Over the last one hundred years, many professional baseball players have made the decision not to participate in games on important religious holidays. Of the two major world religions (Christianity and Judaism) that have permeated the National Pastime, the one with the more noticeable impact has been Judaism. Since Lipman Pike first played for $20 a week in 1866, countless Jews have sought some balance between America’s national game and preexisting religious obligations. Two of these cases stand out more than most, however, largely because of the stature of the players involved.
In 1934, Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg decided not to play in a game during a tight pennant race because it fell on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur; thirty-one years later, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax missed a contest for the same reason, this time in Game 1 of the World Series. On the surface, these choices were very similar—simple cases of public figures making personal, private decisions, with fame serving as a magnifying glass. In the mainstream press, however, they were treated very differently. The question in this paper is how the major media outlets, giants such as The Sporting News, Time, and the New York Times, viewed and reported the decisions made by both Greenberg and Koufax, and what might have accounted for the differences between the two.
Greenberg and Koufax have long been considered the two greatest Jewish players in baseball history. It is somewhat surprising, then, that only two scholars have done significant work on their respective impacts on the game. In his article on media depictions of the Tigers slugger, which focused largely on the 1934 Rosh Hashanah holiday, William Simons writes, "Although Greenberg still faced a conflict over whether to play on Yom Kippur, this episode generated much less media attention than his New Year’s ordeal, because the Tigers had the pennant ‘in the bag’ by Yom Kippur.” Additionally, Simons suggests that Greenberg's cause was helped by a dominating performance on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) when, after questioning if he should even play, the big slugger beat the Red Sox with two homeruns. Had the Tigers been in a closer race for the pennant, or had Hank not beaten Boston almost single-handedly, the decision would have been much more difficult and controversial.
Simons centered the bulk of his research on newspapers and how they characterized Hank Greenberg. Peter Levine, on the other hand, attempted to provide a perspective on what Jewish stars meant to Jewish culture in their respective eras. In doing so, he came to a somewhat different conclusion from Simons’. Weighing in on Greenberg’s 1934 decision (he evaluates Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a whole, rather than as two separate events), Levine writes, “Greenberg's choice appeared as critical dilemma—how to balance loyalty to parents, religion, and tradition with commitment to his American profession and his desire to fully participate in American life.” By not playing on Yom Kippur, Greenberg's life became an example for second generation Jews to follow, because his refusal to participate balanced the various elements that they were also struggling with at the time.
Levine also discusses the cultural impact of Sandy Koufax's Yom Kippur decision in 1965. He writes, “By the time Koufax chose not to play, Greenberg's dilemma no longer existed for most American Jews. While they proudly acknowledged Sandy's decision, it hardly signaled hope for their own American ambitions or symbolically challenged insistent anti-Semitic claims of Jewish inferiority.” In the space of a generation, the gap between the Old and New Worlds had been so greatly narrowed that Koufax could not possibly have had a comparable impact to Greenberg, at least in Levine’s estimation.
An examination of mainstream media coverage does not help greatly in proving Levine’s thesis that Greenberg's observance of Yom Kippur was somehow more culturally pertinent than Koufax's. In fact, as we shall see, it accomplishes the complete opposite. What these sources do quite well, however, is provide us with a sense of how the media of the times in question viewed and reported each man’s decision.
Two extensive news sources were immediately available for information on Hank Greenberg in 1934: The Sporting News and the New York Times. The big story in the September 27, 1934 edition of The Sporting News was the player’s choice all-star teams (which included three Tigers, but no Greenberg). The big slugger is hardly mentioned in the paper until page six, when his name creeps into an untitled, anonymous notes section following the weekly box scores: “Hank Greenberg, Detroit’s Jewish first baseman, laid off September 19, Yom Kippur. He played…on Rosh Hashana, but when it came to the most important of the Orthodox holy days, he begged leave.” Aside from this note, little was presented in “the baseball Bible” regarding Greenberg's absence on Yom Kippur; interestingly, virtually all of this information seems to have come on September 27. If Peter Levine’s thesis was correct, the reporting here illustrates the difficulties that Hank faced in setting the example of balance. The essential problem is that he could not rely on the mainstream print media to accurately portray his struggles as a Jewish athlete in America. The wording “he begged leave”, for example, implies that he had to avail himself to team management in order to be given the day off, rather than simply telling them that he was not going to play for personal reasons.
More neutral in its account was the New York Times. The most prominent mention of Yom Kippur was found in the story of the Tigers-Yankees game from the September 19, 1934 edition. In an acknowledgement of Greenberg's star power, perhaps, there is a secondary headline regarding his day away from the ballpark. Not surprisingly, this headline makes no mention of Yom Kippur: “Greenberg's Absence Ends Infield Streak at 143 Games.” The “infield streak” refers to the fact that Detroit’s four regular infielders had played in all of the team’s games to that point in the season. This record, also mentioned in the anonymous notes in The Sporting News on September 27, formed the second half of a paragraph that explained Hank's reason for missing the game: “Hank Greenberg was absent from the Detroit lineup because of his observance of Yom Kippur.” The inclusion of these two events—one historic, another trivial—within the same newspaper paragraph indicates that the Times considered them linked, which in fact they were. Rather than applauding Greenberg for his convictions, however, the paper blamed him for the end of a record that was doubtful in its importance.
