The secret history of Jews in baseball

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

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.

“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.

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

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