The Yom Kippur When Hank Wanted To Play

Three decades before Sandy Koufax made his stand, Hank Greenberg struggled with the same question

AP Photo

Sandy Koufax famously sat out on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, fifty years ago. You have heard that story repeatedly. Yom Kippur in 1965 happened to coincide with Game 1 of the World Series. Koufax would have started that game; instead Dodgers teammate Don Drysdale got the ball. He gave up seven runs (three earned) in 2 2/3 innings against Minnesota. “I bet right now, you wish I was Jewish, too,” Drysdale said to manager Walter Alston.

Though it has been rightly memorialized as a remarkable day in Jewish sports history — “Three-thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax, you’re (bleepin) right I live in the past!” Walter says in “The Big Lebowski” — it actually didn’t shift the series that much. Koufax started Game 2 and was outdueled by Jim Kaat – Koufax lasted only six innings. So the Twins led, 2-0. But Koufax came back to dominate Game 5 (four-hit shutout, struck out 10) and then he become a Los Angeles folk hero with his performance in Game 7 (three-hit shutout, struck out 10 again).

Koufax’s decision to rest on Yom Kippur — and the way he followed up in that World Series — have made his stand one of the most famous moments in baseball history.

But there was perhaps a more interesting Yom Kippur World Series decision made thirty years earlier.

Hank Greenberg grew up in Orthodox Jewish family, meaning his childhood was very different from Koufax’s more secular upbringing. Koufax did not have a Bar Mitzvah, he did not go to temple, he was Jewish by birth and by the neighborhood where he grew up in Brooklyn. Greenberg’s parents, on the other hand, were Romanian immigrants who were observant Jews. They meant to name young Hank Greenberg “Hyman” – a derivative of the Jewish name Chaim, meaning life – but the hospital was unfamiliar with the name and wrote down “Henry” instead. They kept a kosher kitchen, spoke Yiddish to young Hy Greenberg, took him to synagogue on a weekly basis and raised him to fast on Yom Kippur and light the menorah on Hanukkah. At 13, he had his Bar Mitzvah.

“Quit that baseball already,” his father, David Greenberg, shouted at him. “It’s a game for bums.”

But Hank Greenberg kept playing, and he was fantastic. The Yankees wanted him, but, seeing Lou Gehrig at first base, Greenberg went to New York University instead. After a year, he signed with the Detroit Tigers. Three years later, in 1933, he  made it to the big leagues.

At first, Hank did not even consider playing on Yom Kippur or even Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. To do so, Greenberg thought, would break his parents’ hearts. But circumstances intervened. In 1934, Greenberg’s first great year, the Tigers were locked in a ferocious battle with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s Yankees for the pennant. Rosh Hashanah fell in early September, and the Tigers led by only four games and had been fading a bit in recent days. Greenberg had not intended to play, but as the date grew closer and the race grew tighter, he found himself wavering.

Here’s another difference between Greenberg’s situation and Koufax’s – Greenberg played in a much rougher time for Jewish athletes and for Jewish Americans. Father Coughlin was a popular national radio preacher who repeatedly blamed The Depression on Jewish bankers. Henry Ford, one of the most powerful businessmen in the country, spread anti-Semitic rantings in his newspaper. Charles Lindbergh, perhaps the most admired American, was beginning to make his anti-Jewish feelings known (something he would express regret about later in life). By the end of the 1930s, in the aftermath of German special troops orchestrating a series of deadly attacks against Jews later known as Kristallnacht, a Gallup poll showed that 54 percent of Americans believed that the persecution was “partly the Jews’ own fault” and 12 percent of Americans said they would support such a campaign in the United States.

The tension naturally spread to baseball. There had never been a truly great Jewish baseball player before Greenberg, so the most prominent connection in many people’s minds between baseball and Jews was the connection to Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein, who helped throw the 1919 World Series. The antipathy toward Greenberg was wide open; in those rough times he was called every slur imaginable. Pitchers were encouraged to throw him pork chops. People in the stands would call him “Christ-killer.” Death threats came in the mail.

Greenberg dealt with all of this impassively. To fight back was to lose. Every now and again, he would lose his cool – he supposedly went over to the Yankees’ bench once and challenged every single member of the team to a fight, either one at a time or, if they preferred, all at once. No one stood. But for the most part, Greenberg endured the attacks silently and solemnly, because that’s all there was for him to do.

So back to the 1934 season and Greenberg’s Rosh Hashanah decision. There was such a panic in Detroit that Greenberg would not play, a newspaper reporter found a prominent rabbi in town and asked if it would be OK for him to play. The rabbi supposedly scoured the Talmud, a collection of Jewish writings that is at the heart of the religion, and found that since Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be a day of joy, it would be OK for Greenberg to play the joyous game of baseball. It remains an open question if the rabbi was interpreting the Talmud or his own love of the Tigers.

In any case, Greenberg played on Rosh Hashanah, and he hit two home runs in a victory, and the next day the Detroit Free Press ran a headline in Yiddish that translated to “Happy New Year, Hank!”

