A Story of Assimilation in Baseball

Tammy Stoner Pinkerton

When Sandy Koufax put on a yarmulke and showed up at synagogue on Yom Kippur, a hungry audience stood up and cheered. He was the second major league baseball player who left the ball field during the world series, and sent his pitches to God. The first was Hank Greenberg.

Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax were two Jews who were inducted into the hall of fame for baseball. Neither were particularly religious, but both put faith above the sport. Both faced decisions, that left them waffling between assimilation, and religious heritage. 

The all American sport of baseball had it’s share of antisemitism, and Hank and Sandy endured their share. They called Hank, the “Hebrew Hammer”, and taunted him with antisemitic remarks when he stood up to bat. A major hitter, standing in par with Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg played for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930’s, and then the Pittsburgh Pirates. He took a respite from baseball when he served his country in the second world war. Hank said every time he stood at the bat, he was swinging as if the ball was Hitler.

Nobody took more abuse then Greenberg when he slugged the ball. “throw him a pork chop” yelled some, “he can’t hit it”. As he closed in on Babe Ruth’s record, pitchers were deliberately walking him. Greenberg tried to be seen as a great ball player, not a great Jewish ball player. It was only later in life, when he said that he appreciated that he had been a great Jewish baseball player.

By the time Hank Greenberg arrived on the baseball scene, there were already 30 Jewish players in the Major Leagues, but it was Hank Greenberg who illustrated the tough choices Jews had assimilating into American culture, because he was the first major Jewish star of baseball.
Hank, a child of immigrants faced decisions between assimilation, and keeping ones culture. Simply by playing baseball, Hank was a story of assimilation. He didn’t follow the traditional path, become a doctor, a lawyer etc. He did what poor children often did. He paved his path, playing a sport.
On Rosh Hashanna, in 1934, Greenberg wasn’t sure if he was going to play. He agonized, should he bat the ball out of the ballpark, or sit in the synagogue with the rabbi, and God.

He consulted with Rabbis, and ended up playing ball on that day, leading the Tigers to victory over the Red Sox. Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, he put on a yarmulke and showed up at temple. The congregation gave him a standing ovation. He said it was so unexpected, seeing the rabbi with Torah in hand, and an audience cheering him, as he walked through the synagogues door. 
The refusal to play ball on Yom Kippur, was a symbol of a refusal to assimilate. A paradox.

Some say Hank Greenberg didn’t assimilate because he didn’t change his name, but the truth is that Hank did change his name. He was born Hymie Greenberg, and advised another Jewish ball player to change his name, if he was going to play in the major leagues.

Hank Greenberg didn’t want to be known as a hero, particularly a Jewish hero. He claimed his Jewishness was an accident at birth. Hank showed character when he was one of the few who welcomed Jackie Robinson, a black major leaguer into the sport of baseball. He took tremendous abuse as a Jew, and empathized with a black person’s vulnerability in America’s favorite pastime.

Hank Greenberg set the stage for maneuvering between assimilation and holding onto ones identity.

It’s been over 50 years since Sandy Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the world series on Yom Kippur. Koufax was the first major league pitcher to pitch four no hitters, and the eighth pitcher to pitch a perfect game in baseball history. His decision not to pitch during the first game of the world series brought national attention to the conflict between professional pressures, and religious values.

30 years after Greenberg played ball, Koufax had written into his contract that he wouldn’t play ball on Yom Kippur, so it really should have been no surprise that he didn’t. His decision not to play was made a generation after Jews had assimilated into American society. It was a different kind of choice then Greenberg’s three decades earlier. Koufax wasn’t trying to assimilate he was trying to hold onto his religious faith.

The spectacular part of his decision not to play, was that it made national news, and is remembered to this day.

Sandy Koufax decision not to play transcended the sport, and honored Judaism at the same time. It was using the national all American sport of baseball to make that statement. A star really can hold onto ones identity and blend into the America’s fabric at the same time.

These two great athletes established an example in baseball that can help American Jews today. As antisemitism increases in ways, most born today have not experienced, Greenberg and Koufax paved a path, for how to assimilate, hold onto faith, and still be a star.


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