A Small, Yet Momentous Gesture

This article was written by Scott Schleifstein

This article was published in 2005 Baseball Research Journal

Bruce Markusen’s Baseball’s Last Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s, an entertaining account of the club that dominated the American League West in the early to mid 1970s, has the following piece of trivia about the 1972 A’s team: “Later in the year, when terrorists murdered several Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games, [Ken] Holtzman, [Mike] Epstein and Reggie Jackson wore black armbands in tribute to those who had been slain.”1 Fascinated, I wanted to find out as much as I could about this gesture.


Why did this interest me so? As a fellow Jew, I deeply admired Ken Holtzman and Mike Epstein for choosing to don the black armbands. In this “enlightened” age of moral ambiguity, when celebrity is too often and too easily mistaken for character, their act impressed me in its sincerity and visibility. Surely, no one would have faulted Holtzman or Epstein if they chose not to acknowledge the tragedy at the Munich Olympics. After all, they were baseball players, not statesmen or rabbis. Furthermore, Major League Baseball had already officially recognized the Olympic tragedy with the observance of a moment of silence prior to all major league games on September 6, 1972.2

Beyond this, on the job, both Holtzman and Epstein faced the unique pressures of a hotly contested pennant race. Notwithstanding all this, Holtzman and Epstein remembered what was truly impor­tant – their Jewish identity. Through their actions Holtzman and Epstein powerfully and unequivocally affirmed the significance of their faith as an integral part of their lives. In this way the black armbands augmented as well as honored the legacy of Jewish ballplayers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, who refused to play on Yom Kippur.3

Reggie Jackson’s participation was more of a puzzle. Not being Jewish, why did Jackson choose to do this? If the decision of Holtzman and Epstein to wear the black armband can be fairly characterized as “unanticipated,” for Reggie to do so is well-nigh unfathomable.

Growing up in central New Jersey in the late 1970s, I loved the New York Yankees, and Jackson was part-man, part-myth to me. I marveled at Reggie’s seemingly limitless self-confidence, his strong sense of conviction as well as his amazing feats in clutch sftuations. Who could forget his electrifying performance in the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers?4

The Game

On September 6, 1972, the Oakland A’s played the Chicago White Sox at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Coming into the game, the A’s led the American League’s West Division by three games over the sec­ond-place White Sox. This two-game series would directly and sig­nificantly impact the pennant race, as a White Sox sweep would reduce the A’s lead to only one game.5 Conversely, if the A’s took both games, their lead would swell to five games, and if they split the series, the lead would remain at three games.6

Major League Baseball’s playoff format in the 1970s amplified the games’ importance: in each league the winner of the West Division would meet the winner of the East Division in a best three-of-five game series to determine which team would represent the league in the World Series. Unlike today, there was no “wild card” playoff berth. A lot was on the line here, and, if anything, the pressure was on the A’s to win. In 1971, the A’s won the American League West handily by 16 games, only to be swept by the American League East win­ners, the Baltimore Orioles, in the American League Championship series.7

A’s manager Dick Williams started southpaw Ken Holtzman, who had a record of 15-11 coming into the game. Tom Bradley (13-12) was the White Sox starter. Reggie Jackson started in center field and batted fourth; Mike Epstein played first base and hit fifth.

For the record, Oakland won by the count of 9-1. Despite a shaky first inning in which he yielded a run, Holtzman notched a complete-game victory.8 Epstein went 3-for-4, with two runs scored, while Jackson was 3-for-5 (one of the hits being his 23rd home run of the season), with three runs scored and one RBI. Holtzman was hitless.

Players’ Reflections

In a telephone conversation on September 14, 2004, Mike Epstein spoke to me about the incident, cautioning that his memories may have become blurred by the passage of over 30 years. He did recall seeing a television news report of the massacre of the Israeli Olympic contingent prior to the game on September 6. “We [Epstein and Holtzman] walked around town for hours” and were “in shock.”9

Epstein did not remember whether the idea came from himself or Ken Holtzman, but the two players agreed that wearing the black armband “was the right thing to do” and “expressed solidarity [with the Jewish people].”10

After the game Epstein explained his actions to the press as fol­lows: “It hit us like a ton of bricks. Of course, Ken and I are Jewish, but I’d feel the same way if it was any other team. The Olympics are supposed to foster international brotherhood.”11

