The making of the greatest Jewish athlete ever (according to Hebsy)

Ida Schnall, America's champion athlete, mid to late 1910s. She was a swimmer, Olympic diver, baseball player, and fitness instructor. The tall trophy was awarded in San Francisco in 1915 for being America's most beautifully formed woman. (Photo by Adam Glickman/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

This is the second in a four-part series by Mark Hebscher for The Canadian Jewish News. If you missed the first part you should start reading here.

Bernard Schnall and Priva Perlmutter were both born and raised in the shtetl of Tarnobrzeg, Austria (now Poland), and married in 1884. The couple had eight children between 1885 and 1906. 

Their fourth child, born Aug. 27, 1889, was the only one who wasn’t a boy.

The father of Ida Schnall—the greatest Jewish athlete of all time—found work as a peddler until he made enough money to start his own business, manufacturing cloaks and suits. 

Soon, he purchased a nice home in the city of Tarnow, some 100 kilometres south of Tarnobrzeg, and moved his family, and thriving business there. About half of Tarnow’s residents were Jewish, but they differed ideologically from those who lived in shtetls, ranging from Hasidic to secular.

The Schnalls didn’t raise their children to be particularly observant, according to Ida’s grandchildren. (High Holidays, yes. The rest of the time, not so much.)

But they were an exceptionally gifted athletic family with the means to pursue such activities as gymnastics, track and field, tennis and soccer. Ida wasn’t allowed to partake in any of those activities, especially after she took a nasty fall while performing a gymnastics move. 

And there was another reason why she wasn’t allowed to play sports. She was a girl.

Ida Schnall photographed by the Howard Chandler Christy. (Courtesy: The Carver Family)

The family home in Tarnow was opposite a military base. From her bedroom window, Ida would watch the soldiers perform calisthenic drills. She especially liked their coordinated efforts on the obstacle course—and one day, while watching from the sidewalk, she saw a soldier drop his rifle while attempting to scale a high wall. 

Ida burst through the fence, picked up the rifle and handed it up to the soldier. She was eight years old. When the other soldiers saw this, they hoisted her over the wall and cheered. 

The drill sergeant was especially impressed, and invited her back. Every day, she’d  run the obstacle course with the soldiers, and was adopted as the “daughter” of the regiment. 

She learned everything about physical culture from the drill sergeants, and became so strong, so agile and so proficient, that she was occasionally asked to teach the new recruits.

Ida’s athletic career was well underway.

When the rise of antisemitism became too unsettling, and the lure of the New World became too great to ignore, Bernard Schnall moved his family to New York, starting with himself and two sons. Ida arrived on Feb. 5, 1904, with her mother and three brothers. (Two more were born later.) She was 14.

The reunited family settled in Manhattan, at 23 East 114th St., across from Thomas Jefferson Park. Ida first discovered baseball there while watching the boys in her neighbourhood whoop and holler while playing this strange new game. 

Since no girls were allowed, and few even attempted to play, Ida pushed her hair up under her cap, lowered her voice, and asked to join them on the field. Before long, she was the best player on the block. Within a year, she was a local legend.

New York Female Giants, 1913. Ida is third from left in the top row. (Courtesy: George Grantham Bain Collection)

Meanwhile, the cloak business was booming for Bernard Schnall, and the family moved into a large apartment, complete with servants quarters, at 1578 Fulton St. in the Bronx, overlooking Crotona Park. (That’s where “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg first made a name for himself before becoming the first Jewish superstar athlete in the 1930s.)

Bernard also moved his manufacturing plant to a building right across the road. His sons worked in the business. His daughter didn’t.

Ida quit school after Grade 8 in order to concentrate on her athletic career. With few opportunities for females to play sports in the early 1900s, Ida was seeking them for herself, but also wanted to help organize athletic activities for others. She had the time, and her family’s wealth gave her the opportunity to pursue these dreams. 

She was a relentless self-promoter, too. By age 18, she won so many medals and trophies that the New York Evening World said she was “considered by many to be the most remarkable woman athlete in the country.”

 A letter from New York mayor William Gaynor to Ida Schnall regarding the 1912 Olympics (Courtesy: The Carver Family)

James E. Sullivan was a man to be feared. He was the Secretary of the U.S. Olympic Committee as well as the head of the Amateur Athletic Union, which didn’t allow women. 

When it was announced that the 1912 Olympics in Sweden would allow female representatives for the first time, Sullivan refused to budge. No women allowed, he said. Even though other countries would be sending teams of female divers and swimmers, Sullivan instructed his committee to vote against allowing women… or else.

Ida happened to be the top diver in the nation, and won all the big events leading up to the summer of 1912. She likely would’ve been the first woman representing the U.S. to win an Olympic medal. 

Furious with Sullivan’s decision, she called him and the mayor of New York out in the newspapers, saying that women have just as much right as men to represent their country. Why was it that other countries were sending their female athletes and not America? 

The more she was ignored and dismissed, the harder she fought for equal rights. 

But it was only a matter of time before two of the biggest obstacles would be eliminated—and Ida’s life would change forever…

Click here for part three of Mark Hebscher on Ida Schnall…