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Sandy Koufax, greatest Jewish baseball player ever.
Sandy Koufax, greatest Jewish baseball player ever.
Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty

The secret history of Jews in baseball

story,interview

When my Washington Nationals finished the regular season with the best record in the National League, I was a little disappointed.

I knew that the Nats' first home game of the playoffs would be on Friday, October 3, and the second game would be on Saturday, October 4 — the evening and day of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism.

This is a dilemma that every Jewish baseball fan knows, either personally or throughout history. Sandy Koufax is the most famous Jewish player ever to play the game, but he's remembered by Jews mostly for refusing to pitch a World Series game for his Los Angeles Dodgers, because it was Yom Kippur. On the other hand, Hank Greenberg — the best Jewish hitter ever — famously played during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, back in the 1930s.

So what did I do? I consulted a rabbi, obviously. Rebecca Alpert is a historian at Temple University, who studies sports and Jewish American life and has a particular interest in Jews in baseball. What Dr. Alpert shared with me shows that there's much more to Jewish baseball history than a few high-profile players and conflicts — it's a history that incorporates both the Major League and the Negro Leagues, as well as questions of values and identity.

The 1920s and 1930s: Jewish owners and players in the Negro Leagues

"There was a fair amount of Jewish ownership of Negro League teams. They were in this business in part because they weren't allowed, as Jews, to be in other businesses. It's a similar story to the Hollywood story. And they were very supportive and helpful, they really helped a lot of the Negro League players make the transition to the major leagues and have a livelihood. The Negro Leagues did very well in the 1930s and '40s, and that was in part due to the influence of a lot of these Jewish owners.

Indianapolis Clowns

The Indianapolis Clowns were one of several Negro Leagues teams owned or promoted by Jews. (Transcendental Graphics/Getty)

"They also had to negotiate a world among blacks, where they were not the majority but blacks were the majority. In some of their dealings, you saw difficult relationships as well. These Jewish figures were helpful and supportive, and they were also in there to make money. They certainly weren't in there to uplift the black race. That just wasn't their goal.

"I was also fascinated by finding black Jews who played in the Negro Leagues … This group, now called Temple Beth-El, had a community down near Portsmouth, Virginia, and they had a team called the Belleville Grays.

"Their owner, who was, I guess, the leader of the community, was Howard Zebulon Plumber. He was an upstanding religious leader, and was looked to, by some of the sportswriters in the black press, as someone who could really shape up the Negro Leagues.

"They actually had some trouble negotiating in the Negro Leagues themselves, because they wouldn't play on Saturday afternoons when most of the games were. … And they were a very solid team."

1934: Hank Greenberg helps win a pennant on Rosh Hashanah

Hank Greenberg

Hank Greenberg was the greatest Jewish hitter in baseball history. (Sporting News Archive)

"Whether (Hank Greenberg) was going to play on Rosh Hashanah, because the Tigers were in the pennant race, became a headline in the Detroit press. They were really interested.

"Greenberg ended up playing on Rosh Hashanah — according to legend, after consulting with a rabbi and discovering it was okay to play on Rosh Hashanah, (that Jewish law didn't prevent) playing games and things. He won the game for them, and it was really an important part of the pennant race.

"If he hadn't played, I think there probably would have been a lot of anti-Semitism that rained down. ‘This Jew, he couldn't show up for the big game, he really wasn't an American.' There was really a sense in the 1930s, the same skepticism we have today, sadly, with immigrants, that they're not really American. And Jews really fell into that category in the 30s. Are they really American? Do they really belong here?

"Baseball mattered. It was the national pastime. Greenberg playing on Rosh Hashanah, ironically, was really an important symbol of making the Jews American, or acceptable.

"And then Greenberg didn't play on Yom Kippur, but by then the Tigers had already clinched (the league title). So he got his cake and ate it too, as it were. He could say, 'Yes, I'm also an observant Jew, and I'm not going to play on Yom Kippur because Jewish holidays matter.' In the '30s, people didn't even know what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were."

1947: Jackie Robinson, Jewish baseball icon

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson receives an award at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal. (New York Daily News Archive)

"I started writing about Jackie Robinson and made the argument that he was a Jewish icon, as much as the Jewish baseball players were, because those were the values of my Jewish life growing up.

