Sandy Koufax

Then and now

Fifty years ago, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale tried one of the boldest maneuvers in baseball history. That year, 1965, Koufax and Drysdale carried the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series almost by themselves. Together, they started more than half of the Dodgers’ games and pitched 44 percent of the team’s innings.

In their starts, the Dodgers went 56-17, and Koufax/Drysdale had a combined 2.39 ERA.

In the games they did not start, the Dodgers went 41-48 and the rest of the staff had a 3.14 ERA.

In the World Series, Koufax made three starts and allowed one run, Drysdale (after getting rocked in his Yom Kippur start) pitched a complete game victory. The Dodgers beat the Minnesota Twins in seven games. It wasn’t ALL Koufax and Drysdale, but it was MOSTLY Koufax and Drysdale. The Dodgers were eighth out of 10 teams in the National League in runs scored and dead last in home runs. Jim Lefebvre and Lou Johnson led the team with 12 homers each.

The 1965 Dodgers were one of the most successful teams in baseball history up to that point.  More than 2.6 million people came to Dodger Stadium that year, far and away the highest attendance in baseball, more than double the Yankees’ crowd and more than three times what they drew at Fenway Park. The Dodgers were selling merchandise like crazy, they were hugely popular in Hollywood, their Vin Scully radio ratings were through the roof. And Koufax and Drysdale carried that team.

In other words, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale seemed to be in positions of some power.

But, THAT was an illusion.

* * *

It’s silly and very old-fogeyish, of course, to compare salaries from era to era. Sure, it’s always a fun conversation starter to mention that Willie Mays never made even half of today’s minimum salary or that Henry Aaron in his entire career made less money than a low first-round draft pick will get in a signing bonus. But without context, such comparisons are nothing more than silly talk. There’s inflation to consider. There’s the enormous impact of television on the game. There are the union wars that changed the system. And so on and so on.

Still, it is interesting, in light of the seven-year, $217 million deal that David Price has reportedly agreed to with the Boston Red Sox, to remember the Koufax-Drysdale holdout only 50 years ago.

The pair decided to go something bold and unprecedented; the requested a combo $1 million deal for three years. That’s not a million apiece, you understand. It was $1 million for the both for them, over three years, which comes down to $166,666.66 per year for each of them.

In 2015 dollars, that’s roughly $1.25 million per pitcher per year. You will note that, for that price, you could not even buy Honus Wagner’s rookie baseball card today.

In the moment, though, the request was absolutely outrageous. No, more — it was scandalous.

“The greed which has become the ruling passion of today’s professional athletes,” wrote a New York sportswriter named Murray Johnson, “never showed its ugliness more unpleasantly than in the holdout maneuvers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.”

What part of the Koufax-Drysdale gambit was considered so offensive? Answer: All of it. For one thing, they were each asking for the highest yearly salary in the history of baseball. According to SABR, the highest-paid player in baseball in 1965 (and the highest-paid player in baseball history up to that point) was Willie Mays at $105,000. One of the more remarkable things about baseball before the Marvin Miller revolution was that the top salary simply did not move. Look at the annual salary leaders by decade:

1920s: Babe Ruth at $70,000 (2015 value: $928,000)

1930s: Babe Ruth at $80,000 (2015 value: $1,092,000)

1940s: Joe DiMaggio at $100,000 (2015 value: $974,000)

1950s: Ted Williams at $85,000 (2015 value: $741,000)

Early 1960s: Willie Mays at $105,000 ($790,000)

Look at that, over 45 years, the top end salary didn’t budge. It actually came down during what we love to call the Golden Age of baseball. All of this, you will note, was at a time when baseball was clearly America’s biggest sport. How the heck did the owners get away with it? Obviously, a lot of it had to do with the baseball system, the reserve clause, the long history of players unions losing and so on. Baseball had long before rigged the system.

But it wasn’t JUST the system. If it was just an unfair system, people might have demanded change. But the truth is that the fans did not want change. In fact, the fans did not seem to care at all how much money the baseball owners made (they didn’t really know how much) but they had visceral reactions to how much money players made. This is still somewhat true, though not to the extent it was then.

