The Diamond Trade: Baseball and Judaism

You need look no further than soccer or golf to know that sports can be a religion. And you need look no further than the playing fields to find those who believe baseball to be the Judaism of sports.

Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg.
Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg. Baseball Hall of Fame

The scene: A baseball diamond, convenient to compact shtiebl synagogues and micro-supervised kosher pizza parlors.

The players: Eighteen youths, sidecurls escaping their billed caps. A yeshiva league.

The set-up: Bottom of the ninth. Two out. Full count. The team at bat is behind 2-0. Last chance. A runner, pale and slender as bone, inches off first base. The runner shuckels as he sets to take off. The pitcher kicks straight up and serves the pitch flat, hard and waist high.

The swing is elegant. The ball rockets off the sweet spot and into a gap in right field. The batter rounds first base and makes for second, fully expecting the fielders to pass him by, targeting the lead runner heading for home.

The twist: The throw goes not to the plate, but to the cut-off man standing between first and second. The infielder wheels to tag the batter just now steaming past.

The umpire's dilemma: The tag misses the batter's body, but clearly touches the tzitziot, or ritual fringes, fanning out from the sides of his uniform. Is he out or safe?

The rabbinic ruling: The fringes are an integral part of the batter's garment, therefore they are part and parcel of his uniform. The batter is out. Game over.

On the face of it, the National Pastime of a culture dominated by Christianity would seem a poor prospect for links to the Hebrew faith and its followers. However, more than a century of growing up together has cemented ties between baseball and Judaism to the point where, even for many fully observant Jews, the lore of both is synonymous with faith. "Baseball, at its core, is what Judaism is at its core," said Rabbi Jonathan Cohen in a 2002 sermon at his Maryland congregation of Mishkan Torah. "Some people even find an almost halakhic [pertaining to Jewish law] quality to baseball: Its rules are sharp and defined - as to what's fair and what's foul, as to where the players must stand, and as to what they must wear," Cohen noted in the dvar Torah entitled "Baseball and Jewish Values."

So compelling are the ties between the Summer Game and Jews that even the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, drew on baseball to drive home key points of yiddishkeit.

Solomon Schechter, architect of Judaism's Conservative movement, was widely quoted for having given a brilliant young scholar, Louis Ginzberg, this advice when he joined the faculty of the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary: "You can't be a rabbi in America without understanding baseball."

To the relief of Ginzberg and his successors, manifold are the elements of baseball that lend themselves to rabbinic spin. Like Judaism, baseball is a practice of disputation and nuance, laws oral and written, mind games and minutiae, ritual and resistance to change.

Baseball, like Jewish worship, can surprise by wringing sudden artistry out of routine, or dishearten by turning today's inspiration into tomorrow's rote. Its rules vary according to geography and lineage, its very physical confines are dictated by and altered according to wishes and whim of its home communities. It celebrates mental acuity and views with something less than enthusiasm, the dim of wit and the wandering of mind.

At the same time, in a manner characteristic of 20th-century movements within Judaism, for many Jews baseball constituted a response to and a means of breaking away from long-ingrained Old World traditions. The change did not always come easily. "Suspicion of the physical, fear of hurt, anxiety over the sheer pointlessness of play; all went deep into the recesses of the human psyche," wrote social historian Irving Howe.

But break away they did. "The solace that my Orthodox grandfather could be expected to have taken in the familiar leathery odor of the flesh-worn straps of the old phylacteries in which he wrapped himself each morning, I derived from the smell of my mitt, which I ritualistically donned every day," wrote novelist Philip Roth in a 1987 memoir in the New York Review of Books.

The Kol Nidre quandary Rabbinic metaphor and reverie notwithstanding, there is one day every year on which Judaism and baseball often intersect in reality. Yom Kippur represents a diamond Day of Judgment in many more ways than one. The day has frequently coincided with baseball's supreme test, the World Series, posing ethical questions for rabbis and congregants surrounding the transmitting of real-time scoring information to true believers locked in prayer and supplication.

For players, the dilemma is considerably more pressing. Since the 1930s, the North American Jewish community has looked to what the New York sportswriting corps once called its "stars of David" to assess how major leaguers observed the solemn fast day.