Ken Holtzman’s memory was consis­tent with that of Epstein’s. In a telephone call on September 7, 2004, Holtzman emphasized to me that wearing the arm­band “was the appropriate thing to do” and that the two players “decided on their own” to do it.12 For his part, although a reporter described him as “still shaken” by the massacre of the Israeli Olympic contingent, Holtzman declined to discuss the tragedy in post-game interviews.13

The reasoning behind Reggie Jackson’s participation is unclear. Ron Bergman’s account of the game in the September 7, 1972 edition of the Oakland Tribune attributes this quote to Jackson: “I don’t think the Olympics should go on after those killings. I know that if somebody assassinated a couple of our players here in Chicago – some nut who didn’t want us to win – I wouldn’t want to play the rest of the season, World Series, playoffs, nothing.”14

Since attempts to arrange an interview with Jackson proved unsuccessful, I can only guess as to his intent. Holtzman indicated that neither he nor Epstein knew beforehand that Jackson would also wear a black armband.15 When discussing his tenure with the Oakland A’s in his autobiography (Reggie: The Autobiography), Jackson does not specifically address this episode.16

Still, at the risk of engaging in pop psychology, Jackson’s autobiography seems to contain several clues as to his mind­ set. In various places Jackson seems to go out of his way to show respect for Jews and the Jewish faith generally. Perhaps most tellingly, in discussing the underlying rancor and bile in the New York Yankees clubhouse in 1977, Jackson relays how one day, in March, several of his teammates as well as the man­ager at the time (Billy Martin) “were making Jewish jokes about [Ken] Holtzman.” Jackson added that he found the incident “dis­turbing” and”walked away.”17

True, Jackson did not intercede on Holtzman’s behalf. However, such a confrontation might have been too much to expect, as Jackson himself was not accepted by his new teammates: from Jackson’s perspective, he “wasn’t one of them.”18

At another point of the book, Jackson recalls that, as a youth living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, “a lot of my friends were Jewish.”19 Beyond this, Jackson looks to “Jewish people,” among other ethnic groups, as a paradigm in combating the racism inher­ent in American society.20

Perhaps, when taken together, these statements signify a special sensitivity on Jackson’s part toward the Jewish people; perhaps not. Maybe, as an African American man who was stung by racism and hate in his own life, Jackson felt compelled to make a public statement by wearing the armband.21

During our conversation Epstein expressed skepticism as to Jackson’s motives, suggesting that “Reggie capitalized on it,”22 in an attempt to garner more attention for himself from the media. To this point, Epstein added that, unlike Jackson, he and Holtzman harbored no such ulterior motives.

When queried as to the reaction of their Oakland A’s team­mates to their actions, Holtzman commented that they “under­stood,” “being intelligent guys.”23 My interview with A’s third base­man Sal Bando confirmed Holtzman’s generous assessment of his teammates. Although he did not specifically remember “the stripe,”24 Bando thanked me for sharing a draft of this article with him. Bando reflected that, if asked to do so, he ”would have worn one” and wondered aloud, “Why didn’t the rest of us [also wear a black armband]?”26

Notwithstanding his reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense baseball man,27 A’s skipper Dick Williams supported the players’ decision to wear the armbands. “I thought [White Sox manager] Chuck Tanner showed some class by not saying anything about the armbands. There could have been a flareup because Kenny [Holtzman] is a pitcher and he was wearing one. I’m all for it. I understand. I don’t see how the Olympics can go on. I think the killings were a terrible thing, a terrible thing.”28 Williams added that, if requested to do so, he also would have worn a black arm­band.29

Every once in a while a person or act weaves together the various, seemingly unrelated strands of your life into a beauti­ful whole, ultimately renewing your faith in your convictions. Learning of the powerful gesture of Ken Holtzman, Mike Epstein, and Reggie Jackson on September 6, 1972, touched me in this extraordinary way. Judaism, Zionism, and baseball all seemed to dramatically and magically coalesce, if only for a single moment.

SCOTT A. SCHLEIFSTEIN has been a baseball fan all his life and has made it his personal mission to visit every major league ballpark. When not following the fortunes of the New York Yankees from Yankee Stadium or another ballpark, Scott finds time to practice promotion marketing law in New York.



1. Bruce Markusen, Baseball’s Last Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s (Indianapolis, IN: Masters Press, 1998): 108.

