This essay was originally published in, Judith Zabarenko Abrams and Marc Lee Raphael, eds., What is Jewish about America’s Favorite Pastime? (The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA), 2006.
For me, my consciousness of my special identity as a Jew as it relates to athletics began back in the 1950s, when, on a Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I heard the mellifluous voice of the great Red Barber say, “The old familiar number 31 of Brooklyn first base coach Jake Pitler will be missing today as he is observing the Jewish New Year and is not in the ball park.”
My consciousness of Jews in American sports developed further during Oneg Shabbat (reception following service) at Sabbath Eve services at my congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, New Jersey. My parents were regular Sabbath eve attendees, and as I look back on my childhood, I realize that one of the most precious gifts they gave me was to bring me with them. I wanted to be with them although I often counted ahead to see how many pages were left in the service. At the Oneg Shabbat, while they socialized with friends, I drifted into the Temple’s combination museum and library and browsed through the exhibits and the books.
Invariably, as a young boy who loved athletics, my hands picked out The Jew in American Sports, by Harold U. Ribalow. The book was published in 1952 and contained sketches of Jewish athletes most of whom I had never heard of. Their stories fascinated me. I became familiar with such names as Morrie Arnovich, Al Singer, Moe Berg, and, of course, Hank Greenberg. Sandy Koufax came of age as a baseball and Jewish icon as I moved through high school and college.
Greenberg and Koufax were not just Jews who happened to play sports. They were Jews who, through circumstances of time, location, and the game of baseball, became symbols of Jewish pride as our people searched for the elusive balance in their identities as Jews and Americans. They – perhaps unwittingly – helped us in our struggle to gain full acceptance in a gentile world while maintaining (to differing degrees) our identity as Jews.
American antisemitism reached its peak in the 1930s. The Great Depression proved the well-known axiom that the comfort level of Jews is in a direct relationship with the health of the economy. With Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent still popular and his book, The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem, and the rantings of Father Charles Coughlin leading the way, the 30s were not a comfortable decade for American Jews especially in the Detroit area, where Greenberg played.
Hank Greenberg’s story is well-known to us. According to The Baseball Page.com, “Amid the rising antisemitism of the 1930s, Hank Greenberg’s baseball heroics took on symbolic meaning for many Jewish Americans. He was the first baseball star to enter the military in World War II, doing so voluntarily.”1
As a player, Greenberg ranks among the all-time greats. He is the first and only one of only three players in all of history to win Most Valuable Player awards at two different positions (he played first base and left field). He played in four World Series in his war-shortened career, and he led the Detroit Tigers to two world championships in 1935 and 1945.
In 1934, Hank batted .339 with 63 doubles, and he hit .328 with 170 RBIs in 1935. Injuries hampered him in 1936, but in 1937, he drove in 183 runs (one short of Lou Gehrig’s all-time record) with 103 extra-base hits and a batting average of .337. In 1939, he hit 41 home runs and had 150 RBIs, with a batting average of .340.
His greatest year, though, was 1938, when he hit 58 home runs with 146 RBIs. His 119 walks might well have prevented him from eclipsing Babe Ruth’s home run record, and it was frequently heard that he received so many passes because of a reluctance of many in baseball to have a Jew equal or tie Babe Ruth’s record.
The reluctance of Tiger Manager Bucky Harris to play Greenberg regularly as a young player, and the Tiger’s curious sale of a still productive and very popular Greenberg after the 1946 season, suggests to many that antisemitism was still a factor in Major League Baseball decisions during the years of Greenberg’s career.
My interest in Greenberg, though, is as the role model he became for American Jews. He was by no means a religious man – although his parents were Orthodox-–but he did sit out on Yom Kippur and actually consulted a Reform rabbi who gave him (incredulously, to me) his okay to play on Rosh Hashanah during a tight 1934 pennant race. In that Rosh Hashanah contest, Greenberg hit two home runs in a 2-1 victory. When he sat out on Yom Kippur, though, he inspired the following poem by Edgar A. Guest, which appeared in The Detroit Free Press:2
The Irish didn’t like it when they heard of Greenberg’s fame
For they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name;
And the Murphy’s and Mulrooney’s said they never dreamed they’d see
A Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.
In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat
Or prayed to see a “double” when Hank Greenberg came to bat.
In July the Irish wondered where he’d ever learned to play.
“He makes me think of Casey!” Old Man Murphy dared to say;
And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made
The respect they had for Greenberg was being openly displayed.
