Judaism and Baseball by Sara and Cynthia Brideson
“What is G-d’s favorite sport?
Baseball. Because the Torah begins (in English) in the big inning.”
-Rabbi Ken White
From the time baseball became America’s favorite pastime, American Jews have been a part of it. If there was an official Jewish sport, baseball would be it. Why, one must ask, do Jews have such an affinity for the sport? Football, though almost as popular as baseball, does not appeal to most Jews given that the ball is made of pigskin and it is a violent sport. Concepts in baseball, on the other hand, parallel Judaic beliefs. For example, the concept of Tzedaka (charity/giving) can be compared to the contributions of the batter. Tzedakah includes all types of giving, sacrificing, and helping others to help themselves. In baseball, the hitter has many opportunities such as the sacrifice fly, the bunt, and the home run to give others chances at winning and to recognize their own abilities. According to writer George Goodman, “The highest level of baseball Tzedakah would be a veteran player helping a rookie to achieve his potential.” Baseball also encompasses the Jewish tradition of connecting the generations; baseball has long been a way in which children and parents have found common ground. Baseball and Judaism also share a commonality in that they both have order and ritual. The Neshamah Center wrote that the umpire is like the rabbi and that the designated hitter is like the Shabbos goy. The Neshamah Center, on a more serious note sums up the parallels between Judaism and baseball thus:
In both baseball and Judaism at the start of a New Year you have a chance to be a winner. The team that finished the year in the basement starts out with the same 0-0 record as the team that won the World Series. Similarly, if you had a bad year last year, if you do honest teshuva, repentance during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you get to start the New Year with a clean slate: a 0-0 record, your old sins no longer held against you. And last but not least, in both Judaism and baseball, while an individual is important, we win or lose as a community.
Jewish communities from the reform synagogues to the Chassidic all share a common love of the sport. So, baseball links not only Jews in the same community but also links Jews in different communities. A long standing stereotype exists that Jews are not strong in the field of athletics. Baseball helped change that notion. Two players in the Hall of Fame, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, were Jewish. Greenberg was a devout Jew who at first refused to play in the World Series because it fell on Rosh Hashanah. However, his rabbi told him that the holiday was a festive one; consequently, playing a game on that day was permitted. Greenberg then proceeded to run out on the field and hit two home runs. He did not, however, play on Yom Kippur. Greenberg once said of his religion: “It was a constant thing. I think it was a spur for me to do better.” He was often discriminated against and stated that, “Not only were you a bum; you were a Jewish bum.” Greenberg’s monumental win certainly helped to silence anyone who had said words against him. Indeed, he rose in their estimation and even had a jaunty tune written about him by poet Edgar Albert Guest:
“Came Yom Kippur—holy fast day world over to the Jew/And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true/Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.’/Said Murphy to Mulrooney, ‘We shall lose the game today!/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!’”
Koufax, though he did not have a song written about him, “pulled a Greenberg” in the 1965 World Series. Because it was scheduled to begin on Yom Kippur, there was no question in his mind that he was not going to make it. Don Drysdale started Game 1 for Koufax, who commented to the press when asked why he thought it happened that way, “G-d knows.” During the game, player Walter Alston came out to the mound to remove the struggling Drysdale. Drysdale quipped, “I bet you wish I was Jewish, too!” Koufax returned in Game 5 and pitched a complete game shutout. Even with arthritic pain in his joints, Koufax beat the Twins team and earned a World Series MVP award.
Greenberg and Koufax are only two examples of a multitude of Jews who have become a part of baseball history. When Jews first immigrated to America, baseball was one of the most accessible ways for them to enter into their new country’s culture. By adopting “the American Religion” (as baseball was oft called), they found a sense of community and a way to become American yet maintain their Jewish identities. Until 2002, the Jewish batting average was three percentage points higher than the overall batting average. Gentiles idolized Jewish baseball players, but no one could idolize them more than fellow Jews. One Jewish player for the Blue Sox recalled that he got a sack of fan mail every day from “every Jewish mother in the world” who wanted to introduce him to their daughters. Each letter included a photograph of the daughter. Jews were very proud of their players, sometimes treating them like biblical icons, legendary for their talents.
The connection of Jews to baseball is in no danger of diminishing. From the first Jewish baseball player in the 1880s, Lipman Pike, there have been 165 Jewish major league baseball players. A Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame exists, as does a special deck of baseball cards sporting images of Jewish players. Jews can even connect to the most famous baseball tune in the world, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” A Jewish screenwriting team, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, penned a script for a film named after the famed tune. Included in the film is even a Jewish baseball player named Goldberg. The film is like a love song from Jews to baseball and shows more than anything else their love of their country and its favorite sport. The finale of the film has the all-star cast singing of American traditions and food one could enjoy at a baseball game: “Like the Fourth of July or apple pie/ It's strictly USA./Like a hotdog covered with mustard… /Like a circus parade or lemonade,/It's strictly USA!”
And that’s just what Jews and baseball have and always will be—strictly USA and an exceptional part of the country’s rich history.
Don’t miss this wonderful program !
Judaism and Baseball
Sunday, September 29th
at the KOH!
MOVIES ABOUT JEWS AND BASEBALL
Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1948)
Co-directed by dancer Gene Kelly and Jewish choreographer Stanley Donen, this film is two hours of old-fashioned American fun. The plot centers on two vaudevillians/baseball players, O’Brien and Ryan (Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra) and their friend, Jewish baseball player Goldberg, and their efforts to adjust to having their baseball team owned by a beautiful woman, K.C. Higgins (Esther Williams). Lady's man O’Brien tries to woo her, as does the shy Ryan. Soon, gangsters have their eye on the team and try to influence O’Brien to take a dive. One of the gangster's molls, who has eyes for Ryan, alerts the Wolves of the gangster's schemes. A Technicolor, musical extravaganza finish leave viewers satisfied that all is right in the worlds of love and baseball. Penned by Jewish screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green (writers of Singin’ in the Rain), this film has no shortage of witty dialogue and song lyrics that truly celebrate America’s favorite pastime.
This film is not about baseball per se, but the two main characters, one a reform Jew and the other a Chassidic Jew, befriend each other after competing on two separate baseball teams. Set in 1940s Brooklyn, The Chosen is the story of how the two teenage boys who become best friends despite huge differences
in their upbringing. Danny (Robby Benson) is the son of an orthodox Hasidic Rabbi (Rod Steiger). Reuven (Barry Miller) comes from a progressive Jewish family whose father (Maximillian Schell) stands at the forefront of the battle for Israeli statehood. Danny's every moment is devoted to religious study, while Reuven plays jazz piano and is intensely interested in the changing world around him. Their family differences soon force both to make difficult choices. Based on Chaim Potok's best-selling novel, The Chosen is a must see film with a wonderful cast . The book has become a classic coming-of-age story that is relatable to anyone regardless of his/her religion.
The Yankles (2010)
A down-and-out ex-baseball player, Charlie Jones, needs to meet his community service hours as a coach. The problem is no team wants him. It takes the Yankles, an obscure orthodox yeshiva baseball team desperate for a coach, to give Charlie his second chance. A humorous match made in heaven, both Charlie and the team rise to unexpected triumphs resulting in entrance to the college world series. With the championship in reach, it seems the Yankles just might need a miracle for that ultimate grand slam victory. Winner of the Best Comedy at the International Film Festival and winner of the Audience Favorite Award a the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, this film is also a winner and an audience favorite especially at the KOH! Come and borrow it from our DVD collection today.