The umpire didn’t have to call “Game suspended” when a few dozen Orthodox men playing softball on a Catskills field a few years ago heard a child screaming. Down the road, at a Jewish bungalow colony in the middle of the once-and-still-Jewish Borscht Belt, a young non-Jewish girl had injured her foot in a traffic accident. The two teams-one composed of Modern Orthodox players, the other of Chassidim-dropped their bats and gloves and sprinted to the girl.
An ambulance hadn’t arrived yet.
“We were the first people at the scene,” remembers William Rapfogel, the executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty who is one of the players.
Two players, one from each team (and both trained members of the Hatzalah volunteer emergency medical corps), began administering first aid. Strangers to each other off the ball field, “they were acting as a unit,” Rapfogel says. “They knew what had to be done.”
For the grateful parents, the men with yarmulkes were a godsend, taking care of their daughter until she went to the hospital. “I could see it in [the parents'] faces,” says Rapfogel.
For the players in the thirty-three-year-old Orthodox Bungalow Baseball League (O.B.B.L.), which bills itself as the “largest organized sports league in the Orthodox Jewish world” and which a New York Times article called “a devout collection of rabble-rousers,” it was a tangible symbol of achdut, Jewish unity.
For a little more than two months, from the last Sunday morning in June until the Sunday before Labor Day, in the twenty-square-mile area where most of the Catskills frum bungalow colonies are located, men from Modern Orthodox, Chassidic, Yeshivish and Sephardic backgrounds, who live in different neighborhoods, daven in different shuls and travel in different circles the rest of the year, become teammates or friendly opponents.
“You play with each other. You play against each other,” says Rabbi Avrohom Kallus, an avid softball player. A kosher food inspector for New York State who lives in Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox Flatbush neighborhood, he is a chassid from a Munkatsch background.
“[The league] has brought lots of people together,” he says. “We have all kinds [of Jews] playing against all kinds.”
An outgrowth of five inter-bungalow teams, O.B.B.L. was formed in 1977 to give men-who generally join their families in the upstate New York vacation colonies during summer weekends to escape the heat of New York City-a chance to get some exercise and to get out of crowded bungalow homes for a few hours.
The league has steadily grown, fielding forty to fifty teams each year.
In games at modest bungalow colony ball fields and on the professionally maintained diamonds of Monticello High School, players, some in full baseball uniforms (with cleats on their shoes) and others in their Shabbos trousers and white shirts (wearing sneakers), play as equals.
Sometimes, wives and kids watch, sitting on the grass or on lawn chairs they’ve schlepped.
Over the years, the league has taken on a life of its own for the thousands of men-teens and retirees, native-born and sons of European immigrants, businessmen and lawyers, and rabbis and teachers-who throw and pitch and field.
One year, going outside the base path of sports, the league held a fundraising dinner for an Israeli charity. This year, O.B.B.L. will be the focus of an upcoming documentary on PBS about the Catskills.
The league has its own rules (no base stealing, no bunting), its own adjudication procedures (an informal beit din of three captains convenes on a bungalow porch the evening after a disputed game where there were no umpires), its own web site (www.obbl.com), its own team names (Lakeside Skullcaps, Yifei Nof Hillbillies, Lefkowitz Lions), its own twenty-six-page Captain’s Guide (complete with league rules, contact numbers, schedule and empty scoring sheets), its own rules of sportsmanship (a team lacking one player for a nine-man squad may ask the opponents to supply a catcher), its own form of celebrating (the division-winning teams sponsor a community-wide kiddush), and, of course, its own Yiddishe code of conduct.Yarmulkes fly off heads and tzitzis ride the wind as runners round bases and fielders dive for balls.
No pushing. No inappropriate language. “No matter how intense the game might get, all of us must show proper derech eretz [appropriate behavior] to each other,” Jerry Schreck, the long-time O.B.B.L. commissioner, warned in last season’s Captain’s Guide. “Now, more than ever, the final standings at the end of the season are not as critical as our personal standings a few weeks later during the Yamim Noraim.”
Through O.B.B.L., friendships and business deals are made and stereotypes are broken. After double-headers, everyone davens Minchah together. “It produces a change in attitude,” Rabbi Kallus says. People from Modern Orthodox circles, who have little interaction with Chassidim on a day-to-day basis, “see that we are as normal as they are. For some people it’s become an eye-opener.”