This is why legendary baseball union leader Marvin Miller was often dismissive of fans’ complaints about the union’s tactics. In his mind, the fans were not allies, and they were not friends. They were often the enemy. Fans (and media) had long been a big reason why players were so mistreated and drastically underpaid. Fans and media booed and heaped scorn on Joe DiMaggio for trying to get a few extra bucks after a stellar season. They shouted “greed” anytime any player looked for more than the team was offering. And they turned angrily on Koufax and Drysdale for trying to change the landscape.

But, in Koufax-Drysdale, it wasn’t just money that offended. The bigger problem, at least as far as the Dodgers were concerned, was that they were asking for three-year, no-cut contracts. That was an absolute non-starter. Three-year deals? Security? Were they insane?

“No way Koufax and Drysdale get more than a one-year contract,” Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi promised the Dodgers’ players in a team meeting when they arrived at spring training.

[parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/12/151202-david-price2.jpg” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

Here’s the thing that is striking about the Koufax-Drysdale gambit — it never had a chance of working, and that is made entirely clear by the amused reaction of the Dodgers’ brass. You might imagine the miserly Walter O’Malley, his face red with rage, shaking his fist and grumping, “You’ll never get another nickel out of me!” But it wasn’t like that. O’Malley and Bavasi were not angry at all. Quite the opposite. They sounded almost sympathetic to the absurdity of baseball players believing that they had the power to command that sort of money or security.

“I do not wish to romance this thing,” owner Walter O’Malley said. “But I must admit the boys had a good idea. To my knowledge, it had never been tried before. And I have always been one to admire initiative.”

“I do not blame Sandy and Don for asking,” Bavasi said. “They rightfully believe that they deserve a lot of money. I also believe they deserve a lot of money. Where we are at an impasse is in the definition of ‘a lot.’”

Yes, the Dodgers yucked it up (“They were not impressed with my offer,” Bavasi said after the first exchange of terms. “But I was”) because they knew just how hopeless the plight of Koufax and Drysdale was. It had nothing to do with their differing definitions of “a lot.” It had everything to do with their differing definitions of the word “power.”

That’s what has changed. David Price is 30 years old, which means by baseball’s clock he is likely already on the career decline. Yet, he just received a seven-year deal for more than $30 million a year. This is because of baseball’s power shift. The Red Sox know that Price is likely to be no better than an average pitcher, and perhaps worse than an average pitcher, as that deal comes to a close. They know that pitchers similar to Price (Johan Santana, CC Sabathia and Jake Peavy to name only three) broke down in their early 30s.

They know but they gave Price the deal anyway, and other clubs lined up to give Price similar deals, because clubs no longer wield all the power. Don’t get me wrong, they still wield A LOT of the power. Baseball owners ain’t starving. The Red Sox will make way more than Price. But now the player has some force, too. Price is a rare commodity — a brilliant left-handed starting pitcher; there are only a handful of such creatures in the world today — and he had freedom to sign wherever. Teams wanted him badly because he can help them win. The marketplace gave him power.

But Drysdale and Koufax had none. Sure, on the surface, as mentioned above, Drysdale and Koufax seemed to have a strong narrative. They seemed to control the baseball fate of the richest team in America’s richest sport. They knew that, if they did not pitch, the Dodgers would drop to fourth or fifth in the standings. That had to be worth something, right?

No. Bavasi and O’Malley knew that didn’t matter in the least. They knew that Drysdale and Koufax were not allowed to go to any other team, so the Dodgers were their only option (Koufax and Drysdale tried to bluff the Dodgers into believing that they were considering going into the movies as actors, but it was a see-through bluff). Bavasi and O’Malley knew the fans and most of the media would be on the Dodgers’ side.

They knew that, as ridiculous as it may sound, they could cry poor and get away with it.

“I don’t blame Koufax and Drysdale for trying to get all they can,” Bavasi said sweetly. “That’s their privilege. At the same time, they have to be realistic. Walter (O’Malley) had to borrow money to pay for the stadium. Do they expect me to go to him and ask him to borrow money to pay for the players’ salaries too?”

Yes, the man actually said publicly that Walter O’Malley, who had made riches beyond imagination moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles and getting 300 acres of prime Los Angeles real estate in the bargain, might have to borrow money just to pay a few thousand extra dollars to Koufax and Drysdale. It is chutzpah of the highest order, but it made no difference. The great baseball money machine was churning, and Bavasi understood that the longer Koufax and Drysdale held out, the tighter the noose would get around their necks.

