Commentary Magazine


The Mensches of Baseball

The lead story today at Jewish Ideas Daily is “Covering the Bases,” by Michael Arkush–a report on the February 27 “Night of Jewish Baseball” at the American Jewish Historical Society. At the event, Jane Leavy, author of the highly acclaimed biography of Sandy Koufax, spoke about Koufax as a player and a person, calling him “not just the greatest left-handed pitcher I ever saw” but “the greatest mensch I’ve ever met in my life.” Arkush noted that:

[T]here is no doubt his decision not to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur has had a profound, and lasting, impact on Jews in this country. “It was OK to stand up and say, ‘I am a Jew,’ and Jews don’t work on Yom Kippur,” Leavy said.

Because the pennant races and High Holidays frequently occur during the World Series, the Series have not infrequently presented moral dilemmas for the star Jewish players involved in them. See Baseball and Redemption for the stories involving Hank Greenberg (the Detroit Tigers slugger who sat out Yom Kippur in 1934 during their pennant race), Ron Blomberg (The Sundown Kid), and Shawn Green (who faced the dilemma three times). In the case of Koufax, it is less remembered what happened after he decided not to play in the first game:

Koufax attended synagogue in Minnesota instead of pitching in Game 1 of the ‘65 Series against the Twins. Don Drysdale pitched that day and gave up seven runs in 2 2-3 innings. When manager Walter Alston came out to pull him from the game, Drysdale cracked, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.”

The Dodgers had won the National League pennant by one game, with a 12-game winning streak at the end of the season, during which Koufax pitched five times in 15 days. He had won four times (with three shutouts), including 13 strikeouts in the pennant-winning game. After he sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series, the Dodgers lost it 8-2. Koufax returned and pitched Game 2–and lost. Then he won Game 5, and then he returned for the deciding Game 7–and pitched a three-hit shutout, giving the Dodgers the Series.

The list of baseball mensches would be incomplete without a lesser-known player: Adam Greenberg, 5’ 9”, who grew up in a religious family and went to the University of North Carolina to play baseball. After three years in the minors, he became the lead-off hitter for the Chicago Cubs. In 2005, in his first major league at-bat, on the first pitch–with his parents and family watching proudly in the stands–he was hit in the head by a fastball traveling more than 90 miles an hour. He crumpled at the plate in front of the stunned crowd. His season was over, and he never returned to the Cubs.

His next major league at-bat did not occur until seven years later. The story of his return is told in this remarkable short video; if you watch it, you will understand why he belongs on the mensch list with the above baseball greats.

As we approach another baseball season–the season of new beginnings and second chances, leading eventually to the challenges of the fall–it is good to be reminded of the stories of baseball players who taught us lessons only mensches can teach, by example.