"There was the value of equality. And I think Jews saw Jackie Robinson as, ‘If we can support him, he can do it, and we can be Americans also.'

"Jews wrote books about Jackie Robinson, stories and novels, even a Broadway play. And the Jewish Communists were very much at the front lines of making it possible for integration in the major leagues. That was their main fight, and they put up that fight along with the black press from the mid-30s on. They were very passionate about it.

"There was just a sense that oppression was wrong, and that Jews were in the fight to make those changes. For Jewish baseball people, Robinson was kind of the symbol of that."

1965: Sandy Koufax refuses to pitch on Yom Kippur

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax was a power pitcher, but still suffered from stereotypes of Jews as unathletic. (Focus on Sport via Getty)

"A lot of scholars like to say what Koufax did didn't matter, because Jews were already accepted — it was at a time when Jews had assimilated, they were living in the suburbs, and everybody knew what the Jewish holidays were. So it was symbolic, but it didn't really matter.

"But when you talk to a generation of Jewish men who grew up during the period, it mattered a lot. Jews, in particular, were seen at the time as not very masculine, as weak figures. It was sort of a joke. You married a Jewish man, and you'd get taken care of. There was this whole ethos about Jewish masculinity.

"And Koufax suffered from that. Koufax was ridiculed because he'd rather read a book. He was treated as if he were a recluse, and there was something wrong with him because he wasn't a fame-grabber. Imagine, playing in Los Angeles and not being interested in getting headlines! But his masculinity was questioned, and again in part because of an underlying anti-Semitism — or at least stereotyping of Jewish men as not muscular.

"So Koufax was also an important role model, and a real hero."

Jews today: assimilated but accommodated

Brad Ausmus

Brad Ausmus manages the Detroit Tigers, but also managed the Israeli team during the World Baseball Classic in 2012. (Tom DiPace/Major League Baseball)

"There are lots of Jewish players — mostly, unless you're a Jewish baseball obsessionist, you don't know who they are. They don't even have Jewish names. I think that for some people it really is important, but I think Jewish baseball players are really only interesting to a very small percentage of Jews who are looking for ‘Who is a Jew?'

"When the Israeli baseball team played in the World Baseball Classic a few years ago, pretty much anybody who had any sense at all of being Jewish was welcomed on that team. Baseball has not become popular in Israel. They've tried, but it's mostly the Americans who like it. Israelis prefer basketball and soccer. And Brad Ausmus, the Tigers' manager, went to manage that team. He identifies pretty strongly as a Jewish person. And their second baseman, Ian Kinsler, also has a fairly strong Jewish identity. But it's not, like, big news, even though the Tigers are in the postseason. I think things have changed quite a bit."

When my Washington Nationals finished the regular season with the best record in the National League, I was a little disappointed.

I knew that the Nats' first home game of the playoffs would be on Friday, October 3, and the second game would be on Saturday, October 4 — the evening and day of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism.

This is a dilemma that every Jewish baseball fan knows, either personally or through history. Sandy Koufax is the most famous Jewish player in history, but he's remembered by Jews mostly for refusing to pitch when his Los Angeles Dodgers were in the World Series, because it was Yom Kippur. On the other hand, Hank Greenberg — the best Jewish hitter ever — famously played during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, back in the 1930s.

So what did I do? I consulted a rabbi, obviously. Rebecca Alpert is a historian at Temple University, who studies sports and Jewish American life, and has a particular interest in Jews in baseball.

What Dr. Alpert shared with me shows that there's much more to Jewish baseball history than a few high-profile players and conflicts — it's a history that incorporates both the Major League and the Negro Leagues, and questions of values and identity.

Dara Lind: How did you, personally, get interested in the ties between Judaism and baseball?

Rebecca Alpert: I grew up in Brooklyn and so I was a big fan of the Dodgers — this is, you know, a long time ago. They left when I was 7. My parents were both incredibly loyal to the Brooklyn Dodgers, so I became, as a child, very engaged in being a baseball fan. They're very, very deep childhood memories. It was a major part of my growing up.

