This article was written by Rebecca Alpert
This article was published in 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers essays
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 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 part of our role as Americans to support unpopular causes in the name of justice. We could be the ones who 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 also take pride in the fact that our passion for civil rights started much earlier (some suggest as far back as the beginning of the century), and had one of its greatest moments when we stood up for Jackie Robinson.
I grew up in Brooklyn in the Robinson era, to the stories my parents told me about the importance of being a Brooklyn Dodgers fan because they had the courage to break the color line. And I certainly was not alone. Fiction and memoir writers have immortalized the moment when Robinson came up to bat to the Jewish cries of “Yankel, Yankel,” from avid supporters.4 In the Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary, the segment about Robinson ends with a quote from the family of Eric Foner describing their experience on Passover that year. When the youngest asked the question at the seder, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” the family replied, because tonight for the first time in this century, a black man played on a white team.5
Jews were also actors in the process that brought the event about. Though much credit is given to Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, and of course to Robinson himself, the real campaign to integrate baseball had been going on for almost two decades. It was led by the African American press, with a vigorous supporting role played by the radical Jews who were sports writers at the Communist Daily Worker. And we also note the courage of Isadore Muchnick, the Boston city councilman from a liberal Jewish district who used the power of his office to put pressure on the Boston teams to give Robinson a tryout, knowing his district would stand by him, defending his actions based on the teaching of the prophets.6
Robinson himself acknowledged and appreciated the support he received from the Jewish community, and like many blacks of his era, saw in the Jews the model for the black community to achieve success in this country. Robinson defended the Jews even when the black-Jewish alliance began to rupture in the late 1960s, up until his death in 1972.7
Is this only a happy story? Of course, the fact that Robinson had to defend us means that the Jewish-black alliance had already begun to come apart by the 1970s. And of course there were Jews who didn’t want Jackie Robinson and his family to live in their neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1940s, and others who didn’t want him to join their country club in Connecticut in the 1960s. And there were certainly those who fought for Robinson because they believed that the advancement of African Americans would also be good for the Jews. But I’d like to remember the part of our Jewish heritage that encourages Jews to remember the hesed of our youth; to stick our necks out, support causes that may not be popular, that may not even be in our own self-interest. It’s part of who we are as Jews and what Jeremiah wants us to remember.
RABBI REBECCA T. ALPERT is an associate professor of religion and women’s studies at Temple University. She attended Barnard College before receiving her Ph.D in religion at Temple University and her rabbinical training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. She is the coauthor of “Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach” and the author of “Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition” and “Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism,” as well as several edited volumes and numerous articles. Her specialization is religion in America, and she focuses on issues related to gender, sexuality, and race. She has recently taught courses on religion in American public life; Jews, America, and sports; and sexuality in world religions. Her most recent book “Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball,” was published by Oxford Press in 2011.
1 William M Simons, “The Athlete as Jewish Standard Bearer: Media Images of Hank Greenberg,” Jewish Social Studies 44 (Spring 1982): 95-112.
2 See Aviva Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a film that tells the story quite movingly.
3 Hank Greenberg, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life, edited by Ira Berkow (New York: Times Books, 1989), 191.
4 Pete Hamill, Snow in August, (New York: Warner Books, 1997).
5 Ken Burns, Baseball (TV miniseries, 1994). Burns was not concerned with the fact that the Passover seder did not correspond with Opening Day that year, but that young Henry Foner, from whom he heard this story, was watching Robinson play on April 9 for the Montreal Royals in an exhibition game with the Dodgers the day before Rickey made the announcement that Robinson would be joining the Brooklyn team. Henry Foner, “Mah Nishtanah,” in Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, and the American Dream ed. Joseph Dorinson and Joram Warmund (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 71.
6 See Howard Bryant, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball (New York: Routledge, 2002).
7 Jackie Robinson, Jackie Robinson: My Own Story (New York: Greenberg, 1948), 146-7. Robinson maintained strong connections with Jews throughout his adult life, supported Jewish causes and subscribed to the theory that there was indeed a special connection between Jews and blacks that united them. In “The Jackie Robinson I Remember,” Roger Kahn related telling Robinson the story of being called “Izzy” (a “not terribly subtle code word for Jew”) at a prep school he attended. He describes Robinson’s response: “When I told Jackie Robinson that story on a slow train through Alabama 44 springs ago, his eyes moistened with pain for that touchdown-scoring, wounded little kid. We barely knew each other, but to use George Washington’s noble phrase, Jackie Robinson gave ‘bigotry no sanction.’ He hated anti-Semitism just as he hated prejudice against blacks—without qualification and from the gut.” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 14 (Winter 1996/1997): 89. According to Kahn, Robinson would tolerate no slurs against anyone; he would even express his contempt if someone so much as told a “Polish joke.” He truly empathized with those who experienced prejudice of any kind. Roger Kahn, interview by the author, December 10, 2005. Robinson saw Jews both as supporters of civil rights and as good role models for blacks to emulate in their struggle for full equality in the United States. He defended Jews against charges of racism, even in the 1960s when it became extremely unpopular in the black community to do so. Arnold Rampersad makes this clear in his definitive biography, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).