A tradition of Jewish ballplayers taking themselves out of the lineup for Yom Kippur had its roots in a decision by the Detroit Tigers' mythic first baseman Hank Greenberg. It was September 18, 1934, and the Tigers were in the thick of a slugfest to finish the season in first place. Defying strong winds of anti-Semitism in the city of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, Greenberg decided against playing on Yom Kippur.

Greenberg's day in shul was a defining moment in the history of American Jewry. For an immigrant community that was the dispossessed, far-from-secure model for the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" described in Emma Lazarus' poem on the Statue of Liberty, Greenberg's bold decision was a thunderbolt, a watershed. The move thrilled Jews across America, and earned the respect of large numbers of non-Jewish Tiger fans.

The act was even immortalized in verse. Poet Edgar A. Guest, writing in the Detroit Free Press newspaper, described an Irishman in the grandstands remarking that Detroit would likely lose the game that day, but adding:

"We shall miss him in the infield and miss him at the bat, But he's true to his religion, and I honor him for that."

Over the succeeding decades, the question of whether to play on Yom Kippur has become a litmus test for the attitudes of Jewish ballplayers regarding their faith and their conscious or conferred positions as role models for the Jewish community at large. It has also contributed to the considerable inventory of baseball superstition.

On Yom Kippur of 1938, the Philadelphia Phillies' schedule showed a double-header, so players who chose synagogue over stadium missed not one game but two. Of the three Jews on the Phillies' roster, two outfielders - Phil Weintraub and the more observant Morrie Arnovich (who kept kosher even on road trips) - opted to take the day off. The third was a new player, shortstop Eddie Feinberg, who feared that his career might be in jeopardy if he failed to show. The results were disastrous, and anything but rewarding to Feinberg's career hopes. The infielder went hitless in both games, 0 for 8 at the plate.

His days in professional baseball were numbered. Other players took note.

For generation after generation, the Kol Nidre quandary has proved to be a sensitive barometer for the position of Jews in North American society, as well as an indicator of trends in the character of ritual observance. In 1965, Yom Kippur was again at the center of the baseball world. Sandy Koufax, the Brooklyn-born southpaw, was the obvious choice to pitch the opening game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. Armed with a fastball so fast that it was virtually invisible and a curveball that snapped as if rolling off a tabletop, on any given day Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball. On a good day, batters said, he was the best who had ever been.

But the series was slated to begin on Yom Kippur and Koufax, with his customary lack of ceremony, quietly declined to play. "It was a given with him," recalled his teammate Dick Tracewski.

The team's other great left-hander, Don Drysdale, started the game for Koufax. He was shelled. When the Twins had belted the score to 7-1, Dodger manager Walter Alston walked to the mound to tell Drysdale he was through for the day. "Hey skip," Drysdale quipped, handing the ball to the manager, "bet you wish I was Jewish today, too."

Koufax's biographer Jane Leavy would later write that "For Jews, the loss was a win. If Big D could joke about being one of the Chosen People, that was already something, a tacit acknowledgment of their acceptance into the mainstream. Shtetl, farewell."

In the end, Koufax's performance was all but superhuman. Starting three games in eight days, he shut down the Twins and brought the world championship back to Los Angeles.

The contrast with Greenberg's era was striking. The Tigers' storied slugger, the first Jew inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, had encountered virulent anti-Semitism as he hammered his way to astounding records. "How the hell could you get up to home plate every day and have some son of a bitch call you a Jew bastard and a kike and a sheenie and get on your ass, without feeling the pressure?" Greenberg wrote in his autobiography. "If the ballplayers weren't doing it, the fans were. I used to get frustrated as hell. Sometimes I wanted to go into the stands and beat the s--t out of them."

With five games left in the 1938 season, Greenberg was hitting at a torrid pace. He was two swings away from the Holy Grail of power hitting, Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season. But opposing pitchers, widely believed to be acting on Jew-hatred, if not on explicit instructions from management, denied him pitches to hit and he ended the season with 58, thus tying a figure only reached once before by a right-handed batter - a record that would stand for half a century.