And sure enough, stories began appearing like the rant of Murray Johnson above calling the pitchers greedy and selfish and bums. Then rumors began floating — wonder where they started — that Koufax and Drysdale had actually asked for a million dollars APIECE, not separate (“Bavasi almost fell out of his chair,” said Yankees owner Dan Topping). Then, the final blow, as the pressure grew to the point where Koufax felt the need to EXPLAIN the players’ motivations publicly. That had no chance to do anything but backfire.

“The ballclub is defending the principle that it doesn’t really have to negotiate with a ballplayer because we have no place to go,” Koufax told the New York Times. “You might say Don and I are fighting for an antiprinciple — that ballplayers aren’t slaves, that we have a right to negotiate.”

Of course, you don’t need me to tell how people read that. They noticed just one word — slaves. And soon after there were outraged stories and gripes about baseball players making 10 times the median family income comparing themselves to slaves.

It was all so predictable then, so utterly predictable. The Dodgers had this thing won before the fight even started, and capitulation came just three days after the Koufax slavery story appeared. Funny thing, in the very first Sporting News story about the holdout, it was speculated that Bavasi offered one-year contracts to Koufax for $125,000 (the highest ever salary) and Drysdale for $105,000 or so.

On March 30, Koufax and Drysdale signed one-year deals for a presumed $120,000 for Koufax and $105,000 for Drysdale. The Dodgers had not come up even a dollar.

This is a reminder of just how influential — and miraculous — the Marvin Miller revolution really was. Players were utterly powerless. And then they weren’t. Along came Miller and with him came Flood and Messersmith and Catfish and Gullett and Reggie.

And you will notice a different trend beginning in 1977:

1977: Mike Schmidt, $560,000 (2015 value: $2.2 million)

1982: Mike Schmidt, $1.5 million (2015: $3.7 million)

1987: Jim Rice, $2.4 million (2015: $5.1 million)

1992: Bobby Bonilla, $6.1 million (2015: $10.3 million)

1997: Albert Belle: $10 million (2015: $14.8 million)

2002: Alex Rodriguez: $22 million (2015: $29.2 million)

2007: Jason Giambi, $27.1 million

2012: Alex Rodriguez, $30 million

David Price, I mentioned in a tweet, will make per start roughly twice what Sandy Koufax made in his entire career. That’s if he stays healthy. Even adjusting for inflation, for each of the next seven years he will get paid roughly 30 times more than Koufax made in 1966.

It really is like the Star Wars story. Those Koufax-Drysdale days were dark times, times of the empire. Marvin Miller and a group of united players brought some balance to the force. Oh the empire is still doing great, still making a lot more money then they’re paying out, no matter how big the numbers get. But at least the players have a chance now.

Scroll Down For:

    No place like home

    Unless we have a pretty severe shakeup, it looks like the last races — for the American League West, the National League Central and the last AL wild card spot — are winding down. But this year, I think, there’s a whole other race worth watching in baseball: The race for home-field advantage.

    Baseball has always treated the whole concept of home-field advantage pretty cavalierly. We all know that home-field advantage in the World Series — meaning where the first two games and a potential Game 7 are played — is given to the league that wins the All-Star Game. This is pure silliness, of course: The All-Star Game is not really a game, it’s a relic of the past, a formless parade of stars and guys having good first halves doing one- or two-inning curtain calls.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love the All-Star Game. It’s just … random. Using the All-Star Game to determine home-field advantage for the World Series is as silly as, I don’t know, alternating home-field advantage to each league every other year in some sort of “He loves me, he loves me not” method or … oh, wait, that’s how they used to do it. They used to alternate the leagues. So, yeah, compared to that the All-Star system is reasonable.

