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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur, Sandy Koufax, and (the forgotten) Hank Greenberg

Something that had not clicked until my rabbi discussed it last night: This Yom Kippur marked the fiftieth anniversary of Sandy Koufax not pitching Game 1 of the World Series (it was October 6, 1965, on the English calendar). This story forms a big piece of Koufax's legend as one of the greatest pitchers of all time, the greatest Jewish player of all time, and a hero to American Jews who saw in his actions a place for their faith within American society (Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax...).

My rabbi also told the oft-repeated addendum to the story. Don Drysdale (himself a future Hall of Fame pitcher, so it is not like there was such a drop-off in WAR by Koufax not pitching) started and lasted less than three innings. The story goes that when Dodgers manager Walter Alston came to the mound to remove Drysdale from the game, Drysdale said something to the effect of "Bet you wish I was Jewish, too." But a baseball historian told me there is some doubt about when this comment actually was made and by whom. One version is the common one. Another has Drysdale saying it in the clubhouse after the game. And in a third version, it was not Drysdale who said it, but a former Dodger player who was watching from the stands. The historian was unable to get underneath the most-common version of the story.

Koufax's decision has completely overshadowed a similar decision by the previous greatest Jewish player, Hank Greenberg, who played for Detroit and Pittsburgh in the '30s and '40s (his life, and this event, is covered in a wonderful 2000 documentary). In the heat of a close pennant race in 1934, Greenberg played on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (after obtaining permission from a local rabbi, who searched the texts to find that "play" was permitted on that day), but did not play on Yom Kippur. Although no one in 2014 marked the eightieth anniversary of Greenberg, in some ways, his stand was more courageous than Koufax's. For one, Greenberg was an everyday player who would have been expected to play every game; as a pitcher, Koufax only could pitch in one of the first two games, so holding him to Game 2 was not an enormous lineup change or loss. For another, the position of American Jews in 1934 was far more precarious than in 1965. While there was still anti-Semitism, both de facto and de jure, in 1965, it was far worse thirty years earlier. This was one year after Hitler came to power. And Greenberg played in Detroit, home of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.

Greenberg was similarly lauded for his act of conscience and seen as similarly inspirational by American Jews. Yet his stand has been lost to history. Some of it is that the World Series is a bigger deal than a pennant race. Some of it is that Koufax is closer to being the greatest pitcher of all time than Greenberg is to being the greaterst first-baseman of all time, so all of his actions are magnified. Some may be recency bias.

In any event, with all the additional post-season rounds and games, no Jewish player will ever again have to skip a World Series game for Yom Kippur. It is more likely he would miss a World Series game for Thanksgivukkah 79811.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 23, 2015 at 09:31 PM in Howard Wasserman, Religion, Sports | Permalink

Comments

"his stand has been lost to history." Not if you grew up Jewish in Detroit! Indeed, when I was a kid the Koufax story always began "Like Hank Greenberg . . . "

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Sep 24, 2015 8:27:59 AM

Sandy looked great at this year's All Star game . . . a classy hero.

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Sep 24, 2015 9:55:17 PM

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