Book Review | The Voice Behind the ‘SWISH!’

By | Sep 11, 2023
Book Review, Fall 2023

Marty Glickman: The Life of an American Jewish Sports Legend
By Jeffrey S. Gurock
NYU Press, 248 pp.

For more than four decades after he was suddenly and unceremoniously removed from participation in the 100-meter relay race at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Marty Glickman—then a young athlete, later a beloved voice of New York sports radio—vaguely and quietly chalked up the greatest disappointment of his life to “politics.” Not to antisemitism, not to a craven caving by the U.S. team to Adolf Hitler, who staged the games as a Nazi propaganda
show—only to be embarrassed by the Black American runner Jesse Owens’s four gold medal performances.

But starting in 1979, in the twilight of his career as one of the nation’s most influential sportscasting voices, Glickman pivoted to the truth. In a series of interviews—first in an oral history recorded for the American Jewish Committee and then in The Boston Globe—he detailed how U.S. Olympics officials, including Olympic committee president Avery Brundage, had pulled Glickman and his fellow Jewish sprinter Sam Stoller from the four-man relay lineup just a day before the event, despite a plea from Owens to let his two Jewish teammates run.

Although some Jewish athletes had refused to attend Hitler’s Olympics, Glickman had gone along with the bulk of U.S. athletes, Jewish or gentile, who declined requests by the American Jewish Congress and anti-Nazi groups to boycott the Berlin games. Glickman believed Jewish success at the games could help “disprove this myth of Aryan superiority,” he recalled later.

But on the eve of Glickman’s event, U.S. coaches did an about-face, replacing Glickman and Stoller with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, two Black runners who were the fastest sprinters on the American squad. Glickman’s lifelong dream of competing for Olympic gold was over.

In subsequent decades, he put together a trailblazing career as a sports announcer. When I was growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, Glickman’s staccato “Swish!” call on a Knicks basket that hit only net, no rim or backboard, was such a signature expression of athletic skill that kids on the city’s playgrounds shouted it out in his speedy, nasal delivery.

Narrating our own schoolyard hoops games, we imitated Glickman, just as kids in later years would channel sportscaster Marv Albert. But I don’t think any of us gave a moment’s thought to the idea that Glickman had been a world-class athlete himself, or had played a cameo in the war against Nazism.

“Rage,” Glickman would write in a poem after visiting Berlin again half a century later. “Those dirty sons of bitches, Hitler…and Brundage, especially Brundage…The anger is spilling out. An anger I stored up all those years.”

Why did Glickman—a just-the-facts play-by-play announcer who disdained sportscasters such as Howard Cosell who made themselves and their opinions the star of the show—wait so long to open up about the ugly spinelessness that led his coach and Brundage to exclude the only Jews on the U.S. track team?

A postcard signed by Marty Glickman (left) and Sam Stoller. They are pictured on the S.S. Manhattan en route to the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Comfort)

In his fast-reading, often fascinating but occasionally frustrating biography of Glickman, Jeffrey Gurock, a historian at Yeshiva University, theorizes that the sportscaster basically followed the arc of attitudes that characterized much of Jewish America during and after the Holocaust: a silence and amnesia born of a fear of alienating Christian Americans, followed by a period of growing confidence and pride that paved the way for a bolder assertion of Jewish identity and a more probing approach to the traumas and tragedies of the Shoah.

Glickman’s personal journey would fit neatly into that narrative of American Jewry, except for the fact, made clear through Gurock’s own reporting, that the broadcaster had his own reasons for his decades of silence. He wanted to be seen as an upbeat guy who would never use his Judaism as an excuse for any setback in life; he always believed he could deploy his confidence and talent to overcome discrimination, and his financial insecurities prevailed over any desire to tell his full story.

Gurock sees Glickman’s late-in-life decision to state bluntly that “We were replaced to save Hitler…from embarrassment by having Jews compete and stand on the winning podium” as a symbol of second-generation American Jews leaving what Gurock calls the “comfortable cocoons of their own ethnicity” to finally confront their haters.

But this framing ultimately detracts from a strong story about a gifted track and football athlete who starred at home in Brooklyn, transferred his dominance to an overtly antisemitic atmosphere at Syracuse University and then invented his own career by persuading radio executives that, contrary to their stereotypes about basketball, the sport could be every bit as popular on the air as baseball or football. He advocated for basketball in an era when it was dismissed by some as a sport for Jews: The game “appeals to the Hebrew [because it] places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartalecness,” Paul Gallico, sports editor of New York’s Daily News, wrote in the mid-1930s.