    Anyway, MLB can play around with all this because there’s a sense around baseball that home-field advantage, while nice to have, isn’t that big a deal. You hear so much more about home-field when talking with people in the NFL, in the NBA, in the NHL, in the English Premier League. And, yes, the numbers do suggest that home-field advantage is more important in those other sports:

    Home winning percentages:

    NHL (2014-15): .600

    NBA (2014-15): .579

    EPL (2014-2015): .575*

    NFL (2014): .568

    MLB (2015): .541

    * In the English football, many teams famously treat their visitors with disdain, shoving them into cramped locker rooms with low ceilings and questionable showering facilities. On several occasions when being shown around various grounds, I’ve had tour guides explain that while they would like to spruce up other parts of the grounds, they want to leave the visitor’s locker room as grimy as possible. “We don’t want the visitors feeling too much at home,” they say. So I was interested in seeing if the home-field advantage in the Premier League was substantially different from, say, American sports, where some visiting locker rooms are like penthouse apartments. As you can see, it is not.

    MORE: Breaking down the race for the second AL Wild Card

    Across the other leagues, teams do win at home more than baseball teams do. And perhaps more significantly, the BEST teams dominate at home in the other sports in a way that it would be impossible for a baseball team to dominate over a 162-game season:

    Best home records:

    NHL: Tampa Bay, .792 winning percentage (32-8-1)

    NBA: Golden State, .951 (39-2)

    EPL: Chelsea, .895 (15-4-0 — EPL puts draws second)

    NFL: Green Bay and Denver, 1.000 (8-0)

    MLB: St. Louis, .679 (55-26)

    Home-field advantage come playoff time obviously plays a huge role in the other sports. Look at the above teams: Tampa Bay went to the Stanley Cup Final (though home-ice advantage sort of went out the window in the playoffs). Golden State won the NBA Finals, going 9-2 in front of its home crowd in the playoffs. And while Denver wilted late in the year and lost at home to Indianapolis, the single most significant factor in the NFC playoffs might have been that Green Bay had to go to Seattle rather than the other way around. Both teams were almost unbeatable at home, both teams finished the season 12-4. Seattle got home-field advantage because of a better conference record. In the playoff game, Seattle won a crazy comeback game in overtime. It might have been very different in Green Bay.

    In baseball? Eh. People don’t think too much about it. Nobody would tell you it’s meaningless, but at the same time, nobody would tell you it means all that much. It’s baseball, right? All those things that matter so much in other sports — crowd noise, momentum, the various comforts of home — don’t seem to play as big a role in baseball.

    We can talk about numbers. From the end of World War II to 1980, there were 18 Game 7s played in the World Series. Of those 18, believe it or not, 13 were won by the road team. Between 1952-58 alone, the Yankees twice won World Series Game 7 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, while the Dodgers once won it at Yankee Stadium. The Milwaukee Braves also won a Game 7 at Yankee Stadium while the Yankees won a Game 7 in Milwaukee. Later, the Red Sox lost World Series Game 7s at Fenway Park in 1967 and 1975. Baltimore twice lost Game 7s at Memorial Stadium to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    So, home-field advantage — at least in decisive games — seemed to mean almost nothing. But since 1980, the trend has shifted. There have been nine Game 7s in the World Series over the last 35 years, and the home team won eight of them, the only exception being last year in Kansas City where the Royals could not solve San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner. If you include NLCS Game 7s, the home team is 14-4 since 1980.

    MORE: Cardinals beat Bucs, trim magic number to two

    Of course, you can cherry-pick the numbers all you want. But the point here is that this year, I think home-field advantage might play a massive role in the baseball playoffs. That’s because this year — perhaps more than any year in recent times — teams are built for their ballparks.

    Start in the American League, where Toronto and Kansas City are going to the wire for the league’s best record and home-field advantage. There’s no telling if the Royals and Blue Jays will actually meet in the American League Championship Series. But if they do, the most important factor could be where Game 1 is played.

    Why? Well, both teams are much, much better at home. And it’s easy to see why. Start in Toronto: The Blue Jays are a power-hitting team, and Rogers Centre is a palace for sluggers. It is one of the best doubles and home run ballparks in all of baseball, and the Blue Jays’ hitters absolutely love it there. They are slugging 60 points higher at home than they do on the road.

    The key word there, by the way, is “sluggers.” Rogers Centre, paradoxically, is not a good hitters park. Batting averages tend to be lower, strikeouts tend to be higher, it can be an uncomfortable place to hit, especially when the roof is closed. The ball flies there, but it’s not easy to hit the ball hard there. So while the park is an advantage for Blue Jays hitters it is ALSO an advantage for Blue Jays pitchers. Opponents hit just .228 at the Rogers Centre (compared to .271 against Blue Jays pitchers on the road). Opponents strike out three times more often than they walk at the Rogers Centre.

