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Wednesday, September 26, 2001
Green, Koufax and Greenberg -- same dilemma, different decisions
By Jeff Merron
Special to

In 1965, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in Game One of the World Series because it was Yom Kippur, a Jewish holy day. Instead of Koufax, Don Drysdale pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he gave up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings. "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too," Drysdale said to Walter Alston when the manager came to pull him from the game. The Dodgers lost to the Minnesota Twins, 8-2.

Koufax and Jewish holidays
Sandy Koufax regularly pitched on the Jewish Sabbath (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), and never pitched on the first day of Passover, when the Passover Seder is held. He also never pitched on Rosh Hashanah.

In 1961, Yom Kippur began at sundown on September 19 and ended at sundown September 20. Koufax, as usual, fasted during the holiday. On the night of Sept. 20, though, he was on the mound and pitched the Dodgers to victory with a 13-inning, 15-strikeout, 205-pitch performance.

Instead of pitching that day, Koufax attended synagogue in Minneapolis. As the Dodgers' ace, Koufax still pitched Games Two, Five, and Seven, throwing complete-game shutouts in Games Five and Seven. Koufax's decision and his pitching brilliance remain a source of pride among devout American Jews, even those who aren't baseball fans.

Shawn Green, also of the Dodgers, is following in Koufax's footsteps tonight. Yom Kippur begins this evening, and Green is sitting out a critical game against the San Francisco Giants. Green will be missed -- he has already set the Dodgers record for home runs in a season with 48 and counting, and the Dodgers are in a desperate chase for the pennant, three-and-a-half games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West, and two behind the Giants. But Green grew up hearing about Koufax's demonstration of faith, and is determined to follow his example, saying, "There is nothing I would rather do than play against the Giants in a pennant race, but some things take precedence over that."

Long before Green, and before Koufax, Jewish holidays were a knotty issue among baseball players. In 1934, Hank Greenberg, the Jewish Babe Ruth, anguished over whether or not to play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holy Days, on September 10, 1934. That day, the Detroit Tigers faced the New York Yankees in a key game.

The Detroit media, aware of Greenberg's indecision, sought out the opinions of local rabbis, with the Detroit News running a headline saying "Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play."

"The team was fighting for first place," wrote Greenberg in his autobiography, "and I was probably the only batter in the lineup who was not in a slump. But in the Jewish religion, it is traditional that one observe the holiday solemnly, with prayer…. I wasn't sure what to do."

Greenberg skipped batting practice that day, thought some more, and finally chose to take the field. He hit two home runs to lead the Tigers to a 2-1 victory.

The next day, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline, in Hebrew, that read "Happy New Year, Hank," Also in the Free Press, an Edgar Guest poem celebrated Greenberg's decision:

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!

Just days later, Greenberg didn't play on Yom Kippur. The Tigers had all but clinched the pennant by then. When Greenberg arrived at synagogue that day, the service stopped, and the congregants gave him a rousing round of applause.

"The only way I would even think that I might have been a hero in those days was the day I walked in Shaarey Zedek Temple and got a standing ovation because I showed up in temple on Yom Kippur," Greenberg said in 1984. "The poor rabbi standing on the podium 'davening,' praying, and suddenly I walk in and everybody in the congregation gets up and applauds. The poor rabbi looks around; he doesn't know what is happening. And I'm embarrassed as can be, because it was all totally unexpected."

Greenberg's decision not to play -- and the positive reaction it elicited both in the media and among fans -- may have had some impact on the decisions of some Jewish ballplayers in the following years. But others disregarded his example.

In 1935 Harry Eisenstadt was a rookie pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wasn't scheduled to pitch on Yom Kippur, but Dodgers manager Burleigh Grimes asked that he fill in for an injured reliever. The first batter Eisenstadt faced that day hit a grand slam. And, in 1938, Phillies shortstop Eddie Feinberg played in a Yom Kippur doubleheader -- and went oh-for-8. His two Jewish teammates, outfielder Morrie Arnovich (an All-Star in 1939) and first baseman Phil Weintraub (who batted .311 in 100 games in 1938), also went hitless that day -- because they didn't play.