God willing, Rabbi Kallus says,the play will continue “until Mashiach comes.”
Who will Mashiach play for?
“He’s gonna ump,” says Rabbi Kallus.
“In a recreational setting, people lose their parochial attitudes,” says Schreck, who formed the league with his friend Milton Pfeiffer and now serves as commissioner emeritus, having passed the reins of O.B.B.L. leadership to Brooklyn attorney Yoel Zagelbaum.
On a ball field, says Rapfogel, “people are more willing to let down their payos. It’s a very different atmosphere.”
“This carries over” to the players’ relations back in New York, Rapfogel says.
A disproportionate number of the older players, it turns out, are the sons of Holocaust survivors-sons who readily picked up the softball version of the American pastime.
Most of the players learned the game, in some form, as softball or baseball or stickball or punch ball, on the streets and stoops of New York.
Most of them, they will tell you, look forward to the games throughout the year, discussing favorite memories at impromptu Bar Mitzvah or wedding reunions.
They’re the Boychiks of Summer.
“It’s part of the [New York] Orthodox sub-culture,” says Chaim Silber (nickname: Lobo), a computer leaser turned tzedakah distributor who ranks as a legendary O.B.B.L. figure. “It’s a guy thing,” he adds.
Several players facing off-season knee replacement surgery say they plan to return to the sport this summer.
Many of their wives, the players freely admit, think their interest in the sport is meshugah.
For Rabbi Yerachmiel Shlomo Rothenberg, dean of a boys’ yeshivah in Mountaindale, New York, his time playing on an O.B.B.L. team serves as a carryover from his softball and basketball games with his young students during the school year. The games, he says, reveal character. And they remove barriers.
One scholar who plays O.B.B.L. softball told Schreck, “Your greatest zechut [merit] so far is that you’re able to get thousands of guys up for minyan early on a Sunday morning.”
How seriously do the O.B.B.L. players take their softball?
So seriously, says Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly and a retired softball player, that opponents paid him no deference on the field, despite his prestigious political job and his position as one of the highest-ranking Orthodox politicians in the country. “Not at all,” he says. “These were hard-fought games.”
So seriously that one team captain, who was injured sliding into a base and required surgery, called Schreck before undergoing anesthesia in order to declare his objections to the commissioner’s new no-sliding rule.
So seriously that one talented Modern Orthodox woman surreptitiously joined a team several years ago, her ball cap hiding her long hair, until an opposing team discovered her true identity and enforced the league’s men-only policy.
So seriously that players still talk about “The Airplane Game.”
It took place about twenty years ago, an end-of-the-season contest between the Lobos and their archrival, Sackett Lake. A division championship was on the line.
Chaim Silber, who served as captain of the Lobos, and, inexplicably, was also allowed to umpire the game, wanted to unnerve his opponents.
So he hired an airplane.
Inspired by a plane he had seen dragging an advertising banner over the sands of Miami Beach, he drove to a local Sullivan County airport, where he engaged the pilot of a single-engine airplane to fly over the field during the championship game.
It was Orthodox one-upmanship. “Shtick-to make the game more exciting,” Silber says. Its message: “We have a plane. What do you have?”
The banner trailing the yellow plane said, “Let’s Go Lobos/Beat Sackett Lake/Three-peat O.B.B.L.”
“Nobody knew about it,” says Silber, whom the New York Times called the leader of “the most maniacal pack of rabbis, high school principals and pen importers in the Borscht Belt.”
The plane showed up over Monticello High School, on schedule, at 10:30 AM. Sackett Lake, behind in the game, was at bat in the third inning when the players heard it. Everyone looked up. Everyone looked at Silber. “They knew I was behind it,” he says. “People looked at me like I was crazy.”
The game stopped while the plane circled overhead for ten minutes, at about 800 feet.
The ploy backfired. Sackett Lake scored three runs in the third inning to take the lead. The plane, Silber says, “gave them incentive.” But in the end, the Lobos rallied to win the game 5-3.
The stunt cost Silber a few hundred dollars.
Was it worth it?
“Absolutely,” he says. “We still talk about ‘The Airplane Game.’”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the Jewish Week in New York.