In professional baseball's 135-year history, there have been, at last count, 143 Jewish ballplayers. Yet only two of them are bona fide stars:
the great slugger, Hank Greenberg, who played from 1930-1947; and the game's greatest left-handed pitcher Sandy Koufax, 1955-1966 (along, that is, with Lefty Grove).
So it's extremely rare when a Jewish baseball player reaches the status where he makes headlines based on whether he plays ball on Yom Kippur.
Dodger slugger Shawn Green faced that decision this past weekend as the holiday fell on two of the first three games of the most important series of the year against the San Francisco Giants. With the Dodgers leading by only 1 1/2 games so late in the season, every pitch -- and every hit -- meant something.
In 2001, I wrote to Green asking him why, in the recent past, he had chosen not to play baseball on Yom Kippur. The letter was included in my book "Something to Write Home About," which consists of handwritten letters from baseball players answering questions about their lives on and off the field. This was Green's inspiring response:
"Though I didn't grow up in a religious household, I was raised with a strong sense of identity. I was a huge baseball fan, just like lots of kids. At the time I was growing up, there really weren't any well-known Jewish players (at least as far as I knew). I was, however, very aware of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax and the tremendous role models they were for Jewish people everywhere.
"As my baseball career progressed, I always remembered the decisions that the two greatest Jewish ballplayers made, and I told myself that if I was ever in their position to, in any way, fill that role, I would. Thus, I feel a strong responsibility to make the right choices when it comes to such topics as not playing on Yom Kippur. I'm not trying to be 'the next Greenberg or Koufax,' but I am trying to do my part as a Jewish ballplayer."
Considering his response to me, I must say I was a bit disheartened by Green's decision to play in one of the game's that fell on Yom Kippur this year.
Even though Green is not (yet) at the magnitude of Greenberg or Koufax, he had a unique chance to do something meaningful by sitting out both games of this extremely important series, honoring the meaning and tradition of Yom Kippur over a win or a loss. He had the opportunity to make a powerful statement to Jews and non-Jews alike, who would have taken notice of and respected his sacrifice.
While he decided he'd play on the first night of the holiday but go to synagogue the next day instead of playing in the second important game, Green's parsed decision is disappointing. He said he agonized over his responsibilities to his teammates on the one hand, and his respect for his religion on the other. Yet, Koufax -- a much more prominent player for the Dodgers than Green is to them at this point in his career -- didn't agonize over his decision to sit out game one of the 1965 World Series in which he was scheduled to pitch. He just did it.
Greenberg never considered playing for his Detroit Tigers in the stretch run of the 1934 season. Rather, he honored the tradition of the most important Jewish observance of the year and sent a message to millions of people across America: Jewish traditions are nonnegotiable. This is important because our traditions are a central facet in binding together the world's minute Jewish population together.
Green had a great opportunity -- considering the magnitude of the sacrifice he could have made -- to truly show the younger generation of Jewish kids and reaffirm for older Jews that, indeed, tradition matters. It is so rare when the actions of a Jew have such a spotlight on them that his refusal to play on Yom Kippur would have made an important statement: Some things are simply more important than others. Unfortunately, Green didn't want to step all the way up to the plate.
The decision Green made, given that he was born in 1972 during the rise of the "me generation," speaks for itself in his statement last week: "I just had to do what I feel is right and what's most consistent with my beliefs. Everyone has different ways of expressing their beliefs. For me as a Jewish person and a teammate, I feel that this is the right decision for me."
Green is a very well-meaning guy whose religious beliefs matter to him. But, I hope the next time he is in this position, he goes all the way and doesn't play baseball during any portion of Yom Kippur. It would be a truly inspiring expression of faith. Koufax and Greenberg are still being cited for the moral choices they made 39 and 70 years ago, respectively, because they knew, instinctively and unequivocally, what the right thing to do was. Green's heart is in the right place. I hope his priorities are fully there if this conflict arises again. Then, in the tradition of Koufax and Greenberg, he undoubtedly would be doing his part as a Jewish ballplayer. n