But on the Jewish New Year when Hank Greenberg came to bat
And made two home runs off pitcher Rhodes they cheered like mad for that.
Came Yom Kippur holy fast day world wide over to the Jew
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he’s true to his religion and I honor him for that!”
Did the antisemitic feelings of the times that were often magnified by slurs and comments from opposing players and fans bother Greenberg? Of course they did. He once noted candidly: “How the hell could you get up to home plate every day and have some son-of-a-bitch call you a Jew bastard and a kike and a sheenie and get on your ass without feeling the pressure? If the ballplayers weren’t doing it, the fans were. I used to get frustrated as hell. Sometimes I wanted to go into the stands and beat the shit out of them.”3
What Henry Benjamin Greenberg did, though, was much more effective and much more satisfying. He provided Jews across the land a symbol of strength, power, and success. He was a fine athlete, a war hero, and a mensch, with a marvelous work ethic that made him one of the greatest ballplayers ever. When he entered the synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1934, he received a standing ovation from the congregation. He made us proud to be Jews.
In the five or so years before arm trouble ended his career at 31, Sandy Koufax may well have been the greatest pitcher who ever lived. Although he last pitched nearly 40 years ago, my memories of him are vivid. My most prominent one is the first inning of his perfect game — when he struck out the side in the first inning on nine pitches. I have never seen anyone do that before or since. I remember saying as he walked off the mound after those nine pitches, “I can’t imagine anyone getting a bat on his pitches today.”
In 1961, when Koufax was in his first outstanding season, the famed Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: “Sandy’s fastball was so fast some batters would start to swing as he was on his way to the mound. His curveball disappeared like a long putt going in a hole.”4
The web page of the National Baseball Hall of Fame sums up Koufax’s career succinctly: “After Sandy Koufax finally tamed his blazing fastball, he enjoyed a five-year stretch as perhaps the most dominating pitcher in the game’s history. He won 25 games three times, won five straight ERA titles, and set a new standard with 382 strikeouts in 1965. His fastball and devastating curve enabled him to pitch no-hitters in four consecutive seasons, culminating with a perfect game in 1965. He posted a 0.95 ERA in four career Word Series, helping the Dodgers to three championships.”5
In addition Koufax was an All-Star six times, the National League MVP in 1963 and the Cy Young Award three times as well. He was also World Series MVP in ’63 and ’65. One of his most memorable games was his three-hit shutout of the Minnesota Twins in Game Seven of the 1965 World Series. He also shut out the Twins in Game Five of that series, on four hits.
Of course, for all his feats on the field, his most memorable act as a Jew was refusing to pitch in the first game of the ’65 Series, on October 6, because that day was Yom Kippur. Like Greenberg, Sandy Koufax was not a religious man, but he demonstrated his pride in his heritage publicly. From that day to this, he has been an inspiration to me.
In 1966 I won the Eastern College Athletic Conference College Division Draw II tennis tournament at Rider College in Trenton, New Jersey. I played five of the best matches of my life at that tournament. I still cherish that victory and seeing my name in the National Tennis Magazines and the New York Times. I was excited at the prospect of returning the next year–-my senior year-–to compete as Hamilton College’s number one player in the Draw I Division.
When I learned, however, that the dates of that tournament coincided with Yom Kippur, I made without hesitation-–but with much trepidation-–the longer-than-it-usually-seemed walk to the gym to tell my coach that I would not compete and why. From that day to this, I still love to play tennis.
On the local level, when I lived in Maryland and Tennessee, I won a number of tournaments of which I am proud and. I even managed to win the Hartford Tennis Club 60 and over Men’s Singles Championship in 2006. But my proudest moment as an athlete is the tournament in which I did not play. It allowed me to realize that compared with others over the centuries, I was paying a piddling price to express my pride in being a Jew. It also allowed me to feel that, in my own small way, I was following in the footsteps of men like Jake Pitler, Hank Greenberg, and Sandy Koufax. I am grateful to be in their company and grateful for the example they set for me and for so many others as Jews in American sports.
- The BaseballPage.com, Hank Greenberg, web page.
- Edgar A. Guest, Detroit Free Press, 1934 (date uncertain).
- Barry Burston, The Diamond Trade: Baseball and Judaism, web page.
- Jim Murray, “Sandy Rare Specimen”, column, August 31, 1961, quoted in, The Great Ones, Los Angeles Times Books, 1999, 27.
- National Baseball Hall of Fame, web page, Sandy Koufax.