Jews & Baseball

Why do we idolize Jewish baseball players?

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It's difficult to say which was the more significant event: when Detroit Tiger's star Hank Greenberg sat out a game on Yom Kippur during a heated 1934 pennant race, or when Edgar Guest penned a famous rhyme to commemorate the occurrence.

As Greenberg wrote in his autobiography, he was "probably the only batter in the lineup who was not in a slump" at the time. The Detroit Tigers had gone a quarter century since their last pennant, and fans grumbled when Hammerin' Hank declared he would not play on Rosh Hashanah. After consulting with his rabbi, who ruled that Rosh Hashanah was a "festive holiday" and playing would be permitted, Greenberg relented and suited up. He hit two home runs that day, including one in the ninth inning that won the game, but he stuck to his guns when it came to Yom Kippur.

Hank Greenberg

Hank Greenberg 

 

"Suppose I stay out of the game and we lost the pennant by one game," quipped the slugger. It was not a small act on the part of a Jewish player in an era when Jews faced rampant anti-Semitism, and to say the pride of Jewish fans across the country swelled would be an understatement.

All of which is why the poem by Edgar Guest may be more significant than Greenberg's actual decision not to play. Edgar Albert Guest had come to the United States in 1891, at the age of 10, and by the age of 17 was publishing his poetry in the Detroit Free Press. He'd become known as "The People's Poet," penning some 11,000 poems before his death. So it was a great gesture for American Jews when Guest penned the following:

"Came Yom Kippur--holy fast day world wide over to the Jew / And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true / Spent the day among his people and he didn't come to play. / Said Murphy to Mulrooney, 'We shall lose the game today! / We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat / But he's true to his religion--and I honor him for that!'"

Stepping Onto the Social Ladder

The question of why American Jews have been so enamored of Jewish sports figures, particularly Jewish baseball players, can begin to be answered in that final verse. Guest was not entirely unlike the masses of American Jews who cheered Greenberg--and later Sandy Koufax, Art Shamsky, Shawn Green, and so many others. He was an immigrant, coming to the shores of America looking for a better life, but whereas Guest found himself part of the larger religious majority, a white man from England, Jewish Americans faced a more uncertain place in the religious and ethnic landscape.

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Bradford R. Pilcher

Bradford R. Pilcher is the Managing Editor of American Jewish Life magazine. His writing has appeared in venues such as Wired News, PopMatters, Jewsweek, and he has served as an advisor to the National Museum of American Jewish History.