Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hank Greenberg

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.

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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.

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Once, the Tigers Were a “Jewish” Team

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.

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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.

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