Forty years ago, Sandy Koufax took a day off from his job because it was Yom Kippur. And because it fell on a day he was supposed to pitch in the World Series, he was elevated once and forever into icon status in the Jewish community.
But I believe that the gesture is now more of a fine historical reference than an ongoing symbol of Jewish resolve for the current minions. In its time, it was a wonderful, and powerful, affirmation of Judaism. But today, do we still need that special seal of validation?
No — and I think that’s great. Not that I am unaware of Jews in sports these days. Indeed, I myself am a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
And inevitably, when I mention my affiliation — which I do often, I am proud to say — someone brings up Koufax and Yom Kippur. That tandem remains a defining moment in American Judaism. Indeed, I would argue it transcended sports.
But it says something about most of today’s 5.5 million American Jews that we don’t make a major issue, or God forbid, an idol, out of the still small number of big-time athletes of the Hebraic persuasion, as my old Army sergeant used to say. In other words, I’m okay even if there isn’t a 6-foot-11-inch circumcised behemoth dunking a basketball.
For by any measure, Jews are mainstream and hardly need a hero to lift us up. Yes, we were proud when a Jew was on the ticket for vice president. But once the initial euphoria wore off, it was business, and politics, as usual. We have Jews in President Bush’s Cabinet; we’ve got a remarkable number of Nobel laureates; we’ve got team owners; we’ve got corporation heads. We don’t have to make them up.
But back in my old neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn, so many star American athletes took on an almost-Jewish tinge: Maybe it was the way the old men mispronounced Mickey Mantle (“Mendel”), or Duke Snider (“Schneider”). And even Pee Wee Reese had a vaguely Jewish nuance to his name. If these guys weren’t Jewish, why, we’d create a fantasy persona for them.
Oh, I knew some of the legends regarding Jews: Max Baer had a Jewish star on his trunks, even though he wasn’t Jewish. And there was Hank Greenberg, who, it was said, was stuck at 58 home runs, two shy of Babe Ruth’s record 60, because opposing goy pitchers deliberately walked him rather than have him join the gentile pantheon of great athletes.
But do you remember that Koufax was listed as the American athlete of the century by Sports Illustrated in its 2000 perspective? (Albert Einstein made it as Time’s Man of the Century.)
So there has been a world of change since Koufax’s Jewish moment. People named Weill and Perelman and Tisch have become major players in finance; there was a Wolfowitz hidden among the Bushies; half of Bill Clinton’s enablers seemed to be Jewish. Many Hollywood types protesting various military engagements and spotted-owl destruction can read Hebrew.
In the scheme of things, what’s the big deal if Shawn Green hits a home run for the Dodgers? Or sits out a holiday?
I don’t think you’ll see on a field, or a rink, the situation that once happened to a fellow named Larry Zeidel, a pugnacious player for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team back in the 1960s. In a game against the Boston Bruins, someone from the Bruins’ bench yelled, “You’re next for the ovens, Zeidel!” That prompted some more fighting from Zeidel.
When I asked the president of the National Hockey League, Clarence Campbell — who, as a Canadian lawyer, had worked on the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal — about what the Bruins had shouted, he told me, “The ethnic slur has always been part of hockey.” No discipline was forthcoming against Boston just for that.
And yet, despite progress that has made us mainstream, this I know: I feel good when Green does hit one out of the park. Or when my fellow hall of famer, quarterback Jay Fiedler, tosses a touchdown. Moreover, while I can intellectualize all the reasons why it’s no big deal that we’re part of the big picture in America, a part of me is proud when a Jew publicly declares he will not go to work on a high holiday.
Back in the 1970s, when I was in mid-career as a sportswriter for The New York Times, I foolishly agreed to cover a Yankees’ game on the afternoon before the start of Rosh Hashana. I thought the game would be over by about 3:30 p.m., I’d be finished writing at 5, I’d be in shul by 6.
Ah, baseball. The game was tied going into the bottom of the ninth. And guess who won the game then for the Yankees? Ron Blomberg, their Jew from Georgia. He was ecstatic afterward, and told me that if the game had gone into extra innings, he would have left to go to temple. Well, I wrote my story (which carried a headline about the “Sundown Kid”), and made it to shul.
The next time I saw Blomberg, he was wolfing down a ham sandwich. But for that earlier moment, he had become a Jew for whom his past had overtaken his present.
Gerald Eskenazi , a former New York Times sportswriter, is author of the forthcoming radio memoir “I Hid It Under the Sheets” (University of Missouri Press).