Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert
The subject of Jews and baseball is one that often inspires nostalgia, not thoughts about Jewish values. But for me, thinking about Jews and their role in “America’s game” is primarily about the Jewish passion for social justice. The connection begins with one of my favorite quotations, from the Hebrew Bible in the book of Jeremiah. The prophet relays what he hears as God’s words to Israel: “I will remember you because of the hesed [loving kindness] of your youth” (2:2). The quotation inspires a memory from my youth—a moment in time when American Jews acted with hesed. When we thought not only about what was good for the Jews, when we felt emboldened to hope for a better world for everyone, and when we actually played a role in trying to make that world a reality.
In 1947, Israel (the nation-state) was still one year from its founding. The Holocaust was too painful even to contemplate. And Hank Greenberg was playing his final year in the Major Leagues, at first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Greenberg was the most successful Jewish sports figure in the mid-twentieth century in the national pastime. He hit more home runs in one season than anyone but Babe Ruth. (Some say it was anti-Semitism that kept him from passing the Babe, but baseball historians argue that’s unlikely.)1 Greenberg played in many All-Star Games and in several World Series, served his country in World War II—one of the first ballplayers to enlist—and ended up as one of only two Jewish players (the other, Sandy Koufax) in the Hall of Fame. But more important, Hank refused to play on Yom Kippur (of course he did play on Rosh Hashanah, but that’s another story). He inspired a poem, a banner headline in the Detroit press, and the love of Jews everywhere.2
But my interest in Hank Greenberg is not because of what he meant to the Jews, but because of what he meant to Jackie Robinson, and what that connection meant to Jews who are passionately committed to social justice. The 1947 season wasn’t only Greenberg’s last year as a Major League player; it was also Robinson’s first. And while it wasn’t easy for Greenberg to endure the anti-Semitism in the Majors, it didn’t compare to the abuse Jackie Robinson experienced when he became the first African American to play in Organized Baseball in the twentieth century, after blacks were barred from the sport not by law, but by a “gentleman’s agreement” among the owners.
Robinson and Greenberg met one afternoon when Jackie reached first and Hank was the first baseman. In that encounter at first base, Robinson reported that Greenberg treated him with respect and said words of support to him. And in the Jewish press (and the New York Times), that was news.3 That moment became a legend in Jewish baseball history, preserved in every account about Greenberg (and Robinson) that Jews write.
That moment is important to me because it reminds me that in those days Jews saw it as part of our role as Americans to support unpopular causes in the name of justice. We could be the ones who would set an example by welcoming Robinson into an America that was learning to denounce bigotry. We pride ourselves on our role in the civil rights movement, on the fact that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King. That moment reminds me that Jews should