Rudi Ball is a name that I’m sure most of you do not know. If his name looks familiar, it might be from my piece about Germans in ice hockey. Rudi Ball’s story is an inspiring one, it’s filled with danger, and he helps prove the Nazis wrong right in front of their eyes. This is the story of the Jew who played on the 1936 Nazi Germany Olympic Ice Hockey Team.
Rudi Ball was born on June 22, 1911 in Berlin, Germany. He was a German Jew with 2 brothers, Gerhard and Heinz, who also played hockey. As a young boy Rudi wasn’t very interested in hockey. He was much more interested in his studies, but that all changed when he watched his brothers play a game that featured a Canadian, Blake Watson. Ball was 15 when Watson’s play enamored him and led him to want to play hockey. Rudi was concerned a little at first because of his stature, only standing at 5’4 and weighing 140 lbs, but noticed that the smaller skaters could avoid being hit by using great skating. His dad had bought him expensive Canadian skates and he would take lessons from a Swedish hockey player living in German named Nils Molander.
As Rudi started to play in public pickup games in Germany, many noticed the skill and talent of Rudi Ball. He was simply a natural. He was a fast, agile skater with amazing hands and a laser pass. He would awe the crowds and the officials who just knew he was something special. He was still in awe of his brothers and said that he would watch his brother Heinz play and try to copy him. Gerhard was a goalie.
Rudi made the Berliner SC Bradenburg 2nd Tier team for the 1927-28 season. He led his team in goals, assists, and points. Unsurprisingly, he was moved up to Berliner SC Tier 1 the next year. He would join his brothers and helped them win 6 straight German championships, then the team would win 8 championships within 10 years.
Rudi would meet a friend in the late 20s named Gustav Jänecke who would help Rudi not only in hockey, but in life. Ball and Jänecke wold help Germany become a threatening force in international hockey. Jänecke was the Yang to Rudi’s Yin. They would go on to make Germany a threat in the hockey world. Ball and Jänecke would light it up in the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid. Germany took bronze and Rudi became the first German player to score a hat trick in the Olympics, also Ball and Jänecke accounted for 65% of the German National Team’s goals. And after the 1932 Olympics, Rudi Ball was heralded as an athletic hero in Germany.
In some type of poetic injustice, Rudi Ball’s rise to athletic fame in Germany matched Hitler’s rise almost perfectly. As Rudi Ball, and his brothers, were showing the world what they could do in hockey, Hitler was showing what he could in politics. The same year that Hitler was appointed Chancellor and then used the burning of the Reichstag to take full legislative power, Rudi’s brother, Gerhard, was considered by most to be the best goaltender in Europe. Now, I won’t go into what else Hitler did, because we all know, but I will give some context as to what was happening and how that impacted Rudi’s life.
Rudi and his brothers would receive an offer to play for EHC St. Moritz in Switzerland for the 1933-34 season. With some encouragement from his brothers, he decided to go. EHC St. Moritz’s offense ran all through Rudi. And during this year, Hitler started enacting rules to help separate the Aryans from groups, mostly the Jews. In April of 1933, a rule was enacted an “Aryan Only” rule for sports which barred non-Aryan groups from playing for sport clubs or against sports clubs. Despite the ban on Jews, Rudi was still invited to play on the 1934 German National Team in the World Championship where Germany finished 3rd behind Canada and the US.
The Ball brothers were offered contracts to play for HC Milan Davoli Rosso Neri in the Italian Hockey League for the 1934-35 season,which they won the Spengler Cup, and the 1935-36 season. The brothers would spend the offseasons in Berlin to be close to family, but being star athletes did not keep them from having difficult lives due to Hitler’s laws. When it came time for the 1936 Olympics, Rudi fully expected to be left off the team. After all, this was the first, and only, time the Summer and Winter Olympics were held in the same country: Nazi Germany. Of course, many know the 1936 Olympics for Jesse Owens showing Hitler that he was better his Aryans, and there was another Jew representing Germany that year, Helene Mayer, who won a silver medal in fencing. But we will talk about Rudi, obviously. Little not so fun fact, the head of the US Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was a featured speaker at a Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden. He said that he was discriminating against Jews, as none were named to the US team, but he also thought they weren’t talented enough to make any teams.
