I’ve written numerous times on this blog about Jewish Major League Baseball players whose decisions of whether or not to play on Yom Kippur (known as “the Sandy Koufax question”) become fodder for debate and discussion. Kevin Youkilis explained his feelings on playing on the Jewish day of atonement in a recent article in Yahoo! Sports after his team rearranged its schedule to accommodate Jewish fans as well as their star third baseman.
“You have to stick with your beliefs,” Youkilis said. “You can’t worry about people who aren’t influential in your life who say things or tell you you’re wrong. I know Shawn Green had a tough time with it. It just depends upon the community. In Boston they probably don’t even care. They’d want you to play.”
The White Sox did something earlier this week that many baseball teams had previously claimed was impossible based on the rigidity of Major League Baseball over its schedule. (The Yankees and Red Sox moved a game from evening to afternoon to accommodate the Jewish fans of both teams in 2009.) The White Sox changed the start time for its game on Tuesday, September 25 game against the Cleveland Indians from 7:10 to 1:10, citing courtesy for the team’s Jewish fans who will observe Yom Kippur beginning at nightfall. Even if the stated reason was for the fans, the team’s decision was a relief to Youkilis who no longer had to make the difficult decision on whether he would play that night. Last year, Youkilis responded to “the Sandy Koufax question” in the Jewish Journal by saying that there are “plenty of people with strong feelings on each side. It wouldn’t be an easy choice.”
It seems like Jewish baseball players face the Yom Kippur dilemma each year, but it’s only the more popular players in predominantly Jewish cities who are discussed. In recent years in addition to Youkilis, Ryan Braun (who’s father is Jewish and is known as the “Hebrew Hammer”), Gabe Kapler and Shawn Green have responded to the Yom Kippur question by sitting out games in some years and playing in other years. Yom Kippur doesn’t pose the same dilemma to Jewish pitchers like Scott Feldman of the Texas Rangers or Jason Marquis of the San Diego Padres who can be rescheduled in the starting rotation or simply not used in relief during that particular game.
Interestingly, this dilemma for baseball players has been named “The Sandy Koufax question” after Koufax sat the first game of the World Series in 1965. However, Koufax pitched in the second game instead so it wasn’t the same sacrifice as Hank Greenberg who refused to play baseball on Yom Kippur in 1934, even though the Detroit Tigers were in the middle of a pennant race.
A funny story is often told about that Dodgers World Series game which had Don Drysdale pitching in Game 1 in place of Koufax. Drysdale gave up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings and when the manager came to pull him from the game, Drysdale deadpanned, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too!” Koufax went on to lose Game 2.
Some baseball players view the decision to play or not on Yom Kippur to be a personal choice, but not everyone agrees. In an article in the Forward a couple years ago Hank Greenberg’s granddaughter Melanie (Former MLB Deputy Commissioner Steve Greenberg’s daughter) wrote, “Heavy though the burden may be, I believe that Jewish players share the same obligation as my grandfather — to serve as representatives for their people. Admittedly, he lived in different times. Jewish athletes, however, still have the ability to affect their communities.”
At least this year the White Sox helped their star out and he didn’t have to make a decision. Youkilis has said that he will fast and attend synagogue this Yom Kippur.