Dara Lind: Can you talk about the conflict that the High Holidays poses for Judaism and baseball? You know, the highest-profile case here is Sandy Koufax in the 1960s deciding not to pitch on Yom Kippur, but it's also been a conflict for other players and for fans about whether to play or watch instead of observing the holiday.

Rebecca Alpert: When I tell people I write about Jews and baseball, the first thing they say is "Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax!" That's where the connection is.

Both Greenberg and Koufax had similar ethnic Jewish identities. Neither of them was really religious, per se. But they understood the symbolism of playing on Rosh Hashanah, or not playing on Rosh Hashanah; playing on Yom Kippur, or not playing on Yom Kippur.

It's interesting to see the difference between Jewish life in the 1930s and Jewish life in the 1960s. They exemplify two very different eras.

Dara Lind: What do you mean?

Rebecca Alpert: Greenberg — whether he was going to play on Rosh Hashanah, because the Tigers were in the pennant race, became a headline in the Detroit press. They were really interested. Greenberg ended up playing on Rosh Hashanah — according to legend, after consulting with a rabbi and discovering it was okay to play on Rosh Hashanah, [that Jewish law didn't prevent] playing games and things. He won the game for them, and it was really an important part of the pennant race.

Hank Greenberg

Hank Greenberg was the greatest Jewish hitter in baseball history. (Sporting News Archive)

If he hadn't played, I think there probably would have been a lot of anti-Semitism that rained down. "This Jew, he couldn't show up for the big game, he really wasn't an American." There was really a sense in the 1930s — the same skepticism we have today, sadly, with immigrants — that they're not really American. And Jews really fell into that category in the 30s. Are they really American? Do they really belong here?

It's hard to understand today, because baseball only matters to the people to whom baseball matters — but up until the mid-1960s, baseball mattered. It was the national pastime. Greenberg playing on Rosh Hashanah, ironically, was really an important symbol of making the Jews American, or acceptable.

And then Greenberg didn't play on Yom Kippur, but by then the Tigers had already clinched [the league title]. So he got his cake and ate it too, as it were. He could say, "Yes, I'm also an observant Jew, and I'm not going to play on Yom Kippur because Jewish holidays matter." In the '30s, people didn't even know what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were.

Dara Lind:So how had that changed by the time Sandy Koufax was in a similar position, and decided not to pitch during the World Series?

Rebecca Alpert: There's this Koufax/Greenberg debate. A lot of scholars like to say what Koufax did didn't matter, because Jews were already accepted. It was at a time when Jews had assimilated, they were living in the suburbs, and everybody knew what the Jewish holidays were. So it was symbolic, but it didn't really matter.

But when you talk to a generation of Jewish men who grew up during the period, it mattered a lot. Jews, in particular, were seen at the time as not very masculine, as weak figures. It was sort of a joke. You married a Jewish man, and you'd get taken care of. There was this whole ethos about Jewish masculinity.

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax was a power pitcher, but still suffered from stereotypes of Jews as unathletic. (Focus on Sport via Getty)

And Koufax suffered from that. Koufax was ridiculed because he'd rather read a book. He was treated as if he were a recluse, and there was something wrong with him because he wasn't a fame-grabber. Imagine playing in Los Angeles and not being interested in getting headlines! But his masculinity was questioned, and again in part because of an underlying anti-Semitism — or at least stereotyping of Jewish men as not muscular.

So Koufax was also an important role model, and a real hero. Both Koufax and Greenberg, at different times and in different ways, were very important to Jewish sensibility.

But did they keep kosher? No! Were they playing on Shabbat? Of course! Nobody questions playing on Friday night, which is just as important in traditional Jewish religious discourse as playing on Rosh Hashanah. It wasn't even thought of. You couldn't be a professional baseball player and do that.

Dara Lind: This raises a traditional question when you're talking about Jewish anything, which is: what makes someone Jewish? How observant do they have to be, or is having a cultural identity enough, or just having Jewish parents, or whatever. So: who counts as a Jewish baseball player?

Rebecca Alpert: I find it fascinating that there are the people who do the Jewish Baseball News website and the Jewish Sports Review, who are really interested in which players are Jewish, have their own definitions for who is a Jew. For some of them, it's only those who identified as Jews while playing. For others, it's anybody who had any relationship to Judaism.