Rudi decided not to go back to Germany after 1935 because of fear of persecution, and of course he was left off the team when it was named. However, Gustav Jänecke was not having it. Jänecke was the number 1 choice for the German National Team, and he said he would not play without Rudi. Jänecke’s feelings were felt by the rest of the team who backed him up and would refuse to play without Rudi. The Ministry of Sport caught wind of this and threatened Jänecke and his teammates. Hitler even got involved, and once he realized that it would look bad for the his Ice Hockey team to sit out because they wanted their Jewish superstar to play, he told the Ministry of Sport to contact Rudi in France. Rudi had heard about his teammates’ actions and felt obligated to play with them. Rudi had one condition before playing for a nation that was taught to hate him. His condition was for his family to leave Germany and escape persecution. The German government allowed this and the Ball family left for South Africa, except for Rudi.
In spite of his hatred for Hitler and many of the officials for the games, he kept his end of the bargain after his family was safely out of Germany, he owed it to them and his teammates, particularly Gustav Jänecke, for what they did. Ball’s teammates unanimously named him captain, which infuriated Hitler. Hitler said “if all Germans were like these hockey players, I would have never been Chancellor”. How different could history have been if all Germans were like the Olympic German Ice Hockey Team of 1936.
Hitler saw the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen as nothing more than a precursor to the Summer Games in Berlin. To Rudi this was his chance to show the world, and Hitler, that Germans were strong together, no matter their heritage. This was a moment not just for Rudi, but for all German Jews to know that there were Germans fighting for what was right, and it was evident by the support Rudi got from his teammates. Rudi also wanted to show that Hitler’s belief of “racial superiority” was nothing but a fallacy. Rudi had always been a proud German, and kept that he was proud to be German, but was very upset at this part of German history and says that it is not indicative of the true German spirit.
The German government has been secretly funding the hockey program, as it was Germany’s most popular winter sport and was the prize for the Germans, but they’d have to overcome the best team in the world, the Canadians. The task was viewed as nearly impossible by pretty much everyone for the Germans to hand Canada their first ever loss in the Olympics, but even Hitler thought that with Rudi Ball and Gustav Jänecke, they could have at least a shot. There would’ve been no greater glory for Hitler, in these Winter Games, than beating Canada at the Olympic Games. between the World Wars were seen as a way of showing off for each nation and for the Winter Olympics, ice hockey was the ultimate showdown, as it was a war on ice.
Britain’s ice hockey team was being contested because 10 of their 12 were Canadians who had dual citizenship due to being born in Britain. Germany’s first game was against the US, considered the best after Canada. Germany held them scoreless through the first two periods. Even though Ball and Jänecke combined for some great chances, the Americans won 1-0. The next game was against the Italians. The Italians were known for their feisty and rough play, but the Germans won 3-0 with a couple assists from Rudi.
Over 10,000 fans attended Germany’s next game against Switzerland. These two had a huge rivalry as neighboring countries. Those 10,000 fans were the biggest. Olympic hockey turnout at the time. This game has been described as Rudi’s finest. One reporter said that it was like a painter with the ice being Rudi’s canvas, his skates being his palette, and his stick being his brush. Rudi’s beautiful strides were a sight to behold. He had assisted on the 1st goal of the game. Late in the third it looked like the Swiss would tie it up, as they had a player alone at center ice. Rudi put his head down and skated back to make an amazing defensive play by lifting the Swiss player’s stick and swatting the puck in the corner. He would pick up the puck, dodge a check, and skate down and score a goal. The Germans won 2-0. Their next game was against the Hungarians, who had destroyed the Belgians, embarrassed the French, and almost held off the Czechs. A win against Hungary would put them in a great spot to medal.
The Hungarians and Germans were both looking for something they had never gotten before, a chance at Gold. This was not going to be an easy game and the Germans knew it. As Rudi led his team out on the ice, he was greeted to over 10,000 fans again. This time, Hitler was there, to watch his team play, even cheering for the Jew captain. As the “Sieg Heil” chants died down, it became quiet and ready for puck drop. The silence was broken by a whistle, then silence again. Then the puck hit the ice and sticks hit the ice and skates started cutting up that same ice, game on!
