch Albom.

It has often been said that a Jewish boy has a better chance of owning a professional sports team than playing on one. And with the dearth of Jewish pro athletes and the disproportionate amount of Jewish owned teams, that might be true. But, lately I've been thinking about all the Jewish guys who at some point in their lives determined that they'd rather write and talk about their favorite sports than play them.

I first started reading Mitch Albom's sports columns when he arrived in Detroit in 1985 to write for the Detroit Free Press. As a young boy I found his columns masterful. Albom didn't just cover my beloved local Detroit sports teams and their athletes; his prose told the hidden stories of the athletes and what made watching these games such a magical experience.

The idea that there is some gravitational pull for Jewish boys to become sportswriters, sportscasters and sports commentators is something that I've been thinking about since November 7, 2011. That evening I sat in a crowded social hall at Congregation Shaarey Zedek and watched as Mitch Albom was installed in the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. As a member of the nominating committee for this local sports Hall of Fame the fact wasn't lost on me that the most famous inductee that year was someone who has used a pen, typewriter or keyboard to achieve his success in the field of sports and not a baseball bat, hockey stick or basketball.

Each year when our nominating committee meets we discuss just as many deserving candidates who made their name in sports journalism rather than on the playing field. After all, for a number of years in Detroit there was a lead sports anchor on the news of each of the four local networks. With Don Shane on the ABC affiliate, Bernie Smilovitz on NBC, Eli Zaret on CBS and Jim Berk on Fox, a young kid could be forgiven if he thought one had to be of the Jewish faith to be a sportscaster in Detroit. Zaret will be inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame this October and Don Shane was inducted five years ago. Today, the most well known voice on sports radio in Michigan is Mike "Stoney" Stone who serves as the master of ceremonies at these induction ceremonies each year now that Shane has retired to Arizona.

Mike "Stoney" Stone with Mitch Albom at the 2011 Michigan Jewish Hall of Fame Induction

While a discussion about whether these talented sports journalists deserve entry into the Hall of Fame ensues each year our nominating committee sits down to decide on the new class of inductees, there is no question that they have added so much to the game. Their knowledge of sports is second to none and their commentary makes watching sports more exciting. I'm sure these same discussions occurred over fifteen years ago when Al Ackerman was voted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Ackerman never ran for a touchdown, scored a winning goal or hit a homerun for any Detroit sports team, but Detroit sports wouldn't be what they are without Ackerman's 25 years of contributions as a premier sports journalist. The last time the Detroit Tigers won the World Series was in 1984 and it was Ackerman who coined the slogan "Bless You Boys" for that memorable team. Another notable inductee is the late George Cantor who was inducted posthumously. Cantor covered the Detroit Tigers and University of Michigan football for decades.

The list of names of famous Jews in sports journalism is an impressive one. Dick Schaap, Marv Albert, Mel Allen, Len Berman, Howard Cosell, Roy Firestone, Mike Greenberg, Chris Berman, and Michael Greenberg just to name a few. And the list isn't reserved for men only as female sportscasters like Linda Cohn and Bonnie Bernstein are familiar names to fans of ESPN SportsCenter and The Dan Patrick Show, and Andrea Kremer made a name for herself covering Super Bowls, NBA Finals and MLB All-Star Games for several decades. Dick Schaap's son Jeremy Schaap has taken the baton from his dad and carved out a nice career as a sportswriter and reporter on ESPN winning multiple Emmy Awards.

With the amount of successful Jewish sportswriters and sports commentators, it's no surprise that many young Jewish sports fans aspire to become professionals in this field. Zachary Tennen is one of them. Over the past few months I've gotten to know this talented college student who has dreams of becoming a professional sports journalist. Zach Tennen, who grew up in the suburban Detroit area, is transferring from Michigan State University to the University of Arizona in Tucson to hone his writing skills. Zach is already a published basketball commentator on the isportsweb network and has his own blog -- Zach Tennen on Basketball -- on which he gives his analysis of the NBA and its players.

Zach Tennen blogs about the NBA on isportsweb

I enjoy reading Zach's frequent blog posts; not only because its nice to hear a young perspective on professional basketball, but also because the wonderment of professional sports hasn't yet faded as it sadly does in older professional sportswriters. I'm looking forward to seeing where Zach's ambitions take him in the future and I will not be surprised if he finds himself among the crop of successful sports journalists in the future.