Of the two religious holidays that confronted Greenberg in 1934, Yom Kippur was the lesser regarded and lighter covered. The New York Times and The Sporting News presented only basic information about this historic decision, while Time magazine did not even cover baseball in 1934. The fact that numerous references to Rosh Hashanah can be found legitimizes the thesis of William Simons. Because Greenberg had played (and performed extraordinarily) in that game, it was perceived as worthy of recognition in the mainstream sports media. Because he did not step on the field for Yom Kippur, however, there was a sense that there was nothing important to write about—hence the inclusion of the infield streak.
In the case of Koufax, the media sources are slightly different. The Sporting News, unfortunately, was not immediately available for 1965; there are, however, a number of pertinent materials still available. Foremost among these is a small article from the October 2, 1965 edition of the New York Times. As reported by United Press International, “The Los Angeles Dodgers planned today to open the World Series without the services of Sandy Koufax in the first game next Wednesday…Wednesday is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people.” From the initial reporting, this event appears more highly regarded as a news story than Greenberg's absence, as characterized by the presence of a separate (albeit small) article dealing with his decision not to play.
A second significant piece of Koufax coverage was provided by the October 8, 1965 issue of Time magazine: “…because of a quirk in the schedule, the Twins won’t have to face Sandy Koufax in the opening game of the Series on October 6. That day is Yom Kippur, and Sandy never plays baseball on Jewish holidays.” This small snippet of a larger column includes the expected reference to a secular event. As with Greenberg, the game is referred to as the larger story, the framework around which everything else is built. The second line, however, is something that was not seen in Greenberg's time: an equal acknowledgement of Koufax’s status as a Jewish player who refused to play on the holy days. When Greenberg had sat out on Yom Kippur, it was said that he “begged leave.” When Koufax made the same decision thirty years later, the sense was that he had never played on this holiday before, so there was no reason to expect anything different now. As he wrote in his 1966 autobiography Koufax, “There was never any decision to make…because there was never any possibility that I would pitch…the club knows that I don’t work that day.”
This was not a perfect or complete study of mainstream media coverage of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, but it is telling nonetheless. Interestingly enough, the results here contradict the thesis of Peter Levine, which stated that Greenberg was much more culturally important than Koufax because of the era in which his decision was made. Based on media coverage of the two men, the situation was reversed; Koufax received more attention and acceptance, while Greenberg's religious choices were always carefully tied to secular excellence.
The logical question to ask is why these differences appeared. There are two facts that might shed some light on the change in coverage in the thirty-one intervening years between Greenberg and Koufax. Number one is the presence of the United Press, which did not begin the first sports wire until 1945. This service was not available when Greenberg was making his historic decision; there was, therefore, no way to get the news out to all media installations quickly. Most of the material pertaining to Greenberg, for instance, was found in the September 27, 1934 issue of The Sporting News, a full week after the Yom Kippur game was played without him. In Koufax's situation, however, everyone who might have an interest in his decision could find out about it in the next morning’s newspaper.
The second shift in reporting was found in Time magazine, which moved from no baseball coverage at all in 1934 to a full page or more by 1965. This means that when Greenberg played, he had no chance of being mentioned in this major media publication. Koufax, however, played in an era in which Time reported on major league baseball. This meant that he, as one of the biggest stars in the game, would receive ample coverage just with the World Series appearance. The presence of Yom Kippur added another dimension to that coverage.
In any comparison, the implicit goal is to determine who or what is better. In this case, it is tough to say. Peter Levine would have us believe that Hank Greenberg's cultural contributions far outweighed those of Sandy Koufax, while much of the mainstream media coverage of their respective Yom Kippurs shows the exact opposite. In the final analysis, it might be best to realize that these two perspectives are both correct. To the Jewish people of the 1930s, Greenberg was a beacon, a strong, admirable figure in a time of great struggle. In the 1960s, Koufax was a personal role model, a man who stood by his principles regardless of what people might think. The difference in media coverage, then, was likely an inverse product of these times. Greenberg and Koufax
both played during periods of intolerance, when a certain percentage of the population was fighting for acceptance. In the latter case, however, the intolerance was not about religion, but race. Anti-Semitism still existed in the 1960s, but it’s presence in baseball had not been felt strongly in years, possibly since before World War II. Because of this, the media portrayals of Koufax
were softer than those of Greenberg. In the end, a man’s individual religion was becoming less of a point of conflict by the time Sandy played the game, a point reflected in the mainstream newspaper coverage of the era.