Religion, Baseball, or Both?

Tonight marks the start of the Red Sox-Yankees series in New York. It’s also Yom Kippur, when Jews around the world, myself included, will forgo food for 25 hours while praying, repenting, and reflecting on our past year as we begin the new Jewish year.

I often say that baseball is my other religion. As a little girl, my father told me the stories of many ballplayers. But this time of year, the ones I think of most are those of my Jewish baseball heroes. There was “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg, who almost beat Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record and spent Yom Kippur at synagogue instead of the ballpark while antisemitism reached new heights in 1930s and 1940s America and Europe. Sandy Koufax, legendary Dodgers pitcher, who famously refused to start Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. And as a little girl, I remember the thrill of seeing Red Sox champions Kevin Youkilis and Gabe Kapler sitting in the back pew of our synagogue during my father’s high holiday services.

Hank Greenberg grew up in an observant Orthodox Jewish home, but he was not a religious man. As the daughter of a prominent rabbi, I can relate to wanting to separate myself from my upbringing, though I’ve never been under as much scrutiny as Hank. In 1934, with Hitler already in power in Germany and antisemite Henry Ford spewing hatred all over Detroit, Hank was the hero American Jews needed, whether he wanted to be, or not. On Rosh Hashanah, he hit two home runs – including a walk-off homer – to beat the Red Sox, 2-1. The Detroit Free Press thanked him with a Hebrew banner that read, “LeShanah Tovah, Hank!” (Happy New Year, Hank!)

But when it came to Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, he was conflicted, especially after his father told reporters, “Henry would never play on Yom Kippur!”

Hank decided to forgo the game mid-pennant race, instead spending Yom Kippur at Shaarey Zedek synagogue. The congregation gave him a standing ovation, and he prayed as his team lost. The next day happened to be the first time a complete ballgame was broadcast on the radio. When Greenberg came up to bat, Detroit broadcaster Ty Tyson said, “Hank was out yesterday observing Yom Kippur, and I believe undoubtedly, his big bat was missed out there.”

The Tigers would go on to win the pennant over Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the fearsome Yankees. The following year, when the Tigers faced the Cubs in the World Series, three Chicago players were ejected for shouting racial slurs at Greenberg from their dugout. Greenberg was famous for being able to tune out and ignore the hate. Years later, he’d advise Jackie Robinson on how to do the same.

Hank Greenberg wasn’t the first Jewish ballplayer, but he was our first star. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that his decision to not play on Yom Kippur led to the Supreme Court’s decision not to hold oral arguments on the holiday. He would recall years later that while he didn’t relish the attention that came with being a Jewish superstar, he was able to look back and be proud of the impact he had on his people.

Sandy Koufax would do the same thing 31 years later, when he chose not to pitch in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series. Many of the Jews around the country who cherished his decision were not the same ones who’d celebrated Greenberg; thousands of Holocaust survivors now called America home, and it was them, as well as a new young generation of Jewish baseball fans, who saw a Jewish hero openly embrace his religion in an antisemitic world.

It’s such a powerful thing to see yourself represented in something you love. For African Americans, it was Jackie Robinson. For Jews, it was Hank Greenberg. For me as a little girl, it was my 2004 heroes, garbed in our synagogue’s prayer shawls, standing right before my eyes. On this, the holiest day of our year, I am grateful to them for helping me embrace the two aspects of myself I’m proudest of.

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