Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Jewish Baseball Players' Yom Kippur Dilemma

The Detroit Tigers are currently in a pennant race for the American League Central Division, where they currently have a razor thin half game lead on the Kansas City Royals. 80 years ago the Detroit Tigers were similarly in a pennant race for their division. That was the September that the team's star, Hank Greenberg, famously sat out the game on Yom Kippur. It was September 20, 1934 and the Detroit Tigers faced the New York Yankees in a key game late in the pennant race. While his participation was sorely needed, Hank Greenberg stayed true to his Jewish religion and attended synagogue instead at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit. The Tigers lost the game, but went on to win the 1934 American League pennant (the Tigers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the '34 World Series).

Rabbi Jason Miller and Hank Greenberg's son Steve Greenberg
With Hall of Famer Lou Brock, Willie Horton's son Al and Hank Greenberg's son Steve Greenberg

It is interesting to note that Hank Greenberg had in fact played in a game ten days earlier on Rosh Hashanah, in which he led the Detroit Tigers to victory with two home runs. A local Detroit rabbi gave him permission to play on Rosh Hashanah and the Detroit News ran the headline on the front page, "Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play." The day following the Rosh Hashanah victory, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline that read simply, "Happy New Year, Hank."

Tickets for the Hank Greenberg Commemorative Hall of Fame Plaque
Hank Greenberg Hall of Fame plaques will be given out before today's game at Comerica Park

In commemoration of the day Hank Greenberg chose to sit out the game on Yom Kippur, the Detroit Tigers and local Jewish community organizations like the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation will celebrate Jewish Heritage Day at the Detroit Tigers game today. It will also be a chance to honor Hank Greenberg, who was the first Jewish player elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

I'll be at the game today as Hank Greenberg is fondly remembered and the local Detroit Jewish community pays tribute to the first Jewish Hall of Famer. Rabbi Elliot Pachter of Congregation B'nai Moshe will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. (Today Rabbi Pachter is both a friend and a local colleague, but twenty-five years ago he was one of the two rabbis who officiated at my bar mitzvah.)

Rabbi Elliot Pachter will throw out the first pitch at the Detroit Tigers game
With Rabbi Elliot Pachter, who will throw out the first pitch at the Detroit Tigers game today

As the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fast approaching, it is once again the time that many baseball fans will be having the discussion of "Who Shall Play and Who Shall Sit Out" on Yom Kippur. This will certainly be a discussion locally in Detroit where two members of the Detroit Tigers ballclub are Jewish, the star second baseman Ian Kinsler and the manager Brad Ausmus. (Max Scherzer and Kyle Lobstein may have Jewish sounding names, but neither is a Member of the Tribe.)

I'm 100% positive that neither Kinsler nor Ausmus will be excusing themselves from games on either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur (there will be an American League Division Series game on Yom Kippur eve, but no American League postseason games on Yom Kippur day). The truth is that most Jewish players who have sat out on Yom Kippur have done so more as a statement of solidarity for their Jewish heritage than because of any personal belief. Many players, including Brad Ausmus, have chosen not to play on only one Yom Kippur in their entire career so they can point to that as a sign of pride. Jewish players from Shaun Green to Kevin Youkilis to Ryan Braun have all done this.

I've always been quick to point out a few interesting facts about the discussion of Major League Baseball players choosing whether to play or not on Yom Kippur. First, we place more emphasis on Jewish professional baseball players with regard to their Yom Kippur decisions than we do with Jewish college football players or Jewish NFL players (Yom Kippur can never occur on a Sunday, but there are NFL games on other days of the week). Second, Jewish people tend to take matters of religious practice very personally until it's the personal religious practice of a professional baseball player and then somehow it's fair game. Third, the implications of a player like Hank Greenberg sitting out on Yom Kippur when his team is competing for a pennant is quite different than a Jewish player sitting out when his team has no chance at the postseason. Finally, it's important to note that there's a big difference between a position player like Hank Greenberg sitting out and a starting pitcher sitting out since the pitcher can simply be re-inserted into the rotation.

And that brings us to the Sandy Koufax Yom Kippur mystery. While it's true that Koufax didn't pitch in the first game of the World Series on Yom Kippur in 1965, the fact that he was a starting pitcher meant he would simply pitch in the following game against the Minnesota Twins (Koufax took the loss in that game). Fellow Conservative rabbi, Jeremy Fine, writes a baseball blog called "The Great Rabbino." In a recent post, which was republished in CJ Online (the Conservative Movement's quarterly magazine), Rabbi Fine looks into the mystery of whether Sandy Koufax actually made it to synagogue that famous Yom Kippur in 1965 when he chose not to play. In an interesting tale, which Rabbi Fine chalks up as "midrash," he looks into the urban legend that Sandy Koufax attended Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota that Yom Kippur morning.

Rabbi Jeremy Fine in his office with a photo of Sandy Koufax
Rabbi Jeremy Fine in his office with a photo of Sandy Koufax.

Rabbi Jeremy Fine is now the rabbi of that Conservative synagogue made famous by the story that Koufax attended Yom Kippur services there rather than play in the first game of the World Series. In the article, Rabbi Fine considers the fact that there were two Yom Kippur services at his congregation back in 1965 -- one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Therefore, those who say they never saw Koufax likely attended the afternoon service. He also interviews the man many say drove Koufax to synagogue that day, but the supposed driver denies that he had any role in getting Koufax to shul. Many of the synagogue leaders from that Yom Kippur, including the rabbi, have passed away. In my opinion, I think Koufax made a brief appearance in the back of the sanctuary for a short period and then went back to the hotel where the LA Dodgers were staying.

So, whether it's 1934 or 1965 or 2014, there will be discussions over whether Jewish baseball players should play on Yom Kippur or not. While I'm not sure it's a very relevant conversation to have, like Yom Kippur and baseball, it's an annual tradition. So, let the discussions continue.

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