Aviva Kempner was writer, director and producer of the documentary film “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.”
Thanks to the insensitivity of Major League Baseball, the Nationals’ playoff game Saturday — on Yom Kippur — puts Jewish fans in Washington in a difficult position . As we ponder whether to set our DVR s or smuggle iPhones in our tallis bags, stories of how others have dealt with similar dilemmas can be enlightening.
No Jewish players are on the Nationals’ roster, and not far away, in Baltimore, the Orioles and their rivals, the Detroit Tigers, were saved by a friendlier scheduling of games and have the day off. Both Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler and manager Brad Ausmus are Jewish. Retiring Commissioner Bud Selig is also Jewish; certainly, Major League Baseball’s leadership is aware of the issue.
Eighty years ago, another Tiger, Hall of Famer Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg, set the bar high for Jewish players. Having grown up in an Orthodox home, the first baseman chose the synagogue over the stadium on Yom Kippur on 1934, even though he was Detroit’s best hitter and his team was in an intense pennant race.
Later, Greenberg recalled that the only time he thought he was a hero “was that day, because I received a standing ovation walking into services.” The Tigers lost to the Yankees, 5-2, but won the pennant.
Greenberg’s decision has become the basis of thousands of bar mitzvah speeches. In my Detroit home, my brother Jonathan and I often heard our father tell the story of Greenberg’s 1934 Yom Kippur observance on the way to synagogue. No wonder I imagined Greenberg was a part of Kol Nidre services.
Many will recall that Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax also chose not to play on Yom Kippur. Of course, starting pitchers have it easier than everyday players, since they can shift their regular rotation day without creating as great an impact on the team.
Through the years, numerous other Jewish players have followed Greenberg’s and Koufax’s lead, including Jose Bautista (whose mother is Israeli), Kevin Youkilis and Shawn Green. By sitting out in the thick of a pennant race, Green ended a streak of 415 consecutive games played. Often athletes are driven to seek creative solutions. Former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler told me that he once had a Jewish player at Miami University in Ohio ask if he could play a Yom Kippur game under a false name. Schembechler declined the request.
The decision is also tough for team owners. The Lerner family, owners of the Nationals, has made it clear that they will not be in the stadium on the holiest Jewish holiday.
That religious stand reminds me of a story Al Rosen, who played for Cleveland and was nicknamed “the Hebrew Hammer,” told about his late 1970s stint as president of the Yankees. Rosen chose to go to Yankee Stadium for a tiebreaking game that fell on Rosh Hashanah. That Oct. 2, 1978, game is now known to Red Sox and Yankee fans everywhere as “The Bucky Dent Game,” for the home run by the light-hitting shortstop that secured the victory for New York.
A Jewish fan who spotted Rosen on TV sent him a hostile letter. Rosen wrote back criticizing the fan for watching television on the Jewish New Year.
Jewish baseball fans often seek guidance from their rabbis on handling the conflict. But the advice can be faulty. During the debate over whether Greenberg would play on Rosh Hashanah in 1934, the Detroit News consulted a Reform rabbi, who cited references in the Talmud that allowed for playing in the street on a holiday. So Greenberg split the day. He went first to Rosh Hashanah services, then showed up at the stadium. He hit two home runs and the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 2-1. Never mind that the religious advice was not quite accurate. According to the late sportscaster Dick Schaap, “The rabbi knew that the Talmud really said that it was the Roman children who played on Rosh Hashanah, but the rabbi didn’t tell Hank that part of it.”
Today, thousands of us will have to follow our conscience. I’m sure many break-the-fast dinners will be conducted as mine will — around the television, cheering the Nationals.
But these conflicts could be avoided if Major League Baseball would listen to the Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has described how Greenberg’s 1934 Yom Kippur decision influenced the court’s practice: “Justice Stephen Breyer and I persuaded our colleagues that no one should sit. [Like] the game should not go on, the argument should not go on . . . as many of the lawyers who were scheduled to appear in cases on that day would be put to a terrible choice. And it was thinking about not ourselves but the people who come to plead before the court. We did refer to Hank Greenberg as someone who couldn’t betray his conscience.”
Too bad the Supreme Court is not the final arbiter of baseball’s playoff schedule.