Nine days later, Greenberg faced the more pressing question: Should he play on Yom Kippur? This is a solemn day for Jewish people to atone for their sins — nothing joyful about Yom Kippur. Most Jews fast. There would be no reprieve from a rabbi for the holiest day of the year. Greenberg would either sit this out or he would publicly break from his faith’s traditions. There was no in-between.

Fortunately for the Tigers and Greenberg, the pennant race had loosened up. The Tigers led by 7 1/2 games with just 10 remaining. The Yankees were likely through. Greenberg decided to sit on Yom Kippur and there wasn’t much of a fuss about it. About the only thing that lingered from the decision was that the Tigers’ infield of Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Bill Rogell and Marv Owen had played every other game all season. They were known as the “Iron Man Infield.”

After the season ended, an Associated Press photo of the Iron Man Infield made its way nationally, with this caption:

“Anxious for the opening of the World Series, these four members of the Detroit infield, with one exception, hung up something of a record during the season by going through the schedule without a day off. Hank Greenberg enjoyed a holiday on Yom Kippur but played all other days.”

It could be argued whether Greenberg “enjoyed a holiday,” – he had actually been pressed to sit by his father and had been distressed about it – but he mostly found himself celebrated for sitting on Yom Kippur. A man named Edgar Guest was one of the most famous poets in America at the time. He was called “The People’s Poet,” and among his poems was the famous, “It Couldn’t Be Done,” with the opening:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he tried.

This was often Guest’s theme, the story of people overcoming doubt, and he was so taken by Greenberg’s decision to rest on Yom Kippur that he wrote a lengthy poem called “Speaking of Greenberg” that was reprinted in newspapers all over the country.

The final third:

Came Yom Kippur – holy feast 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.”

You may have heard this story about Hank Greenberg; it’s only slightly less famous than the Koufax one. But you may not have heard that one year later, Yom Kippur showed up later on the annual calendar. It was Oct. 7, 1935. That turned out to be Game 6 of the 1935 World Series, which featured Greenberg’s Tigers and the Chicago Cubs.

That Series was nightmarish for Greenberg. He’d had a fantastic year, leading the league in homers (36), RBIs (168) and total bases (389) and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. But he went hitless in Game 1 of the series and then, in Game 2 — though he hit a home run — he badly hurt his left wrist in a home-plate collision with Chicago’s Gabby Hartnett. It swelled so much, he could not even pull a glove over it. And it hurt so much, he could not even lift a bat.

He was devastated. The Tigers’ loss in the 1934 World Series haunted him, and he desperately wanted to be a part of bringing a title to Detroit. Every day, as the Series went on, he tested the wrist to see if it was at all possible for him to play, even as a pinch-hitter. The Tigers took a three games to one lead before losing 3-1 at Wrigley Field. That brought both teams back to Detroit for Game 6. And Greenberg determined he would play.

One problem: Game 6 was to be played on Yom Kippur.

Greenberg felt himself pulled in every direction. He understood what not playing on Yom Kippur had meant to Jewish people across America, especially in that time when Hitler and anti-Semitism were on the rise in Europe. Then, he desperately wanted to bring a championship to Detroit for the first time since the early day of Ty Cobb. He wanted to champion his religion like he had a year earlier. He wanted also to play for his teammates and fans and himself.

“I don’t want him to play,” his mother predicted to reporters. “But he will anyway.”

She was right. Hank made his choice: The evening before Game 6, Greenberg told manager Mickey Cochrane that he would play.

“Hank says he can play, and that’s what he’ll do if he’s really all right again,” Cochrane told reporters.

Greenberg showed up early that day, got a rub down, taped his fractured wrist and put on a glove. He asked a teammate to throw him a ball. When the baseball hit his glove, the pain was so overwhelming that the normally invincible Greenberg grunted in pain. He took off the glove immediately and admitted defeat. He could not play.

The Tigers won the World Series that day. “I was in uniform,” Greenberg would say, “but I felt like a stranger on the ball team that I helped lead to the pennant.”

Greenberg never played a baseball game on Yom Kippur. In 1937, this may have prevented him from breaking Lou Gehrig’s RBI record – he drove in 184, one RBI shy.* In 1938, the year he threatened Babe Ruth’s home run record (he hit 58), Yom Kippur landed after the season ended. When asked if he would have played had it fallen during the season, he said, “No. A record is not worth that much.”

*Technically, Greenberg was said to have driven in 183 RBIs at the time, one shy of Gehrig’s record. In later years, statisticians found that Greenberg’s record had been shorted an RBI and he actually drove in 184. Then, statisticians in later years found that Gehrig had ALSO been shorted an RBI, and he actually drove in 185.

Greenberg was often ambivalent when asked about his decisions to sit out on Yom Kippur. As he grew older, he did not feel close to his Jewishness. He would raise his children in such a secular way that many years later, when his son Glenn was asked, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” he replied, “I don’t know.”

But, Greenberg said, resting on Yom Kippur wasn’t really about religion. It was about identity. It was about setting an example. It was about standing up. “I realize now,” he would write in his autobiography, “more than I used to, how important a part I played in the lives of a generation of Jewish kids who grew up in the thirties. I guess I was kind of a role model.

“It’s a strange thing. When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer, period. I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.”