December 31, 2010
Baseball JudaismBy Jerold S. Auerbach
The wondrous moment of my boyhood (and surely not only mine) came in late September 1945. Newspapers prominently displayed the photo of a jubilant baseball player crossing home plate to accept handshakes from his ecstatic teammates. He had just hit a grand-slam home run in the ninth inning of the final game of the season to clinch the American League pennant for the Detroit Tigers. He was Hank Greenberg. And, as my father proudly informed his nine-year-old son, he was our cousin.
As the 1/1/11 centennial of Hank's birth approaches, it is important to understand what he has meant to American Jews ever since, and why. Only Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jew to be appointed to the Supreme Court, rivals him for the seamless public integration of Americanism and Judaism.
"To be good Americans," in Brandeis's memorable non sequitur, "we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists." But Brandeis, for all his distinction as a lawyer and judge, never hit a home run, nor did he voluntarily relinquish a stellar career for nearly five years of wartime military service.
In 1934, the Detroit Tigers were in the heat of a pennant race, with a chance to go to the World Series for the first time in twenty-five years. As Rosh Hashanah approached, Hank confronted the choice that American Jews dreaded. Was his place on the field with his teammates, or in synagogue? Hank was not religiously observant and never had been. But as the son of Orthodox Romanian immigrants, he was hardly indifferent to Jewish religious observance, especially on the holiest days in the Jewish calendar.
Hank's dilemma received intense media scrutiny. There was evident bewilderment that any sane person could experience conflict between a pennant race and religion. With precisely nuanced ambivalence, the chief rabbi of Detroit conceded that "from the standpoint of Orthodox Judaism[,] the fact that ball playing is his means of livelihood would argue against his participation" in a baseball game on Rosh Hashanah.
On the rabbi's other hand, however, "it might be argued quite consistently that his taking part in the game would mean something ... to his fellow players and, in fact at this time, to the community of Detroit." It is hardly surprising that one Detroit newspaper joyously proclaimed, "Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play."
With his Delphic pronouncement, the rabbi shifted the burden of decision to Hank: "Mr. Greenberg, who is a conscientious Jew, must decide for himself whether he ought to play or not." Hank resolved his dual loyalty dilemma as any patriotic American Jew would have wanted: he went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah morning, and that afternoon, he hit two home runs, propelling the Tigers to a crucial 2-1 victory. It was not difficult, according to the Sporting News, to attribute Hank's heroic contribution to divine approval.
Ten days later, when Hank arrived in synagogue on Yom Kippur, his fellow worshipers interrupted their prayers to give him a standing ovation. But with the pennant virtually clinched by then, the pressure was off. Hank decided not to play that afternoon. His decision not to choose between American and Jewish alternatives, but instead to embrace both has inspired American Jews ever since. He affirmed his commitment as a player on the American team without diminishing his identity as a Jew. It was, by any measure, an iconic moment in American Jewish history.
Many years later, intrigued by Hank's choices, I wrote to him for clarification. "Since you are a historian," he promptly replied, "I'll set you straight on my playing on the holidays." He recalled: "The Chief Rabbi of Detroit was consulted. He claimed that it being New Years day and he found in the Torah that there had been playing ball in the streets of Jerusalem, that it was okay for me to play on Rosh Hashana but not on Yom Kippur." (The rabbi, in his convoluted textual interpretation, doubtlessly was thinking of Roman, not Jewish, children.) Hank's reply perfectly preserved the ambiguity of his decision. Even after fifty years, he still cited rabbinical authority to justify his decision to play baseball on Rosh Hashanah.
Hank Greenberg was already elevated to the pinnacle of American Jewish heroism when, nineteen games into the 1941 season and a year after being named Most Valuable Player, he became the first major-leaguer to be drafted into military service. Honorably discharged on December 5, he immediately reenlisted two days later after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As Hank told a reporter, "my country comes first."
That was precisely what American Jews most needed to hear (and still do): to be a good Jew was compatible with being a loyal American. Hank Greenberg validated their deepest yearning to join the American team. He played when necessary and fulfilled religious obligations when convenient. His shining example perfectly suited their deepest yearning -- for acceptance as Americans. Hank was the matchmaker who enabled Jews and baseball to become, in the words of the recent film, "An American Love Story."
The popular Detroit poet of the time, Edgar Guest, presented the "Irish" (American?) perspective of the "Murphys and Mulrooneys" on "the Jewish boy from Bronxville." On the Jewish New Year, when Hank hit two home runs to win the game, "they cheered like mad for that." And on Yom Kippur, when Hank was "true to his religion," Murphy said to Mulrooney, "I honor him for that." So, too, did American Jews. Hank Greenberg demonstrated that even on Rosh Hashanah, a Jew could play the American game.
Hank's place in American Jewish history and folklore is secure. For his intricate braiding of team loyalty and Jewish identity, American Jews continue to cherish his memory.
They no longer need to worry about their neighbors, the "Murphys and Mulrooneys." Nor is baseball any longer the arena for reconciling Judaism and Americanism. But the loyalty dilemma that Hank confronted still resonates, as it has throughout American Jewish history.
Since 1948, of course, the most recurrently troubling challenge to the loyalty of American Jews has come from the State of Israel. Whenever its policies currently, for example, regarding Jewish settlements conflict with American foreign policy, many American Jews burnish their American credentials by criticizing Israel and distancing themselves from the Jewish State. To understand why American Jews squirm whenever the government of Israel ignores the wishes of an American president, it is helpful to remember Hank Greenberg's contribution to baseball Judaism.
Jerold S. Auerbach is professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College. His "My Friend in Kfar Saba" appeared in American Thinker in December 2009.