By Koufax's day, anti-Semitism was veiled if at all evident. Religious knowledge and observance on the part of the Jewish community had changed by then as well. Ballplayers of Greenberg's time had often been raised in kosher homes and Orthodox synagogues by observant immigrant parents. Intermarriage was still relatively rare. Greenberg joked with young fans in Yiddish, and his father once signed an autograph in Hebrew.

By contrast, the rabbi of the Minnesota congregation that hosted Koufax during the '65 series is said to have snubbed him for lack of piety. After a story circulated that Koufax had been seen allegedly eating a ham sandwich in a Minnesota hotel elevator, the rabbi was quoted as saying: "He's not such a good Jew, because he didn't marry a Jewish girl," a reference to Koufax's onetime marriage to the daughter of actor Richard Widmark. "So I don't get too excited about it," the rabbi said at the time.

For young Jews across America, however, the effect of Koufax's actions had been electrifying, as had those of Greenberg a generation before. "In the Talmud, it is written that some attain eternal life with a single act," Leavy noted. "On Yom Kippur, 5726, a baseball immortal became a Jewish icon."

The Hebrew Natural

If in every generation Jews must view themselves as if their own baseball greats had taken themselves out of the lineup on Yom Kippur, the height of recent vicarious pride came on September 26, 2001. A nation reeling from the events of  9/11 took special note of a decision by the Dodgers’ golden-armed outfielder and marquee power hitter, Shawn Green.

It was the height of his best year. He had already shattered the all-time record for most single-season home runs hit by a Dodger. His hitting kept the team in the thick of a pennant race with the San Francisco Giants, their arch-rivals since the Dodgers played in Brooklyn and the Giants in Upper Manhattan.

At stake, as well, was Green’s status as the current Iron Man of baseball. He had played in 415 consecutive games, and there were those who believed he could go on to challenge the marks set by Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr.

The Dodgers, trying to close a narrow gap with the league leading Giants, were to host San Francisco in their final home game, a crucial matchup set for the eve of Yom Kippur. But Green had already made up his mind. His uniform stayed in his locker.

In fact, Green had broached the issue with Koufax, an adviser to the Dodger pitching staff, as early as the spring of that year. “He said ‘You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and that’s all there is to it,’” Green would tell ESPN of his conversation with Koufax. “’It’s your decision and no one else’s.”

Green not only sat out the game, but donated his day’s wages, some $70,000, to a charity providing relief for terror-ravaged New York.

"I would feel guilty playing on that day anyway but it's definitely the right example to set," Green said, in sentiments lauded by Jews and non-Jews from New York to Honolulu.

"I think Sandy set a precedent on that and made my decision so much easier,” he continued. "He was a hero to my father growing up and all my relatives who were baseball fans. All Jewish fans worshipped Sandy Koufax.”

On the nature of his own observance, Green said "Whether I'm more religious isn't the issue. It's respecting the holiday, observing the holiday, respecting my roots."

Years before, nearing the end of his then-contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, Green’s Jewish identity had already raised comment – and eyebrows. The left-handed power hitter, whose identification with Judaism had been minimal until introduced to the subject by a Blue Jays team physician, had only one request: to play in a city with a sizable Jewish population.

It was the return to roots of a figure whose grandfather had changed his name from that most baseball of Jewish surnames – Greenberg.

“I get a kick out of being for Jewish kids what Hank Greenberg was for my Zeide, what Sandy Koufax was for my father, what [pitcher] Steve Stone was for me,” Green was once quoted as saying.

In a May, 2000 profile in Los Angeles Magazine, Green seemed to hint at new trends in Judaism in America, just as Greenberg had exemplified his generation’s barefisted fights against classic anti-Semitism, and Koufax’ time had seen the tensions of acceptance and assimilation.

“The phenomenon that is Shawn Green seems to be emerging at exactly the perfect moment, when Judaism is on the verge of actually becoming hip. Indeed, we already have the signs. There's the ubiquitous scraggly-bearded Rabbi Shmuley [Boteach] breaking ground for Orthodoxy by making the rounds on the talk-show circuit, preaching the gospel of feel-good Judaism and kosher sex,” wrote Michael Geffner in the piece he titled “Hebrew Natural.”