The book is dotted with delightful tidbits about Glickman’s pioneering achievements. Best known for his coverage of the New York Giants and Jets NFL teams, the New York Knicks of the NBA and a slew of college teams, he was one of the first sportscasters to adapt the storytelling techniques of baseball announcers to the faster pace of basketball. (It helped that Glickman “could speak as quickly as he could run,” as Gurock writes.) His pioneering calls—not just “Swish!” but also his use of “top of the key” to describe near-the-basket play and his football field goal pronouncement, “It’s high enough, it’s deep enough, it’s through there!”—inspired generations of broadcasters who followed him, including some of his mentees, such as Albert (“Yes!”) and Ian Eagle (“Book it!”).

Glickman’s rapid-fire delivery and Brooklyn accent—The New York Times’s George Vecsey once described his voice as an amalgam of “the toughness of the sidewalks, the speed of Spaldeens and the richness of egg creams”—made him recognizably Jewish to many listeners, even before he sprinkled Yiddish words and phrases into his broadcasts. These included meshuga, kvetch and farmatert, the last of which Glickman translated as “deadbeat.”

And Glickman didn’t exactly hide his heritage. In a business in which announcers with ethnic-sounding names were frequently asked or required to adopt anodyne stage names, Glickman resisted such pressure and kept his name and accent, even though he came to believe, with good evidence, that those decisions had precluded him from parlaying his New York success into a national media platform. Name changes were routine for Jews in Hollywood, but such shifts were also common in sportscasting: Melvin Israel to Mel Allen, Marvin Aufrichtig to Marv Albert.

Glickman’s insistence that a name change would be an affront to other Jews had consequences: In 1953, NBA president Maurice Podoloff told Glickman he could not continue as the voice of basketball on NBC because the NBA couldn’t afford to be viewed as “a very Jewish league.”

Despite such episodes, Gurock’s efforts to connect Glickman to the larger narrative of American Jewish struggles over assimilation and identity sometimes seem forced. Repeatedly, he writes, based only on a surmise, that Glickman “had to have” been annoyed or moved or angered by one or another example of antisemitic discrimination that took place in his proximity. Such awkward speculation isn’t necessary; what is knowable about Glickman’s story is powerful enough.

Much as Glickman sought to put his career and family above the colossal disappointment of being blocked from his Olympic dreams back in 1936, his exclusion gnawed at him throughout his life, especially when his former coach told audiences not to believe stories about the removal of Jews from the race.

Still, Glickman kept his rage in check. He didn’t even tell the full story to his own children until his daughter Nancy asked him about it after seeing a documentary on Owens in junior high school.

In the final chapter of his long career—Glickman died in 2001 at the age of 83—he confronted Americans not only with his own story, but with a parallel slight to his immigrant father many years earlier. Back in Romania, Marty’s father, who would later change his name from Hermann to Harry to be more American, won a 100-meter dash at school, but rather than celebrate a Jewish kid, the school gave the prize to the mayor’s son. Later, Harry Glickman, eager for his children to be totally American, spoke neither Romanian nor Yiddish at home, and the family lived and breathed sports as an on-ramp to American culture.

Gurock’s portrait contains hardly a critical word about Marty Glickman. His father’s conviction on bankruptcy fraud charges is barely mentioned. There’s a passing reference to a contract dispute that ended Glickman’s long relationship with the Giants, but no details are presented. And the book sadly does not include extended quotations that might give readers a richer flavor of Glickman’s play-by-play style.

But what the biography captures well is the hole in the heart of the voice New Yorkers knew as the soul of the Knicks and Giants. It wasn’t until 1998 that the U.S. Olympic Committee, which had decided against honoring Glickman and Stoller at the 1996 Games in Atlanta because they didn’t want to make a “political statement,” finally apologized to the Jewish runners. Stoller had already passed away, but the committee offered Glickman a medal and an award. He accepted the award, but turned down the medal; he would not take a phony substitute.

Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post and author of After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History. 

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One thought on “Book Review | The Voice Behind the ‘SWISH!’

  1. Bob Barnes says:

    Wow! What a terrific story about a real American and Jewish hero, Marty Glickman. Many in my class of 1959 at New Rochelle High School remember Marty as he broadcast the TV games on Thanksgiving Day in New Rochelle. Quite something at the time. Mr. Glickman’s story is almost legendary in Westchester County and the greater New York area to old-timers like me. On a personal level, Marty’s daughter, Nancy, was my first true love. She was so gorgeous she never even noticed me. But love is blind. As captain of the cheerleading squad, she had me enjoying being near “my love” even more than viewing the game. I hope she is alive and well as dignified and proper as she was in high school.

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