Yes, Religious Jews Have Played Professional Baseball Before
For Jewish fans of baseball, this was a big week. The Israeli national baseball team began scrimmaging on its warm-up tour before the Olympics, and two Orthodox Jewish players were chosen in the Major League Baseball draft. Jacob Steinmetz was picked 77th overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Elie Kligman was picked 593rd overall, by the Washington Nationals.
The press loved the story: “First known Orthodox Jewish player drafted” read The New York Post headline, and ESPN ran with “1st known drafted practicing Orthodox Jew.” Jewish and other national papers led with similar iterations.
Indeed, it is quite an achievement that both players plan to honor the Sabbath during the season (Steinmetz will play but walk to games, and Kligman plans to “Koufax” i.e. sit out every Shabbat contest) and keep kosher.
What constitutes an Orthodox Jew is not as defined as the different sects of other religions, and could probably be boiled down to institutional loyalty and certain hallmarks of Shabbat and Kashrut. So far, so good.
In an article in these pages, I discussed the history of Jews in baseball’s pioneer days, and how the tension between religious adherence and America’s pastime is, well, an American pastime.
In fact, Kligman could join the ranks of none other than Christy Mathewson and Cy Young — two of baseball’s most iconic (gentile) stars — who refused to play on the Sabbath at the turn of the 20th century. And don’t forget the playoff games that Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax skipped due to the High Holidays in 1934 and 1965, respectively.
However, these media headlines touting the Orthodoxy of the newest draftees take a narrow and misleading approach to the history of Jews in baseball. I don’t mean to claim that Greenberg or Koufax were Orthodox, as they most certainly were not. After all, on the Yom Kippur Koufax abstained from pitching on, he was said to have been spotted at a deli, eating the fast day away.
But the notion that no Jewish major leaguer had ever been religious is not entirely true. The MLB Draft first began in 1965, after the first half of the century — when dozens of Jewish players, many of them first or second generation immigrants from Yiddish-speaking Europe, had their careers.
The most religious player, and who by a lenient definition could even be described as Orthodox, was Morrie Arnovich. Raised by Orthodox parents in Wisconsin, the family wanted Morrie to become a rabbi, but he pursued baseball, becoming an All-Star left fielder in 1939 and was 18th in National League MVP voting. He is confirmed to have kept kosher his entire career, especially impressive at a time when it was much harder to do so. I could find no statements regarding his stance on High Holiday play, but the evidence lends him credit. In the 1940 World Series, his Cincinnati Reds faced off against Hank Greenberg’s Detroit Tigers. Games 2 and 3 were on Rosh Hashanah, and while Greenberg played, Morrie Arnovich did not enter the game. His first, albeit only, appearance in that World Series was the day after the holiday ended.
No Jewish players match Arnovich in observance, but some were raised in Orthodox homes and were, at one point in their adult lives, at least nominally in the fold. Al Schacht, who played for the Washington Senators from 1919-1921, joked that “There is talk that I am Jewish — just because my father was Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I speak Yiddish, and once studied to be a rabbi and a cantor. Well, that’s how rumors get started.” His observance deteriorated after he left the cantorate and rabbinate, but he clearly had spent considerable time in the frum community.
Additionally, Alta Cohen, whose career spanned three seasons in 1931-1933, was born to Orthodox parents. There is no record of any lasting religiosity in his life, though he was engaged enough (philanthropically) to be honored by Hebrew University in 1980.
Lou Limmer, a first baseman with the Philadelphia Athletics in the early 1950s, later became the president of his Bronx synagogue. and Barry Latman, a 1962 All-Star with the Cleveland Indians, was raised by observant parents who made him stop playing baseball when he was ten so he could prepare for his bar mitzvah for three whole years. Not spiteful, he refused to play on the High Holidays during his two decade career and was involved enough in Jewish life to speak to an Indianapolis synagogue after he retired.
I write this piece not to minimize the inspiring religious commitment Steinmetz and Kligman have displayed. I write to give them strength, to point out that they are not alone — that they are in a line of great Jewish Americans who remained connected to their people and traditions while dominating the baseball diamond. As Hank Greenberg said, “I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.” It appears the new draftees wish the same. That is, if they can make it to the Big Leagues.
Joshua Blustein will be attending The University of Chicago Law School in the Fall.