Major Leaguers and the ‘Yom Kippur’ dilemma

Major Leaguers and the ‘Yom Kippur’ dilemma

E-book author says Hank Greenberg set standard as Jewish icon

Every year about this time, many baseball fans — Jewish and otherwise — wonder what the Major League “members of the tribe” will do when it comes to playing on Yom Kippur.

Of the 10 Jewish players on Major League rosters as of this writing, all have games scheduled for the evening of Sept. 25 or afternoon of Sept. 26. Of those, four are involved in contests that have potential postseason implications, including Kevin Youkilis of the Chicago White Sox, Sam Fuld (Tampa Bay Rays), and Ian Kinsler and Scott Feldman (Texas Rangers). The White Sox (whose owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, is Jewish) have changed the starting time for their Sept. 25 game from 7:10 p.m. to 1 p.m. in consideration of the holiday, much to Youkilis’s appreciation.

So what will the others do? Will they play or will they emulate the once-in-a-generation role models such as Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, and Shawn Green, who honored the High Holy Days in their individual ways?

In 1934, Greenberg, the future Hall of Fame slugger for the Detroit Tigers, was involved in a tight pennant race with the New York Yankees. He had consulted with Leo Franklin, a Reform rabbi, who decided that Rosh Hashana was a day of enjoyment and gave his blessing for Greenberg to play.

Greenberg homered twice on that day to give the Tigers a 2-1 victory over the Yankees. But Greenberg declined to play on Yom Kippur, and without him in the lineup, his team lost to New York, 5-2. The Tigers went on to win the American League pennant before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

Ray Robinson, a 92-year-old writer who lives in Manhattan, recently published High and Tight: Hank Greenberg Confronts Anti-Semitism, published as an e-book by Now and Then. In a phone interview, Robinson told NJ Jewish News he had “a fairly good relationship with Hank…and always had great respect for him. I appreciated that during his Major League career he had been subjected to a lot of…abuse, and I thought I would try to clarify the whole matter.”

While there were Jewish ballplayers before, during, and after Greenberg’s time — he had one at-bat in 1930 and returned from 1933 to ’47, missing more than three seasons during World War II — you don’t often hear about their experiences with anti-Semitism. Robinson — the author of several well-received sports books — attributed that to the media. “You didn’t hear too much about them because the press very carefully sort of exorcised comments that had to do with anti-Semitism,” he said. “I don’t think you have the kind of openness you have today.”

Greenberg played at a time when Detroit and the nation were under the major influence of virulent anti-Semites Henry Ford and Father Charles Edward Coughlin. Why would Greenberg put himself in such a situation?

“Because the other team that might have wanted Hank was the New York Yankees, and they had a fellow by the name of Lou Gehrig playing first base,” said Robinson, who published a biography about the Yankees superstar in 1990. “If Hank had hung around nearly a decade, he might have succeeded Gehrig. So he chose to play for the Tigers rather than spend his time on the bench watching Gehrig.”

Robinson conceded that Greenberg was not an observant Jew. “Hank didn’t follow those particular traits of his parents. But later on in his baseball career, when he became almost a symbol for American-Jewish athletes, I think he felt it was his responsibility…to sit out on [that] Yom Kippur.”

Robinson compared Greenberg’s decision with that of Sandy Koufax, who declined to take his scheduled start in the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on the Day of Atonement.

“Sandy came along at a slightly different period,” said Robinson, who still writes the occasional magazine article. In Greenberg’s time “you had the oncoming of Hitler and his anti-Semitic regime. By the time Sandy came along, Mr. Hitler was gone and buried. Not to say that Sandy at times wasn’t the target of anti-Semitism, but I think it was totally dissimilar from Hank’s time.”

Edgar Guest immortalized Greenberg’s stance in a 1934 poem titled “Came Yom Kippur” that captured the sentiment of the day:

Came Yom Kippur — holy feast 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!”

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