To Play or Not to Play: A Barometer of ‘Jewish Acceptance’

In a golden age of Jewish baseball, players are receiving less and less attention regarding the annual dilemma of whether or not to suit up on Yom Kippur.

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Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, perhaps the top Jewish baseball player in the game today, celebrates a home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks in an Oct. 2 playoff game. Credit: EPA/MORRY GASH.

Around this time of year, many Jews think about three things: Yom Kippur, the Major League Baseball playoffs, and whether or not Yom Kippur will force their favorite players to sit out a game of those playoffs.

Thirteen Jews populate MLB rosters today, with Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Sam Fuld and Texas Rangers pitcher Scott Feldman on rosters that qualified for the postseason.

Yet, in a golden age of Jewish baseball, gone are the times of Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, or even more recently Shawn Green—when the decision to play or sit out on the holiest day of the Jewish year fell under a national microscope. Braun’s 2011 numbers (.332 batting average, 33 home runs and 111 runs batted in) make him a leading Most Valuable Player candidate, but his potential Yom Kippur dilemma has received no attention.

Prof. Jeffrey Gurock, a Jewish History professor at Yeshiva University who has written extensively on the topic of baseball and the High Holy Days, says that’s an indication of how Jews are now “extraordinarily accepted in America.” The same couldn’t be said in 1934, when Greenberg was pressured to play on Yom Kippur because the public thought “he had a civic obligation to play for Detroit against the Yankees”—in a highly anti-semitic environment with Henry Ford and the Ku Klux Klan nearby, Gurock said.

Greenberg played Rosh Hashanah but sat out Yom Kippur. While his ordeal depicted “an intolerant America through the metaphor of sports,” Koufax opted not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers with the backdrop of a more forgiving nation, Gurock said. The team’s decision to pitch fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale instead, he said, indicated an era of growing cultural pluralism.

Now, the lack of attention surrounding Jewish baseball on Yom Kippur “reflects the high degree of Jewish acceptance in America,” Gurock said, as players face no pressure.

“They just do what they want to do with no concern about how it plays on the gentile street,” Gurock said.

However, what has become a “totally internal Jewish issue” saw recent exceptions in 2009, Gurock noted, when a New York Jets-Tennessee Titans football game slated for 4:15 p.m. conflicted with the eve of Yom Kippur and was rescheduled for 1 p.m. after complaints by New York-area Jews. On the same Yom Kippur, a Yankees-Red Sox game with an initial 8 p.m. start time on the ESPN network was also moved to 1 p.m.

At the time, Gurock was asked by YU to write a quick post on the school’s website criticizing ESPN—and the game time was changed a mere two hours later.

“I’m sure ESPN didn’t see [my post], but I walked around yeshiva the entire day taking high fives from guys,” Gurock said.

Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.

Posted on October 3, 2011 and filed under Sports.