Jewish football coach helped merit chip away at Harvard’s elite social status
(February 1, 2023 / JNS) When Harvard University appointed Bill Bingham athletic director — a pioneering role in college sports at the time in 1926 — the alumnus promised to return the game to student-athletes. He hired Arnold Horween as head football coach to bring back the “fun”. The duo did that and more.
“Before that, there was a lot of talk about Harvard football players going through the motions, playing dispassionately, just because it was the path to acclaim and a leadership position on Wall Street,” said Zev Eleff, chairman. from Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. “Bingham and Horween have turned things around and rewarded hard work and rekindled the love of sport and fun.”
Eleff’s upcoming book “Dyed in Crimson: Football, Faith, and Remaking Harvard’s America” tells the story, he told JNS, of how those on the periphery of life American can leave a significant mark on the mainstream.
In the 1920s, the Brahmins of Boston, wealthy New Englanders and descendants of the Puritans, ran Harvard. Football provided a site where a working-class Protestant (Bingham), an Irish Catholic (freshman coach Eddie Casey), and a Midwestern Jew (Horween) could eliminate that elitism and replace status with merit.
“They’re propelling a sleepy team to the Rose Bowl,” Eleff said.
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As today, Harvard was at the forefront of elite American culture. That hasn’t changed, and maybe never, according to Eleff. “What happens at Harvard matters. We tend to think of it as a walled citadel, out of step with the outside,” he said. “Here’s a story that challenges that assumption.”
Harvard recently made headlines for offering, denying and then re-offering a scholarship to an activist accused of anti-Israel bias. A century ago, as a Jewish Chicagoan put Harvard football on the map, A. Lawrence Lowell, the university’s president from 1909 to 1933, imposed quotas on Jewish students.
“It’s important to remember that Harvard, like any university, is a complicated organization with many stakeholders. A decision in one sector often does not reflect the entire university,” Eleff told JNS. “I see all of these decisions as choices or contingencies. Back on the football field in the 1920s, stakeholders – coaches, alumni, presidents – had to make decisions. The same is true now.
Harvard Crimson football team brothers and teammates Arnold Horween (right) and Ralph Horween (left). Source: Morning Oregonian via Wikimedia Commons.
A former Harvard team captain, Horween went on to run the family’s successful leather goods business in Chicago and served as a trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He and his brother Ralph played in the National Football League in 1923 — a feat that wouldn’t be repeated in the NFL until 2012, when Jewish brothers Mitchell Schwartz and Geoff Schwartz played for the Browns and Vikings, respectively.
Horween was already a Harvard graduate when Lowell’s Jewish quotas were instituted. But his notoriety in Cambridge, Mass., challenged both Harvard’s president and his elite culture “which aimed to keep outsiders, well, out of their school,” Eleff said.
Steven Riess, professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and editor of the 1998 book “Sports and the American Jew,” reviewed the book months ago and sees things differently. “The argument is stronger than the evidence,” he told JNS.
Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League were becoming increasingly anti-Semitic at the time, and Riess told JNS that it was delusional to view Jewish involvement in Harvard sports as a sign that fortune and Jewish reputations were changing in Cambridge.
In 1922, a committee of Yale University alumni investigated the basketball program after a team of Jewish players from the Atlas Club defeated Yale’s All-Nice team 42-22 in a a charity game in front of the largest crowd in New Haven history, according to Riess. ‘ book. The committee blamed anti-Semitic coaching, and after recruiting Jewish players, Yale went in 1923 from “the basement to the championship,” he wrote.
But talented Jewish players were exceptions to the rule, whose athletic prowess eclipsed their Jewish identity rather than being public examples that frustrated anti-Semites and nudged them toward inclusivity, Riess told JNS.
“Winning replaced everything,” Riess said. “If you had a Jewish star, go get her. But if you were another Jew, they didn’t need you.
“You must have been very special if you were Jewish,” he added.
Despite significant Jewish athletic achievements in the Olympics, boxing, and fencing in the United States and Europe, Jews in the 1920s were not considered physically fit. Instead, Jews were viewed as physically incompetent, effeminate and weak, according to Riess.
Jewish men were the largest ethnic group that fought for Germany in World War I, for example. “They don’t get credit for it,” Riess said. And some of the best boxers in England in the late 18th century and early 19th century, who later came to America, were Jews. This was also the case with the best football players in Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century.
“Everybody was jealous of those Jews. It was so bad for the Hungarians. The Jews even surpassed them at football,” Riess said.
Today, Jews get more credit as athletes, he said. And the public considers more athletes to be Jewish than a century ago. Max Baer – who beat famed German champion Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in 1933 – wore a Star of David on his boxing shirt, but since his mother was not Jewish, the public didn’t see him as such, according to Riess .
Eleff’s research for the book took him in a different direction, and he argues that sports, especially football at Harvard, paved the way for Jewish acceptance.
One of the youngest presidents of higher education in the United States – former academic director of the Hebrew Theological College and vice-president of Touro College Illinois – Eleff has long been a big sports fan, especially football. He accidentally stumbled upon what was to become the basis of the book, and his wife Melissa suggested pursuing it further.
“I had discovered Horween in the context of a ‘myth’. People had created a story that he had to change his name when he applied to Harvard to avoid quotas,” Eleff said. “He changed his name, but to play for the Chicago Cardinals of the NFL, later. When I realized the story wasn’t true, I knew there was more to it.
The book gave him the opportunity to connect with his passions for football, American Jewish history, and religious history.
What does he hope readers take away from the volume? “The role of contingencies,” Eleff said. “History is made by the choices we make. It happened in the sporting lives of Bill Bingham, Arnold Horween and Eddie Casey.