Steve Zalusky: Cultural tug-of-war for Jewish baseball stars

  • Braves pitcher Max Fried was one of three Jewish players to take the field in this year's World Series between Atlanta and the Houston Astros.

    Braves pitcher Max Fried was one of three Jewish players to take the field in this year's World Series between Atlanta and the Houston Astros. Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

 
Updated 11/12/2021 1:53 PM

This season, there weren't enough Jewish major league baseball players on Opening Day to form a minyan -- the minimum number required for a lawful public Jewish service.

But although the 2021 season opened with only eight Jewish players among the 750 players on active major league rosters, four played in this year's World Series -- Joc Pederson, Alex Bregman, Garrett Stubbs and Max Fried.

 

It set a World Series record for the number of Jewish players taking the field in a Fall Classic.

This was a significant milestone, indeed, considering that only a century ago, in 1921, Henry Ford's anti-Semitic Dearborn Independent newspaper blamed "Jew gamblers" for their role in the Black Sox scandal, making special mention of "the man higher up," Arnold Rothstein, the model for the character Meyer Wolfsheim in "The Great Gatsby."

In the 20th Century, baseball played a significant role in acclimating Jewish immigrants to American culture.

For my dad, a child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood in the 1920s, baseball held a special appeal, one shared by his boyhood buddies.

One of the neighborhood kids, Marvin Rotblatt, even made it to the big leagues.

Rotblatt played at the same spot where I spent my Little League days, River Park, and graduated from my mom's high school, Von Steuben.

As a pitcher for the Fighting Illini, he won 25 games, before playing three seasons with the Chicago White Sox.

Geography was a factor in the acceptance of Jews in major league baseball.

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In 1923, New York Giants manager John McGraw actively recruited Jewish players, offering $100,000 to anyone who could find him a Jewish baseball star.

McGraw eventually found Andrew Jackson Cohen, the "Tuscaloosa Terror," who played second base for the Giants between 1926 and 1929 and later even had a brief stint as interim manager of the Phillies in 1960.

In the words of columnist Westbrook Pegler in 1928, New York was filled with potential Jewish Giants fans, given the "thousands of restaurants and herring stores almost all with Yiddish lettering on the windows," as well as tailor shops, meat markets and other places of business bearing the names of "Levitch, Myer, Mandelbaum, Katz, Jacobs, Rosenbloom, Segal, Gans and Schanz."

The Chicago White Sox thought it had its own budding Jewish star in catcher Moe Berg. Berg was the team's regular catcher in 1929, but a devastating knee injury reduced him to journeyman status in a major league career that ended in 1939.

Berg would find his niche, however, as a spy for the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA.

With the advent of Hank Greenberg, a true Jewish star of the magnitude of a Babe Ruth emerged.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Greenberg nearly smashed Ruth's single-season home run record in 1938, clubbing 58 homers.

Yet Greenberg was torn between his vocation and his faith and often had to endure religious slurs.

It didn't help that the scene of his heroic exploits was Detroit, home to Henry Ford and his Dearborn Independent, but also the headquarters of Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio broadcasts were brimming with anti-Semitic messages.

Greenberg's internal tug-of-war reached a crisis on Sept. 10, 1934, with 20 games left, his Tigers up four games on the second place New York Yankees, and the team scheduled to play the Boston Red Sox.

It was also Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a day when work is prohibited.

The day before, the Detroit Free Press, near the top of its sports front page, wrote, "And, so to you, Mr. Greenberg, the Tiger fans say: 'Leshono tovo tikosayvu!' which means 'Happy New Year'" Above that sentence, the greeting was also written in Hebrew.

On the afternoon of the game, Greenberg was sitting in the clubhouse after returning from synagogue. His manager, Mickey Cochrane told him he needed him, but in the end it would be his choice.

Greenberg not only played, he hit two homers, including a walk-off, giving the Tigers a 2-1 victory.

The next day, the Detroit Free Press headlined a photo of Greenberg's game-winning blast with, "A Happy New Year for Everybody."

But not everybody was happy, including rabbis and Orthodox Jews who sent Greenberg telegrams expressing concern that he had abandoned his faith.

Then on Sept. 19, 1934, Greenberg responded, not by entering a clubhouse, but by walking into a synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Greenberg's decision was greeted with respect by the "people's poet," Edgar Guest, who wrote, "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!"

Greenberg set a precedent that would be followed by two Dodgers, Sandy Koufax, who missed his turn in the rotation on Yom Kippur during the 1965 World Series, and Shawn Green, who in 2004 missed a crucial game against the Giants for the same reason.

Jewish observance did not come into play during the 2021 World Series. But one Jewish performer, Max Fried, earned the victory in the deciding game. Something tells me that another Max, my dad, would have been proud.

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