In the iconic scene from the movie "Airplane!" a flight attendant offers a thin leaflet titled "Jewish Sports Legends" to a passenger on the plane. There's certainly some truth in that joke, but the success of Jews in sports journalism is no laughing matter. Athletic prowess among Jews might be rare, but if you're looking for someone to analyze college and professional sports in print or on television, history has shown that the Jewish people are well represented for that job.


Rabbi Samuel Press said...

As always great.

In National hall of Fame is Si Burick, sports writer in Dayton, OH. His father was first rabbi of Beth Abraham here.

He was an outstanding person, mensch, as well as writer.

Sandy Press

James Gurland said...

Better than the most recent achievement of a certain jewish athlete who at least "mea culpaed"....

David Gottesman said...

Nice piece. I may be the only Detroiter who doesn't consider Mitch Albom to be a sportswriter anymore, nor am I a fan of his pieces on sports. I'm a big fan of his philanthropic efforts though and his passion for Detroit. He's diversified his writing talents, and is far less connected to sports than the others you mentioned.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

I think Mitch Albom is still a sportswriter, although he's better known on the national scene for his books. He still covers Detroit sports and does it very well. Even on his radio show, which covers all subjects, I find that his analysis of sports is right on.

Another great local talent is Michael Rosenberg, who covered sports for the Freep, but unfortunately (fortunately for him) he left Michigan to take a new job with Sports Illustrated | in NYC. He had a cover story for SI recently about the Bash Brothers: Prince and Miggy.

David Gottesman said...

Also, Mark Snyder of the Free Press. I appreciate Albom, he's a brilliant writer, and a great talent. I just haven't considered him a sportswriter since he gave up his radio show, started writing columns on subjects other than sports, and started writing books unrelated to sports (which are a good read). Everyone you mentioned in your article are true sportswriters being that their main focus for their job is to follow and report on sports. And though they're not Jewish, the Free Press has produced some great talents that have moved on to the national scene like Jemele Hill (ESPN) and Nick Costonikas (Yahoo), and Dan Wetzel (Yahoo) lives in the Detroit area (Berkley, I think). And though he's not a sportswriter, Rabbi Jason Miller could be considered a great writer as well. Again, nice entry.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

David Gottesman: I would have included Mark (Bloomfield Hills Andover High School '95) but he's not on the national scene quite yet. I did mention the 4 local TV sports guys who were all on the local networks at the same time: Don Shane, Bernie Smilovitz, Eli Zaret and Jim Berk.

Rabbi Beverly Weintraub Magidson said...

Interesting - but you missed Shirley Povich, who covered sports for the Washington Post for decades. He (when he grew up in Maine, Shirley was also a man's name) was married to my father's cousin. He was truly a master, not to take away from the others you mentioned.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Beverly: I couldn't name them all, but you are correct. Maury Povich's dad was a well-known sports writer for the Post. Thanks for adding his name to the mix.

Jim Berk said...

Very nice article Jason....and thanks for the mention of me. An interesting footnote: when I first arrived in town in 1983 from Florida, I worked at the NBC affiliate (WDIV) and all 4 of us in the sports department were Jewish. Al Ackerman, Don Shane, Eli Zaret & myself. Being the low guy on the so-called totem pole, I was so worried about whether I could get off for the high holidays. Fortunately, one of the other guys wasn't as religious and I was able to go to shul ! Whew !

Thanks again.

Jim Berk

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Jim: Great story! Thanks!

Shirley Foon Wiss said...

Dear Rabbi Jason, I really enjoyed reading your article about Ernie Harwell, and some of the great sports players. Your writing is articulate, and interesting. Fondly, Shirley Foon Wiss

David Blatt said...

Jason, well done and very informative!
I wish Mitch was more involved with MJSF
David J. Blatt, Executive Director
Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation

Judy Grossman said...

Terrific piece Rabbi.

Ron Foon said...

Fine article Rabbi Jason. It is pretty amazing that there were 4 highly regarded Jewish Sports anchors on all 4 networks during the same period of time. It was difficult to choose which channel to watch. Ron