THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS Friday, September 28, 1984
Hank Greenberg, Tiger star of the 1930s with a
celebrated Rosh Hashanah 50 years ago
great, refused to .
Sandy Koufax, Series
Pitch a World
Al Rosen, the Cleveland
star and now general
' Yo in Kippu
of r the
Astros, didn't play on
in 1 Houston
953, bu t the game
wa s rained
s the High Holidays approach,
every Jew for whom the Days of Awe have
a special significance can be expected to
look deeply into himself or herself and ask
appropriate searching questions: "Have I
deceived anyone in my business or profes-
sional dealings?" "Have I failed to keep
some of God's commandments?" "Should
I be available for pinch-hitting duty?"
Wait a minute — run that last one by me
again, please. Surely that last item is out
Unless, of course, you happen to be an
identifying Jew and a major league base-
ball player. Then the question hits, uh,
close to home — and your resolution of the
issue is not just a matter between you and
God, but between you and the kahal (con-
gregation) of fans and media.
Probably every Jew of my (baby-boom)
generation knows that Sandy Koufax sat
out an important game for the Dodgers on
Yom Kippur; and most Jewish men of my
father's generation know that there was
some excitement regarding whether De-
troit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg
would or wouldn't play on the High Holy
Days. But the facts surrounding both
these incidents are frequently altered — or
even reversed — in the telling.
"Everyone I grew up with," wrote a
book reviewer in a New York Jewish paper
last year, "remembers that Sandy Koufax
was the only Jewish pitcher for the
Brooklyn Dodgers and that in 1961 he
refused to pitch in a Yom Kippur game."
Oh, dear. Koufax wasn't the only Brooklyn
Dodger Jewish pitcher; the most famous
game he sat out was a World Series game
and was in 1965 (though there was an in-
Robert L. Cohen, creator of the Yedid Nefesh
radio program on Jewish culture and identity,
is an editor and writer who believes that the
Torah, nine-man baseball, and "real grass" were
all revealed at Sinai.
cident in '61, but we'll get to that later),
and the Dodgers were no longer in Brook-
lyn in '65 or '61. And the reviewer got
most of these errors from the book she was
Even more unfortunately, another New
York Jewish paper recently noted that
Koufax didn't pitch "on the first day of
Yom Kippur." (On the second day, pre-
sumably, he ate only hardboiled eggs and
water and didn't throw hard fastballs.)
And the Greenberg story is equally shroud-
ed in confusion: in the (mistaken) "remi-
niscences" of people who have told me con-
flicting versions of whether Greenberg did
or did not play — and in some reference
books (including The Jew In Americans
Sports) as well.
Most Jews my age are surprised to hear
that there was a player before Koufax who
excited nationwide controversy concern-
ing whether or not he would play on the
High Holy Days. But if those who do re-
member Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg
are somewhat hazy about the details of his
story, it may be because of the unorthodox
(and certainly non-Orthodox) way in which
Greenberg — born in the Bronx of Ruma-
nian Jewish parents, twice the American
League's Most Valuable Player, and some-
thing of an ethnic standard-bearer for se-
cond-generation Jewish Americans in the
Thirties — eventually resolved the issue.
As a rookie in 1933, Greenberg had re-
ceived little notice when he sat out the
High Holidays. But in 1934, Greenberg's
Detroit Tigers — he was their preeminent
slugger — were fighting for their first pen-
nant in 25 years. Whether or not Green-
berg would play Boston on Rosh Hasha-
nah was a question of conscience for him,
a subject of passion for Tiger fans, and a
matter of concern to Jews everywhere.
Would he play?
Greenberg says he consulted Leo Frank-
lin, then Detroit's most renowned rabbi.
Dr. Franklin's advice, as Greenberg recalls
it: Rosh Hashanah was a "happy holiday"
and there were records of New Year ball
playing on the streets of Bethlehem in
Talmudic times, so Hank could play. Yom
Kippur was another matter.
Though some newspapers reported that
Greenberg was still uneasy about playing,
Rosh Hashanah certainly turned out to be
a happy holiday for him. He hit two home
runs: the first tying the score, 1-1; the se-
cond winning the game, 2-1.
The delirious Detroit Free Press printed
Greenberg's picture on its front page the
next day, with "Happy New Year" in
Hebrew above the photo; while a Cleveland
scribe triumphantly wrote that "only one
fellow blew, the shofar yesterday so you
could hear it. He was Hank Greenberg. He
blew the shofar twice, and the ears of the
Boston Red Sox are still ringing." Other
sportswriters interpreted Greenberg's ex-
ploits as signifying Divine approval of his
decision to play.
Greenberg spent Yom Kippur in synago-
gue and the Tigers lost (though they went
on to win the pennant). But he reports that
his teammates, and the fans, by and large
respected his decision. Indeed, the syn-
dicated poet Edgar Guest was moved to
write an ode of appreciation, which conclu-
Come Yom Kippur—holy fast day
world-wide over to the Jew—
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching
and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and
he didn't come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, "We
shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him in the infield and
shall miss him at the bat,
But he's true to his religion—and I
honor him for that!
Continued on next page