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Saturday, October 30, 2021

Conversion and Jews in sports

Those of us who care about Jews in sports wield a broad definition of Jewish--basically anyone with a Jewish parent, maybe even a Jewish grandparent, and anyone who converted before or during his playing career (e.g., 1970s outfielder Elliot Maddox). But what about players who convert in retirement? Should we regard them as retroactively Jewish, so that their sports achievements and records become part of the record for "Jews in Sports?" Can we count a player's statistics and records accrued when he was not Jewish when accruing them? Can a player who was not when playing be named to the All-Time Jewish team after the fact?

I wrote recently that this is the second three-Jew World Series and that Max Fried pitching to Alex Bregman in the first inning of Game 2 was the first time a Jewish pitcher faced a Jewish hitter in the Series. Readers have challenged both points. On the first, a reader pointed out that the A's had three Jewish players in the 1972 Series--Ken Holtzman, Mike Epstein, and pitcher Joe Horlen. On the second, a reader said (which I had known) that Holtzman faced Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager in the 1974 Series, Yeager going 1-for-3 with a double and a strikeout.

Horlen and Yeager converted in retirement when each married a Jewish woman. So neither qualified as a Jewish player at the time. Anyone looking at A's roster during the '72 Series would have identified two Jewish players--who went by the nicknames of "Ordinary Jew" and "Super Jew," respectively. Holtzman pitching to Steve Yeager in 1974 was no different from a Jewish standpoint than Holtzman pitching to Steve Garvey.*

[*] I have danced around the question with Yeager in wondering whether to count his four home runs and Series MVP in 1981 and in not including him in my Yom Kippur study because he would have had no reason or impulse not to play on those days.

But should it be? Judaism speaks of conversion as the person "coming home." The person did not change, in that her soul or spirit has always been Jewish and one of the Jewish people who received Torah at Sinai. He is the same person, returning to the fold. The Talmud also discusses retroactivity in designation or impurity of items. How should that apply in who we recognize as Jewish and how we honor and recognize individual achievements? Maybe I will come back to this next Shavuot.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 30, 2021 at 11:09 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink

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