2. United Press. “Baseball Observes Moment for Israelis.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 1972: 63.

3. For a discussion of Sandy Koufax’s decision not to pitch Game 1 of the World Series on October 6, 1965, as it fell on Yom Kippur, see Jane Leavy’s Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (New York: HarperCollins, 2002): 181-185. More recently, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Shawn Green, when he was on the Los Angeles Dodgers, chose not to play in a crucial late season game against the San Francisco Giants on Yom Kippur 2004 (i.e.,September 25, 2004), as he had the previous year. See “Grand Slam by Feliz Lifts Giants’ Postseason Hopes.” New York Times, September 26, 2004: 5.

4. In Game 6, Jackson hit home runs against three different Dodger pitchers, all on their first offering. See Ron Smith, The Sporting News Chronicle of Baseball (New York: BDD Illustrated Books, 1993): 271.

5. A’s third baseman Sal Bando and Ken Holtzman each separately acknowledged the importance of the game to the Chicago Tribune‘s Bob Logan. While asserting that the series was not “decisive,” Bando allowed that “Still, we couldn’t let them beat us two straight here.” Holtzman noted that “this was a big series” for the A’s. Bob Logan, “Games Aren’t Decisive Yet, Explains Oakland’s Bando,” Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1972, Section 3, page 1.

6. The White Sox and A’s split the series with the White Sox winning the second game 6-0. See www.baseballlibrary.com.

7. Smith, The Sporting News Chronicle of Baseball: 236-237.

8. In critiquing his pitching performance for Bob Logan of the Chicago Tribune, Holtzman indicated that after some “early control trouble,” he had “good stuff.” Logan, “Games Aren’t Decisive Yet, Explains Oakland’s Bando.”

9. Telephone interview with Mike Epstein, September 14, 2004.

10. Telephone interview with Mike Epstein, September 14, 2004.

11. Thomas Rogers, “Personalities: A Chin is Exposed,” New York Times, September 8, 1972: 24.

12. Telephone interview with Ken Holtzman, September 7, 2004.

13. Logan, “Games Aren’t Decisive Yet, Explains Oakland’s Bando.”

14. Ron Bergman, “Athletics Greedy for More,” Oakland Tribune, September 7, 1972: 37.

15. Telephone interview with Ken Holtzman, September 7, 2004.

16. Reggie Jackson with Mike Lupica, Reggie: The Autobiography (New York: Villard Books, 1984): 66-101.

17. Jackson with Lupica, Reggie: The Autobiography: 149.

18. Jackson with Lupica, Reggie: The Autobiography: 149, 151-152. Elsewhere, Jackson notes that 1977 “would turn out to be the worst year of my life” and “if I’d had any idea what it was going to be like in New York, I never would’ve signed. To this day, with all I accomplished on the field in New York — and off the field — I wouldn’t have signed with them in a million years.” As if the reader still harbored any doubts on this point, Jackson adds, “I wish I had worn Dodger blue.”

19. Jackson with Lupica, Reggie: The Autobiography: 134.

20. Jackson with Lupica, Reggie: The Autobiography: 129-130.

21. Jackson with Lupica, Reggie: The Autobiography: 56-65. Jackson describes the racism he encountered playing for the A’s minor league affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama.

22. Telephone interview with Mike Epstein, September 14, 2004.

23. Telephone interview with Mike Epstein, September 14, 2004. Reggie Jackson, in his autobiography, confirms Holtzman’s assessment of the sophistication of their teammates on the 1972 Oakland A’s. As further discussed below, in describing the anti-Semitic behavior of certain members of the 1977 New York Yankees, Jackson contrasted the small-mindedness of the Yankees clubhouse with the relatively more enlightened thinking of the A’s teams on which he had played. “It [anti-Semitic jokes] just hasn’t been done in Oakland. It felt strange. Disturbing.” See Jackson with Lupica, Reggie: The Autobiography: 149.

24. Email from Sal Bando to Scott A. Schleifstein, March 26, 2005.

25. Telephone interview with Sal Bando, March 29, 2005.

26. Telephone interview with Sal Bando, March 29, 2005.

27. In Reggie: The Autobiography, Jackson alternately describes Williams as “macho” and “tough”. See p. 96.

28. Bergman, “Athletics Greedy for More.”

29. Bergman, “Athletics Greedy for More.”