But nobody really goes by the traditional definition of who is a Jew. Nobody cares that Lou Boudreau has a Jewish mother; he's in the Hall of Fame, and doesn't get counted as a Jew in the Hall of Fame by almost anybody. But by halacha, by Jewish legal standards, he's actually Jewish. For all of these people, if you have a Jewish father and you identify as a Jew, they'll count you as a Jew, even though you wouldn't count traditionally.

I like the idea that people are challenging traditional Jewish definitions.

But they're all pretty adamant that Rod Carew isn't a Jew. And I feel Rod Carew ought to be included in some way. He's not a Jew, but he certainly is part of the history of Jewish baseball. When he was a player, he was thinking about converting. He buried his daughter with Jewish ceremonies. When he was married to a Jewish woman, he was himself engaged and connected with the Jewish community.

We need some kind of recognition for people like that. I'd never say Rod Carew was Jewish. But I'd like to see some kind of "fellow traveler" designation.

Rod Carew

Rod Carew, "fellow traveler" of Jewish baseball. (Focus On Sport/Getty)

Dara Lind: So what else is important to your understanding about Jewish baseball players or icons for Jewish fans?

Rebecca Alpert: When I was growing up, there was this sense that baseball wasn't just a sport. It was a vehicle for values. My mother sort of saw the Dodgers as Jewish because they were the working-class team and because they were the first to integrate. That kind of took on a major significance in my life, even though I didn't follow baseball much as a child. When I moved to Philadelphia I started rooting for the Phillies and got back involved in baseball again.

I wound up, curiously, doing an oral history for a man who was writing about baseball fans, and he didn't have enough women. So he called on me. As I talked to him, and as I read what I said to him, I realized, this is a formative part of the way I developed my values.

It circled back to my origins: I started writing about Jackie Robinson and made the argument that he was a Jewish icon, as much as the Jewish baseball players were, because those were the values of my Jewish life growing up.

Dara Lind:What values are those?

Rebecca Alpert:There was the value of equality. And I think Jews saw Jackie Robinson as, "If we can support him, he can do it, and we can be Americans also."

Jews wrote books about Jackie Robinson, stories and novels, even a Broadway play. And the Jewish Communists were very much at the front lines of making it possible for integration in the major leagues. That was their main fight, and they put up that fight along with the black press from the mid-30s on. They were very passionate about it.

There was just a sense that oppression was wrong, and that Jews were in the fight to make those changes. For Jewish baseball people, Robinson was kind of the symbol of that.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson receives an award at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal. (New York Daily News Archive)

Dara Lind: I know you've also written about Jewish involvement in the Negro Leagues. What roles did Jews play there?

Rebecca Alpert: When I was writing about Jackie Robinson, I thought, "When did we get to the point where we saw Jackie Robinson as a Jewish hero?" And I discovered that there was a fair amount of Jewish ownership of Negro League teams.

They were in this business in part because they weren't allowed, as Jews, to be in other businesses. It's a similar story to the Hollywood story. And they were very supportive and helpful. They really helped a lot of the Negro League players make the transition to the major leagues and have a livelihood. The Negro Leagues did very well in the '30s and '40s, and that was in part due to the influence of a lot of these Jewish owners.

Indianapolis Clowns

The Indianapolis Clowns were one of several Negro Leagues teams owned or promoted by Jews. (Transcendental Graphics/Getty)

It was a predominantly black-owned business, so they also had to negotiate a world among blacks, where they were not the majority but blacks were the majority. In some of their dealings, you saw difficult relationships as well. The story was very complicated, and I liked that. I liked both that these Jewish figures were helpful and supportive, and that they were also in there to make money. They certainly weren't in there to uplift the black race. That just wasn't their goal.

I was also fascinated by finding black Jews who played in the Negro Leagues.

Dara Lind: Please tell me more about this.

Rebecca Alpert: This group, called Temple Beth-El, is very committed to traditional, Ashkenazi Jewish practices today. They had a more complicated relationship to Judaism in this earlier period, but they definitely saw themselves as Hebrew Israelites. They had a community down near Portsmouth, Virginia, and they had a team called the Belleville Grays.

