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Book Review: Marty Glickman: The Life of American Jewish Sports Legend---So It Was Antisemitism afterall

by Dr. Rafael Medoff, posted here Dec 22, 2023

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about American Jewish history and the Holocaust.)

 

    A long-running mystery related to the Nazi Olympics of 1936 has finally been solved—and it has yielded an important lesson about the American Jewish experience as well.

 

    Prof. Jeffrey S. Gurock, the dean of historians of American Jewry, unravels this puzzle, and much more, through the lens of the life of Marty Glickman, an iconic figure in the New York sports world as the radio announcer, for more than two decades, for the New York Knicks and the New York Giants. 

 

    Marty Glickman: The Life of American Jewish Sports Legend, newly published by New York University Press, is an eminently readable story of Jews and sports, rich with riveting anecdotes and nostalgic charm. But it is also a compelling scholarly analysis of broader Jewish concerns that are as relevant today as ever. 

 

    Like many sports announcers, Glickman was himself a former athlete, a star in both football and track at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School in the early 1930s. It was in his senior year that Glickman’s life began to mirror the tapestry of the American Jewish experience in the interwar period. 

 

    That was when a group of Jewish alumni of Syracuse University decided to try to recruit the teen dynamo to attend their alma mater. While the alumni looked forward to the prospect of such a sterling addition to the Syracuse sports community, really “they were out for much bigger game,” as Prof. Gurock puts it; they hoped the presence of a star Jewish athlete on campus would help undermine the university’s strict quota on Jews. His success would “make it easier for other Jewish students to be admitted,” the alumni told him bluntly. Glickman’s life was no longer entirely his own; he was becoming a symbol.

 

    In his freshman year at Syracuse, at the age of 18, Glickman qualified for the U.S. Olympic team that would take part in the 1936 games in Nazi Germany. A handful of athletes—non-Jews as well as Jews—who were likely to qualify for the Olympics declined to take part in the Nazi Olympics, as a protest against Hitler’s persecution of Germany Jewry. But most other athletes, including Glickman, accepted the prestigious invitation to Berlin.

 

    Glickman’s dream of international athletic stardom was shattered, however, when, at the very last minute, the U.S. coaches benched him and another Jewish track star, Sam Stoller, without explanation. (One of their replacements was Jesse Owns, the African-American speedster whose gold medal performance in Berlin confounded Adolf Hitler’s racial theories.) Historians have long suspected that the antisemitic head of the U.S. Olympic team, Avery Brundage, was responsible for ousting Glickman and Stoller in order to spare Hitler the possible embarrassment of Jewish runners defeating their German rivals. 

 

    But Glickman himself wouldn’t say so. “Then, and for decades thereafter, Glickman would use vague terms to publicly depict what had transpired,” Gurock writes. “When queried, Glickman kept to himself his own certain belief that anti-Semitism…was the reason he was not permitted to run and triumph.” The most he would say out loud was that “politics” had been involved, and that he was “greatly disappointed.”

 

    Glickman’s position reflected the tenor of the times. His “reticence to call out prejudice and create an uproar over anti-Semitism was in line with the way many Jews—perhaps most Jews—of that era dealt with Jew-hatred,” Gurock explains. “They were nonconfrontational, concerned about what aggressive responses might mean for their status as members of a minority group.”

 

    Putting his past far behind him, Glickman rose to sports broadcasting fame in the late 1940s, a time when few Americans owned televisions and therefore sports fans were heavily reliant on radio announcers. Glickman’s contrarian yet personable manner, wealth of knowledge, and dramatic touch endeared him to New Yorkers. The fact that he used commonly known Yiddish words on air made him even more of a beloved figure to the city’s Jewish community.

 

    In the decades to follow, Glickman rarely spoke about the events of 1936, and when he did, he continued to avoid blaming antisemitism for his exclusion. Even at the time of the Palestinian Arab terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Glickman was repeatedly asked by journalists about his experience in Berlin, he held his tongue on the antisemitism question.

 

    Then suddenly, in a 1979 oral history interview for the American Jewish Committee, Glickman let loose. “In order to save the Nazis from more embarrassment,” he said bluntly, “the Jews were kept off the team by an American Nazi named Avery Brundage…”

 

    It was not a one-time utterance; a dam inside Marty Glickman had burst. In his commentary in 1980 on the Moscow Olympics controversy, in interviews with reporters, in lectures to various audiences, and in a documentary film, Glickman said unequivocally that he had been a victim of antisemitism. So what had changed to make him finally unburden himself?

 

    The answer, Prof. Gurock persuasively argues, is that, once again, Glickman reflected the times. By the late 1970s, “a new era of American Jewish self-confidence was underway as this minority group increasingly felt accepted within American society,” Gurock notes. The new generation did not worry nearly as much about what non-Jews thought “about how they looked, sounded or behaved…They would not let those who would marginalize them get away with their prejudices.”

 

    In this environment, where a new generation of Jews truly felt at home in America, Marty Glickman was at long last ready to speak his truth about what happened to him in 1936. Glickman’s experience thus is not only the compelling story of an individual, but also a coming of age tale about American Jewry. Jeffrey Gurock brings to this story the unparalleled scholarship and keen insights that have always been the hallmarks of his work.

 
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