    So, when you consider that Toronto hitters are better at home AND Toronto pitchers are better at home, it’s no surprise to see that the Blue Jays are 53-28 in Canada and a mere 38-37 in the United States.

    Kauffman Stadium is a very different park from Rogers Centre, and it perfectly suits the very different style of Kansas City. It has always been one of baseball’s most comfortable parks to hit — great background for hitters, the fountains are soothing, etc. — but it has a massive outfield, making it one of the toughest home run parks in the game. This fits the Royals. They don’t hit home runs. They hit gaps. The Royals hit .280 at home (compared with .262 on the road) with lots of doubles and triples. They strike out just five or so times a game — they’re always putting balls in play.

    And, they have the best defense in baseball, meaning they cover more ground — especially in the outfield — than anybody. On top of that, Kauffman Stadium is now electrified by the fans; Kansas City offers one of the most thrilling atmospheres in all of baseball. That can’t hurt. The Royals are 51-30 at home, a less impressive 39-36 on the road.

    And you can double the impact in this one because not only do those two parks play perfectly for the hometown team, they would play TERRIBLY for the visitor. The Royals probably don’t have the power to keep up with Toronto in Rogers Centre (they lost three of four earlier this year and were outhomered seven to three — all three homers coming from Ben Zobrist). But the Blue Jays might not have the defense and bullpen to keep up with Kansas City at Kauffman Stadium (they lost two of three in Kansas City and were actually shut out, a rare Toronto occurrence).

    Yes, if I were Royals manager Ned Yost or Toronto’s John Gibbons, I’d sure like to play the first two games of that series at home and would sure like a Game 7 to be in my ballpark.

    In the National League, there is a heck of a race going for home-field in the Division Series between the Dodgers and the Mets. As of Tuesday, the Mets led by two games, and that could be huge for the Mets. That’s because the Dodgers are a completely different team in Dodger Stadium — and, really, they always have been.

    Yes, from the start in 1962, Dodger Stadium has transformed the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers were a completely different team when they played at the hitter-friendly Memorial Coliseum. In 1961, the team had a 4.04 ERA and gave up 167 home runs. In 1962, they moved into Dodger Stadium and, voila, the ERA dropped a half-run and they gave up 50 fewer homers. A year after that, the team ERA was a league-leading 2.85 and the Dodgers won the World Series.

    The new ballpark didn’t just remodel the team, it completely changed the careers of a talented but previously underwhelming righty named Don Drysdale and an erratic, hard-throwing lefty named Sandy Koufax. Before 1962, they were both inconsistent. After Dodger Stadium? Drysdale won the Cy Young Award in 1962, Koufax won it in 1963, 1965 and 1966. And Los Angeles won three pennants and two World Series in its first five years in Dodger Stadium.

    In time, it became clear that Dodger Stadium was a little bit TOO good a pitcher’s ballpark — the mounds were roughly the height of Mount Tammany in New Jersey. But even after lowering the mounds in 1969, Dodger Stadium still played to the pitcher. Five different Dodgers pitchers have won the Cy Young Award since the mound was lowered, and Zack Greinke this year could become the sixth. Greinke has a career record of 28-5 with a 2.02 ERA at Dodger Stadium.

    Greinke will obviously be a huge factor in the Mets series. But Clayton Kershaw could be even bigger. He has won three Cy Youngs since 2011 and is having another Cy Young-caliber season this year.

    Well, Kershaw is unquestionably great on the road.

    37-16,  2.59 ERA,  4.5-to-1 strikeout to walk, .999 WHIP.

    But here’s the thing: He’s other-worldly at Dodger Stadium.

    50-17, 1.75 ERA, 5.7-to-1 strikeout to walk, .889 WHIP.

    The Dodgers have been about as unbeatable at Dodger Stadium as a team can be. They are 52-26 at home. Meanwhile, they are a dreadful 35-43 on the road. There are no guarantees, of course, but if the Mets can get home-field advantage, their chances considerably improve. Having Kershaw and Greinke pitch Games 1 and 2 at Citi Field could make a huge difference, especially in a short series. It’s worth watching.

    The Yom Kippur When Hank Wanted To Play

    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.”