There was a bitter irony in the news that Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young had been charged with a hate crime for assault while yelling anti-Semitic slurs during an altercation outside of his team’s hotel during their visit to New York this past weekend to play the Yankees. Young, who was apparently drunk at the time, spent the night in jail and in addition to facing legal jeopardy, Major League Baseball suspended him for seven days. As is his right, under baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, he may return to the Tigers after being evaluated by a doctor and entering a treatment program.
Ballplayers are no more prone to bad behavior than anyone else in society, so there’s no reason for anyone to jump to any conclusion about the prevalence of anti-Jewish sentiments in the game. But the story had to especially hurt the feelings of Jewish fans of the Tigers and not just because it embarrassed their favorite ballclub. As anyone who saw filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s award-winning documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” there was once a time when the Tigers were well known as the big leagues’ “Jewish” team.
As Kempner documented, the presence of Greenberg, the Hall-of-Fame slugger from The Bronx on the Tigers, made them the “Jews” of the American League in the eyes of fellow Major Leaguers. That was especially so during the 1938 and 1939 seasons, when pitcher Harry Eisenstat joined him on the Tigers’ roster. According to accounts from the era, during this period the Tigers were subjected to a blizzard of anti-Semitic invective by rival teams.
Such hate speech must have been painful for the Jewish players, especially during a time when Jews were subject to discrimination throughout American society and persecution by the Nazis in Europe. However, as Greenberg often later pointed out himself, that was an era of “bench jockeying,” in which teams would profanely abuse each other during virtually every game using any possible pretext to insult rival players. While the Tigers were razzed with anti-Jewish slurs, other teams would give the same treatment to the Yankees with the only difference being that they were abused with anti-Italian insults because of players like Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri, Frankie Crosetti and Phil Rizzuto on their squad.
To understand the culture of baseball at the time is not to forgive it, but the point was that the abuse was nearly universal (although the same rough treatment was denied the best African-American players of the era due to their exclusion because of segregation). It should also be noted that Greenberg was remembered by Jackie Robinson as one of the few opponents who welcomed him to the Major Leagues when the race barrier was finally shattered in 1947.
Greenberg’s identity as a proud Jew meant a lot to an American Jewish community at a time when they needed a hero. The same could have been said of Sandy Koufax, the other Jewish member of baseball’s Hall of Fame when he played for the Dodgers a generation later and also abstained from playing on Yom Kippur. Today’s small band of Jewish Major Leaguers don’t usually emulate their principled stance about the holiday. But it must be admitted that contemporary American Jews don’t face the same type of discrimination and therefore don’t really need ballplayers to stand up for them in the same way.
That said, it is a shame that the team that was home to the greatest Jewish hitter of them all and which was routinely attacked because of his faith, should be, at least for now, the home of an anti-Semitic player.