“We have Madonna and Roseanne, leading a band of showbiz spiritual seekers, swearing to the life-altering magic of Kaballah's Jewish mysticism. We had the documentary about Jewish baseball legend Hank Greenberg opening recently to rave reviews, and a Michael Jackson sighting at a New York synagogue for Simchat Torah services last October. And we even have New Age guru Deepak Chopra, whose books Green devours, referring to himself as a "Hin-Jew."’

Perhaps appropriately for an icon of American Judaism, the adoring buzz for Green’s observance of Yom Kippur turned to ambivalence and even scorn three years later, when the Jewish and baseball calendars placed a new challenge before him: not one but two games were scheduled for the fast day, one coinciding with Kol Nidre, the other with the long day of prayer.

Once again, the Dodgers and Giants were locked in a close race with only a few games remaining. "I've been struggling hard with this. Obviously, it's very important to me, my religion is very important to me, too,” Green said. "I've bounced back and forth and am just trying to do the right thing . . . It's hard to know what that is. I've really been toying with two different options: Play one of them or not play at all. I will miss at least one game."

In the end, Green opted to play on Kol Nidre, but to sit out the game of the long Atonement day. "I wish Yom Kippur could be in April," he said. "But it's not."

As it happened, Green won the game he played with a home run, and  the Dodgers lost the game they played without him. Reaction was immediate, much of it critical. Fans were peeved with him for having missed the second game. Traditional Jews were angry with him for having played the first.

“Shawn Green was a Jew before he was a baseball player. He was a Jew before he was a public figure,” wrote Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, arguing that Green should not have played at all.

"’Of course not!’" should have been his first, final, and simple answer. "’There are values above baseball, above money, above work. What self-respecting Jew would play on Yom Kippur?’" Wolpe continued.

“Oh, what he might have done with that simple declaration.”

But other rabbinic figures remained warmly sympathetic. Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beit Tfiloh in Baltimore, said to be the largest Modern Orthodox congregation in America, counseled understanding for Green.

Using the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew alphabet, Wohlberg said that it was because of people like Shawn Green that “when God gave us the Torah, it began with the letter ‘beiz,’ the first letter of ‘Bereshit – in the beginning.’ Why, ask the sages in the Midrash, did God begin the Torah with the beiz, the second letter in the alphabet and not the alef – the first. And they explain that the alef was saved to be the first letter in the Ten Commandments; the alef of ‘Anochi – I am the Lord thy God.’ Only God is to be associated with the alef; only God is one, only God is perfect. The rest of us … we’re all beiz …

“None of us is perfect,” Wohlberg said. “Not as parents, not as children, not as spouses, not as Jews, not as human beings. We’re all, in a sense, Shawn Green … beiz ball players. Less than perfect, but striving to get better.”

Elie Wiesel pitches at the World Series

The 1986 World Series pitted the Boston Red Sox against the New York Mets, and author Elie Wiesel against the commissioner of baseball.

On October, 16, 1986, two days after Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize, he received a telephone call from Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

"My son had appeared at my press conference in New York in a New York Yankees jacket, so I thought maybe he was calling to protest or something," Wiesel later recalled. "Instead he told me, 'I want to bestow a great very important honor on you. Would you throw out the first ball in the World Series on Saturday?' "

Wiesel declined, explaining that it was the Jewish Sabbath.

Ueberroth then suggested that he throw out the first ball on Sunday. Wiesel replied that Sunday was the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

After a while, Ueberroth called again. The commissioner explained that he had consulted with rabbis, who told him that it would be permissible for Wiesel to throw out the ball after sundown. Furthermore, Ueberroth said, the game could be delayed so that Wiesel wouldn't have to travel before the sun had set.

According to author Deborah Mark, on another occasion Wiesel summed up the discussion of throwing out the first ball by noting that his son had been "more impressed with that, than with my getting the Nobel Prize.

“So, of course, I accepted."

The Rebbe plays for real

In 1954, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, granting a blessing to a boy about to become bar mitzvah, asked the youth what his favorite sport was. Baseball, came the reply.

“So who usually wins?” the Rebbe asked, in one of a string of patient questions about the Summer Game.

“Whoever plays best,” the boy replied.

