Yom Kippur’s historical impact on the game of baseball


Autumn is here which means: school, baseball pennant races, and the Jewish holidays.

Beginning Tuesday evening through tomorrow evening, Jews around the world will observe the holiday of Yom Kippur. Translated as “the day of atonement”, it is one of the most sacred holidays in the Jewish faith, and most observed holiday by Jews worldwide.

Fifty years ago, day one of the World Series between the L.A. Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins occurred on Yom Kippur. The ace pitcher of the Dodgers staff that year was Sandy Koufax. A Jewish player from Brooklyn, Koufax chose to sit out the game in order to observe the holiday.

In today’s world of pitch counts and innings limits, a team’s best pitcher starts game one to be set up to pitch a winner take’s all game 7.

On such a large stage as the World Series to potentially have your best pitcher unavailable would certainly doom any team’s chances.

While the Dodgers did ultimately win in seven games with Koufax pitching the 7th game on three days rest, it was a major statement to the world about the importance of faith.

He was not the first player to sit out Yom Kippur. 31 years prior, Hank Greenberg, the Bronx born first baseman for the Detroit Tigers sat out a crucial end of season game to observe the holiday.

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Religious athletes are nothing new to the sports world. Former defensive end Reggie White was an ordained reverend. Teams regularly pray before or after a game.

So what’s the big deal? What makes their accomplishments noteworthy is specifically because they weren’t deeply religious individuals. If they were, then expectations would’ve been for them to miss the games.

Five years before the start of World War II, the harsh realities of anti-Semitism and the Nazi party were brewing. 20 years after, those realities were not forgotten.

Greenberg and Koufax were not only risking their team’s chances of winning, they were potentially putting their lives on the line. Greenberg had been subject to death threats in his career without a lot on the line. With a team’s fate in the balance, the stakes were raised that much more.

This season, there are no Jewish players who will sit out games for the Mets or Yankees who are both in the midst of pennant races.

For Jewish baseball fans like myself, every Yom Kippur I am inspired by Greenberg and Koufax’s courage to be true to themselves on such a large world stage.

Heroes in sports are not just those players who accomplish major feats. They are the players that inspire us to be better people and act as role models for us.

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