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.

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 quandaryRabbinic 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."