Told that the boy played ball frequently with his friends, the Rebbe  asked,

“Do you also go to watch the baseball games at the stadium?”
“Sure.”

“But why do you have to go watch others play, if you know how to play the game yourselves?”

“Rabbi, when we play, it’s just a bunch of kids playing. With the Major League teams, its the real thing.”

The Rebbe  was smiling now. “Your heart is a baseball field. There are two teams competing there: the ‘good inclination,’ the yetzer ha-tov, and the ‘evil inclination,’ the yetzer ha-rah. Up until now, it was a kids’ game. But from now, with your bar mitzvah,  the game is for real.  G-d is giving you a special gift—a major league yetzer tov, with the skills and talents to beat the yetzer ha-rah.  

“Remember, just like in baseball: whoever plays best, wins.”

The spy who caught me

At a position where encyclopedic memory and lightning thinking are signal attributes, Morris “Moe” Berg stood head and shoulders above other catchers. Not to mention secret agents.

Although a lackluster hitter and capable but unspectacular defensively, Moe Berg’s intellectual prowess was second to none, prompting the gibe “He can speak 12 languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.”

The fact that he graduated from Princeton with high honors, studied at the Sorbonne and while playing for the Chicago White Sox studied for and attained a law degree from New York’s Columbia University – even scoring impressively on a top-rated network radio quiz show – was not lost of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor of the CIA.

A month after Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, the OSS recruited Berg, later sending him on one of its most significant secret missions, an encounter with the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, author of the seminal Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and a man believed to play a key role in Germany’s effort to build the first atomic bomb.

Berg, drilled in the details of how to gauge the German nuclear program, was dispatched to Switzerland to attend a physics lecture Heisenberg was scheduled to deliver. The talk took place on December 18, 1944. At the close of the lecture, Berg accompanied Heisenberg out of the hall.

Marshalling his linguistic talents and knack for science, Berg spoke with Heisenberg at length, all the while holding a concealed handgun aimed at the Nobel laureate. Berg’s orders were clear. If Heisenberg indicated that the Nazis had made concrete progress toward producing a bomb, Berg was to shoot him dead.

Fortunately for Heisenberg – and for humanity – Berg determined that no such progress had been made.

The search for the Rabbi of Swat

So ardent were Jewish baseball fans in New York, and so anxious were the city’s Giants to woo them during the height of the sports-crazed Roaring Twenties, that roving vendors in the Polo Grounds offered Ice Cream Cohens in 1928 in recognition of short-lived sensation Andy Cohen.

Cohen, brought in to replace the legendary Rogers Hornsby at second base, was not the first player hired by the Giants to bolster its Jewish fan base in the metropolis that boasted well over a million Jews, more than any other city in the world.

In 1923, fabled Giants manager John J. McGraw held high hopes for newly signed slugger Mose Solomon. Born to an observant family on Hester Street in the city’s immigrant haven Lower East Side, Solomon was a phenomenon in the minor leagues. He clouted a prodigious 49 home runs in the 1923 season and batted .421, leading his league and inviting comparisons to the New York Yankee’s great drawing card, Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat.

In fact, hearing that Solomon had been called up to the major league Giants at the close of the 1923 season, the flamboyant press corps of the day did not even wait for his debut before dubbing Solomon “The Rabbi of Swat.”

For one day, at least, he fulfilled McGraw’s hopes, doubling home the winning run for the home team Giants against the Boston Braves. The Giants would go on to the World Series, but without Solomon, who had a falling out with McGraw after just two games and was sent packing, never to return.

For one shining and very brief moment, the Giants’ Jewish fans saw McGraw’s hopes realized, many years after his death. On September 11, 1941, no fewer than four Jews played in the starting nine, again against Boston: Sid Gordon and Morrie Arnovich in the outfield, Harry Feldman pitching and Harry “the Horse” Danning catching.

But the Giants well knew that for all of their fevered efforts to hunt down and sign Jewish ballplayers, they let slide the one Jewish New Yorker who could have done precisely what they hoped: challenge Babe Ruth at the plate and at the gate. He had grown up in the Bronx, just north of the Giant’s bizarre Polo Grounds stadium, but they failed to sign him. His name was Hank Greenberg.