Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

December 30, 2004-January 5, 2005

naked city

They Took Their Shots

Stars of Eddie: Members of Gottlieb's Philadelphia SPHAs circa the 1920s.
Stars of Eddie: Members of Gottlieb's Philadelphia SPHAs circa the 1920s. : courtesy of PHiladelphia Jewish sports hall of fame

Gil Fitch, a member of Philadelphia's all-Jewish SPHAs basketball team in the 1930s, reflects on violence in sports.

When he heard the recent furor about violence at basketball games, Gil Fitch said it felt like old times. As a player for the Philadelphia SPHAs in the 1930s — when anti-Semitism was rampant — Fitch, the 6-foot-tall, dark-haired matinee idol of the team, and other Jewish ballplayers found themselves on the receiving end of insults and physical assaults. But Fitch, 95 and living in California, and his teammates on the all-Jewish SPHAs never went into the stands to retaliate. In fact, they were under instruction by their owner and coach, Eddie Gottlieb, to bear the attacks stoically. Besides, says Fitch, the last surviving SPHA from the '30s, "You'd have to be stupid to run into the stands, and none of our guys were fools."

"Gottlieb was a proud Jew," said Harry Litwack in an interview at his Northeast Philadelphia home before his death in 1999. He was one of Gottlieb's players, and he went on to coach Temple University basketball from 1947 to 1973. "Gottlieb would say, "Let's show them up by winning on the court,'" recalled Litwack.

After owning and coaching the SPHAs for almost 30 years, Gottlieb coached the Philadelphia Warriors to their first NBA championship and became an executive with the National Basketball Association.

The SPHAs (pronounced "Spahs" and short for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) won five professional championships in the 1920s and seven national championships between 1933 and 1946 in the American Basketball League. The SPHAs were more than an all-Jewish team; they were a team that flaunted their Jewishness. "We played harder because we were representing our people," said Litwack. "Because we were Jews, we often had hostile crowds who wanted to see us killed."

"They'd throw stuff at you," recalls Fitch, for whom the November Pacers-Pistons melee in Detroit brought to mind a very specific incident. "I saw Harry Litwack get smashed on the head with a Coke bottle during a game in Union City, and blood was oozing down his face." Then, the police did not intervene. The bottle-wielder was not arrested, recalls Fitch.

But that was not an isolated incident. Fitch remembers being jabbed with ladies' hat pins and insulted by anti-Semitic fans. "They could throw a drink at you as you went by or touch you with a lighted cigarette as you stood there to take a ball out."

Because of anti-Jewish hostility, Gottlieb wanted to prove that Jews were every bit as capable at basketball as non-Jews, Fitch says. "We all grew up with anti-Semitism around us. On the way to and from school, Christian kids would yell "kike' or "Christ-killer' at us. It may be hard for people today to understand this, but all of us had experiences of being beaten up because of our religion."

Sportswriter-turned-Hollywood screenwriter Budd Schulberg wrote in a Ring magazine article at the time how he "tasted the fists and felt the shoe-leather of righteous Irish and Italian children" who accused him of killing Christ.

"When Hitler and his crowd came to power in Germany, things got even worse," remembers Fitch. "The German-American Bund [organization] wore Nazi uniforms and paraded and had anti-Jewish rallies. We were all upset about what was happening and there was nothing we could do about it."

When they founded the SPHAs in 1918, Gottlieb, Harry Passon and Hughie Black realized that an all-Jewish team could attract non-Jewish fans as well. "Half the fans would come to see the Jews killed," said Black, according to his son, Marv Black, "and the other half were Jews coming to see our boys win. Ironically, we played most of our early games in churches against teams sponsored by churches."

Alexander "Petey" Rosenberg was a SPHA from 1940 until he was drafted to serve in World War II. Like many others of his generation, Rosenberg observed that Jews were treated as second-class citizens.

"We knew there would always be obstacles against Jews, and there was nothing we could do or say to change the situation," Rosenberg said in an interview before he died in 1997. "On the court, at least, we had a way to fight back a little bit."

"There was so much anti-Semitism then that Eddie wanted to jam it down everyone's throat and let the world know that his team was Jewish and a Jewish team could hold its own," says Fitch.

All they could do, Gottleib told them, was go out on the court wearing Hebrew letters on their shirts and become champions. According to Litwack, "Gotty said that the best way to answer them was to be the best team in basketball." It's good advice, especially for today's players, some of whom don't seem to realize how good they have it. "When people in the crowd said "get those Jews' or "kill those Jews' we played extra hard," Litwack recalled. "We had to stick together, and we had to fight to defend our people."

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