Hank Greenberg. Al Rosen. Sandy Koufax. Shawn Green. This quartet can be considered the Mt. Rushmore of Jewish Major Leaguers.
Green debuted with the Toronto Blue Jays in September 1993. He also played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks before retiring at the age of 34 following his 2007 season with the New York Mets.
He could have kept playing, earning several more millions and adding to his statistics as one of the top Jewish athletes. But Green decided it was more important to be home for his wife and two young daughters in southern California than to pick up an extra few paychecks.
Green has been described as a “BuJew” — a Jew who follows certain tenets of Buddhism, which is the basis of his new memoir, The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH (written with Gordon McAlpine, published by Simon and Schuster).
Although he admits he was not brought up in a religiously observant household, Green takes exception to those who would qualify his connections to Judaism.
“There’s quite a thread in the American-Jewish heritage to have this close-knit tie to baseball. It’s pretty cool and I’m honored to have been a part of that,” he said in a telephone interview.
While proud to be one of the premier Jewish players of all time, Green said, “I think it definitely was more significant [years ago]. There are a lot of great Jewish ballplayers now, but the game is so much different than it was.
“We’ve become such a global sport…that being a Jewish player is still significant, but it’s become run-of-the-mill with all these other players coming from other countries as well,” said Green.
He recalled a bus ride when he was with the Dodgers: “We had seven different languages going when you throw in [French-Canadian] Eric Gagne. We had a Taiwanese player, a Japanese player, a Chinese player, obviously a lot of Latin players, English…. It was pretty crazy.”
“When I started playing in Toronto, there was a strong Jewish community there, very tight-knit. They really took me in. That was my first real taste of being a Jewish role model.” Green appreciated that the Canadian city “wasn’t overwhelming. That kind of got me through my initiation period, so to speak.”
Green attended synagogue on the High Holy Days with Dr. Glenn Copeland, the Blue Jays’ team’s physician. “I started to embrace not only my heritage, but my responsibility as a Jewish athlete.”
He admitted to being “a little scared” at the prospect of playing in American cities with large Jewish populations. “Had I gone [to New York] with a big contract and a lot of responsibilities on the playing field, I think it would have been difficult, knowing my personality as a more reserved person, to also carry the load of being ‘the guy’ from the Jewish perspective.
“Everywhere you go as a Jewish athlete — especially when there wasn’t that many at the time — every city you go, the Jewish newspapers, the JCC, the synagogues want you to do stuff and it’s hard to say no; you want to do what you can. Playing in New York at that time, as a key player on the team, would have been tough.”
Almost every season, when the schedule falls just so, the media and fans wonder what the Jewish players will do about the “Yom Kippur dilemma.” Koufax’s decision to forgo his turn for Game One of the 1965 World Series was the stuff of legend and set a standard subsequent Jewish players have found tough to live up to.
Green had to make such a decision three times during his career. Perhaps the most difficult came in 2001 when he was a member of the Dodgers, who were vying for the NL Western Division crown. Add to the drama the fact that Green had a consecutive game streak of 415 and was also two home runs shy of 50. “Wearing a Dodgers uniform and seeing Sandy Koufax every spring and going out to dinner with him and talking about why he made the decisions he made, I felt the right thing was to sit out,” said Green, who finished the season with 49 homers.
Three years later, the Dodgers were scheduled to play games on erev Yom Kippur as well as the next day. “We were two or three games up on the Giants. I did a lot of soul-searching. It became kind of a national topic; even non-sports talk shows were discussing what the right decision would be.”
Green chose to play on Yom Kippur eve and sit out the following game. “A lot of people thought I was hypocritical, but I got good advice which was most consistent with my beliefs. As someone who wasn’t raised particularly religiously, I felt I wanted to ‘represent’ [for] Jewish kids [and] acknowledge my respect for being a Jew. But I also felt I had to be there for my teammates and the fans because I thought it would be hypocritical to sit out both games.”
Green hit a two-run homer on erev Yom Kippur, which made the difference in the Dodgers’ 3-2 win.
Coincidentally, in 1934 Hank Greenberg had wrestled with a similar problem when his Detroit Tigers were in the thick of a pennant race with the New York Yankees. He decided to stay away from the ballpark on Yom Kippur but played on Rosh Hashana. He hit two homers to account for both of his team’s runs in their 2-1 win over the Boston Red Sox.
Green appreciated the connection. “Not that hitting a home run to win a game means all that much in the grand scale of things, but in my little world it kind of justified my decision.”