The Hungarians were like brutes on skates, immediately trying to hit everything in sight. In the dying seconds of the first period, Rudi was skating when he was sandwiched by two Hungarian players. His head hit the ice and blood was drawn. Rudi popped up and skated in to the Hungarians’ zone to get the puck. The goalie moved to face Rudi, anticipating a shot. Rudi saw Jänecke on the other side of the ice. As Rudi got the puck he was checked hard into the boards by a Hungarian defensemen. He heard a pop in his shoulder and felt immense pain, but still got the puck onto Jänecke’s stick for him to beat the stunned goalie. The crowd erupted after the goal, but fell silent as Rudi’s teammates came over to check on him. Rudi’s left shoulder was hurt, bad. He was in excruciating pain. Against his words that he was alright, his coach sat him. He didn’t play the whole 2nd period and watched as the Hungarians tied the game up. Rudi wasn’t on the bench for the start of the third. The Germans were barely holding on. Then, during a stoppage of play, Rudi emerged on the bench, with his left shoulder drooping and forehead still bloody, and hit the ice to thunderous applause. As the puck hit the ice for the next faceoff, Rudi took the puck and dashed down the ice almost like a blur on the ice. He skated past the Hungarians towards their net. Two defensemen stood between him and the goalie. One defensemen crunched Rudi into the boards and Rudi heard another pop in his shoulder as he was lifted up and somersaulted. He got right back up, amazingly still in stride and the other defenseman stuck his stick between Rudi’s legs as he forced all his weight into Rudi’s chest and rose his stick into the back of Rudi’s thigh, cutting him. Rudi, amazingly got the shot off and beat the Hungarians’ net minder glove side to score the game winning goal. This even brought Hitler to his feet as he cheered on his team, and Jewish captain. One Hungarian came over and commended Rudi on his brilliant move. His teammates. came over to congratulate him then help him off the ice. As the last seconds ticked away in the third, Rudi stood up to bask in a moment he would remember forever.
Unfortunately, Rudi could not play the next two games as he had a broken shoulder, a lacerated leg, and a lacerated forehead. Germany would tie Great Britain 1-1 the next game. The Canadians, mad that Great Britain would certainly win gold with all their Canadian players, beat down on the Germans 6-2 in front of Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Rudi watched as his friend Gustav Jänecke was hurt by the Canadians. After the Olympics, Rudi was forced to stay in Germany and played for Berliner SC where, in 1937, he scored both goals to get them the German Championship. He played with them all throughout the war, fearing for his life. Fortunately, the Nazis turned their eye the other way because of his heroics and ability to keep the German peoples’ minds off the war with his amazing hockey play. When the allies took Berlin in 1945, Rudi was relived that he wouldn’t have to live in fear anymore. Several months later, his brother Gerhard knocked on his door and asked if he wanted to play. They played for SG Eichamp Berlin until 1948 when his brothers finally got him to move down to South Africa. Since there were a lot of Dutch and German immigrants in South Africa, the first hockey league was made there. For the 1949-50 season he played for the Johannesburg Tigers, averaging a goal a game. The next season he played defense for the Johannesburg Wolves, still averaging a goal a game in his limited minutes. At the end of that season, at the age of 41, Rudi Ball retired from hockey, only coming out to play in an All Star Game between South African players and players from Europe. The South African team won 10-4 with Rudi scoring 4 goals.
Rudi would spend the rest of his life as a respected businessman in South Africa. In 1970, a reporter interviewed him and said “you are a forgotten man in hockey. Don’t you feel that hockey owes you more recognition than you’ve received?” Rudi responded “Hockey owes me nothing. I am the one that owes hockey. It saved me and my. family from the Holocaust”. On September 19, 1975, Rudi Ball died in South Africa. Upon hearing of his friend’s death, Gustav Jänecke said “Rudi was more than a great hockey player. He was a great person. That is the best epitaph a man can have.” In 2004, Rudi was posthumously inducted into the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame. One attendee said it was a shame that almost no one at the ceremony knew who Rudi Ball was. Rudi was one of the very best of his time. He is a name that should not be forgotten in the long history of this great sport. Rudi Ball’s story is not just a hockey story, but a story about how with a little help from the right people, anything is possible, and any evil can be taken over. Rudi Ball is a name you most likely don’t know, but he is definitely not a name to forget.
If you would like a more in depth read, I would suggest the book “How Hockey Saved a Jew From the Holocaust” by J Wayne Frye. It is for sale on Amazon.
By Noah Caplan (@Phlyers24 and @NoahlyPod)
Photo creds: thehockeywriters.com