Reprinted with permission from “Chapters in American Jewish History,” published by the American Jewish Historical Society.
Before television made professional football so popular, baseball was America’s only “national pastime” and a symbol of the American values of competition and fair play. Nonetheless, the professional game reflected the nation’s prejudices, and Jews, African-Americans, and other “outsiders” were not easily welcomed into the sport. The year 1999 marked the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the major league color barrier. A decade earlier, Hank Greenberg crossed a different line: He became baseball’s first Jewish superstar.
Born into an Orthodox Bronx household in 1911, by the time Greenberg reached high school he stood six-foot three and was an All-City athlete in soccer and basketball. His favorite sport, however, was baseball. Somewhat awkward in the field, Greenberg chose to play first base. In 1929, the New York Yankees offered Greenberg a contract, but he turned it down because the immortal “Iron Man,” Lou Gehrig, was the incumbent Yankee first baseman. Instead, Greenberg signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers.
Greenberg spent three years in the minor leagues, working hard each day to improve his fielding and hitting. After being named the Most Valuable Player in the Texas League, he was promoted to the Tigers in 1933, batting .301 and driving in 87 runs.
The Yom Kippur Dilemma
In 1934, led by Greenberg’s .339 batting average, the Tigers jumped from fifth place in the American League into battle for the pennant. Never before had a Jewish player filled such a significant role for a major league team and, for the first time, Greenberg–and Jewish baseball fans all over the country–faced a dilemma. September 10th was Rosh Hashanah, and the Tigers, who led the league by four games in the standings, were playing the Boston Red Sox.
Fans and rabbis debated whether Greenberg, who by his accomplishments was winning acceptance for Jews among non-Jewish Americans, should play on the High Holy Days. Greenberg came up with his own compromise: He played on Rosh Hashanah and hit two home runs that won the game, 2-1. Ten days later, he spent Yom Kippur in a synagogue.
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