Their owner, who was, I guess, the leader of the community, was Howard Zebulon Plumber. He was an upstanding religious leader, and was looked to, by some of the sportswriters in the black press, as someone who could really shape up the Negro Leagues. It's a very interesting community that I got to know a little bit.

They actually had some trouble negotiating in the Negro Leagues themselves, because they wouldn't play on Saturday afternoons when most of the games were.

Dara Lind: So the most observant Jewish players in baseball history were this Negro Leagues team?

Rebecca Alpert: In some sense, yes. Later on, Plumber really wanted them to be the best team in the Negro Leagues, and so he started bringing in people who were not members of the community. But all through the 1920s and 1930s, everyone who played for them was a member of the community. And they were a very solid team.

Dara Lind: So how has the Jewish ballplayer tradition survived today?

Rebecca Alpert: There are lots of Jewish players — mostly, unless you're a Jewish baseball obsessionist, you don't know who they are. They don't even have Jewish names. I think that for some people, it really is important, but I think Jewish baseball players are really only interesting to a very small percentage of Jews who are looking for "Who is a Jew?"

When the Israeli baseball team played in the World Baseball Classic a few years ago, pretty much anybody who had any sense at all of being Jewish was welcomed on that team. Baseball has not become popular in Israel. They've tried, but it's mostly the Americans who like it. Israelis prefer basketball and soccer. And Brad Ausmus, the Tigers' manager, went to manage that team. He identifies pretty strongly as a Jewish person. And their second baseman, Ian Kinsler, also has a fairly strong Jewish identity. But it's not, like, big news, even though the Tigers are in the postseason. I think things have changed quite a bit.

Brad Ausmus

Dara Lind: With all of this history, why is there so much anxiety around the High Holidays, per se? Why does that become the big dilemma for Jewish players and fans?

Rebecca Alpert: Some of it is this confluence of the High Holidays and the postseason, which is, sort of, baseball's High Holidays. A lot of Jews are divorced from their religious identities. The phenomenon of the once-a-year Jew, they go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and for no other reason. Nobody doubts their Jewishness. But they still attend because those are still the High Holidays, they mark observance.

For some people, Yom Kippur becomes a day when they just want to go into themselves and not have any distractions. But I can tell you stories of people 80 years older than me who will talk about sneaking out during the middle of services to find out what the score was on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

It's really hard, and admirable, to pick 24 hours and cut yourself off from your email and other social networks and what's going on the world. And I think it's a good goal for people to have. But we can't always achieve those goals. But maybe for some people, probably a lot of people, Yom Kippur doesn't mean that. It does mean reconnecting to a Jewish community group or spending time in a Jewish context. It may or may not mean fasting. But not everybody has the luxury of that kind of separation.

Can you watch on Kol Nidre, is that really in keeping with the spirit of the holiday? The answer to that is, I don't know. Maybe you don't have to do it every year. Life is long.

Dara Lind: Do you think that baseball is more likely to accommodate Jews now than it was, even though we're more assimilated than we were when Koufax was pitching?

Rebecca Alpert: Well, it's high stakes financially. They also changed a Yankee game one year — moved it away from Yom Kippur — because they knew that the Yankees have a lot of Jewish fans, unlike in the old days, and they knew that they would get less revenue if they had a game on Kol Nidre, so they moved it.

It's all about selling beer, unfortunately.

But Baltimore also used to have Jewish owners. I don't know that they would have felt bold enough to do that. America itself is much more open to diversity than it used to be. I think that's really a result of the civil-rights movement, the women's movement, the disability rights movement, the lesbian and gay movement. People are just like, "Wait, people are different, and it's important to live in a society that values those differences, and when we can accommodate them — that is to say, when it doesn't cost too much money — we should do that."

Dara Lind: So now that Jews have assimilated, and players being Jewish or not isn't that relevant anymore— is the history of Jewish baseball over?

Rebecca Alpert:I never guess about the future. I have no idea what's going to happen. It's hard to know.

But I'm a historian, and for me history matters. And I think Judaism, too, really cares about its past. It's very important to live in the present. But memory, in Judaism, is very important to our heritage. Telling stories over and over is part of who we are. So I don't think the old stories will go away.

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