Greenberg also sat out Yom Kippur in 1938 -- as did Eisenstadt, who was then also playing for the Tigers.

Another prominent player who faced this classic dilemma was Indians third baseman Al Rosen, a four-time All-Star and 1953 AL MVP. Rosen, who played from 1947 to 1956, never played on Yom Kippur, but had a tough decision in 1954 -- the Indians were playing in the World Series against the New York Giants, and Yom Kippur fell during the World Series schedule.

Rosen announced in advance that he would sit out Yom Kippur, but the Giants made it a moot point, ending the series in a sweep before the holy day. "It would have been expected of Rosen," wrote Joe Hoffman in the Jerusalem Post in 1994. "He was a proud Jew who went out of his way to make his Jewish identity known."

Jake Pitler, who played one full season for the Pirates in 1917, was a Dodgers first base coach from 1947 to 1957; he didn't coach on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and was lauded for this (among other things) by at least one rabbi, who praised him publicly, and also by Brooklyn's many Jewish fans. In "Ellis Island to Ebbets Field," historian Michael Ebner said he remembered Dodgers broadcasters Vin Scully and Red Barber explaining why Pitler wasn't on the field those days. Said Ebner: "Jake Pitler always made me proud as a youngster because he connected two things that were important to me: being Jewish and rooting passionately for Brooklyn to eclipse the Yankees in next year's World Series."

For players who are less devout, or who have a smaller stature in the game, other factors enter into their decisions. Some feel the influence of Greenberg, Koufax, and Green. Others, less secure about their place in the game, answer to the call of baseball.

Upcoming dates for
Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the "day of atonement," a day devoted to fasting and prayer. It occurs on the 10th day of Tishri in the Jewish Calendar. In the past, the holiday often fell during the baseball season. Between 2001 and 2049, Yom Kippur falls between September 15 and October 14.
Sept. 26 -- 27, 2001
Sept. 15 - 16, 2002
Oct. 5 - 6, 2003
Sept. 24-25, 2004
Oct. 12 - 13, 2005
This year, for instance, Texas Rangers outfielder Gabe Kapler said that he was considering sitting out because of Green's decision. "I have mixed emotions," Kapler said a few weeks ago. "Nobody is more proud of their heritage than I am and nobody is more proud of being Jewish than I am. It's something I have to mull over."

Last year, Kapler, less than midway through his second full season, told the Dallas Morning News in June that he would play on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but said that his mind wasn't made up for future seasons. "I'm a totally spiritual person," said Kapler. "I have a relationship with God, but it's my own relationship and the way I choose to practice my beliefs. I'm skeptical when it comes to organized religion. I feel like there's a lot of brainwashing that goes into it."

At it turns out, Kapler will be able to play because his day game is expected to end before the start of Yom Kippur, although he remains unsure what he will do if the game goes longer than expected.

Because Kapler is a regular, he may feel more independent than Milwaukee Brewers' backup catcher Jesse Levis felt in 1996. Explaining his decision to play a Yom Kippur day game against the Orioles on September 23, 1996. Levis said, "It's not like I'm Sandy Koufax. I don't have that kind of leverage. I hope God forgives me."

Brewers' manager Phil Garner had put Levis into the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. "It totally slipped my mind," Garner said. "I didn't even think about it until afterward."

Levis, who began play near sundown, had been fasting for almost 24 hours. "I was OK," Levis said. "I was just really thirsty."

But Jose Bautista, a baseball journeyman whose mother is Israeli and father Dominican, honored his faith. Bautista, who pitched for five teams in a ten-year career that ended in 1997, told the Village Voice, "My family and I go to synagogue when we can and we pray every Friday. We fast on Yom Kippur and not only do I not pitch, I don't even go to the ball game."

There is one other, less lofty motive that guides baseball players: superstition. In 1969, the Houston Astros outfielder Norm Miller said he would no longer play on Jewish holidays, but not out of religious conviction. As recounted in Jim Bouton's "Ball Four," Miller said, "I play on one and go 0-for-4 and the next day go 0-for-5 and that's it. I'll never play on a Jewish holiday again."

Jeff Merron is a contributor to and the former executive editor of SportsJones. Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at
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