Where Judaism and Baseball Intersect

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Although it may be apocryphal, one of my favorite quotes from Solomon Schechter, the first president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America is “Gentlemen, in order to be a success in the American rabbinate, you must be able to talk baseball.”  Baseball has always had a big place in my life.

When I was a child growing up in Toronto my father would take me to see the Toronto Maple Leafs, the triple-A team of the New York Yankees.  I immediately became a devoted Yankee fan, and delighted in the many successes of the team, watching them on television almost every week. In the early ‘50’s I began collecting baseball cards and memorabilia, and thankfully my mother never threw away any of my cards.  I returned to the hobby in the 80’s when my son Zach arrived, and I was astounded to learn the value of my collection when I purchased baseball’s first price guide.  For many years I went to baseball card shows and conventions with Zach to purchase and watch the wheeling and dealing of purchasers. I stood in line for 2 hours to get Mickey Mantle’s autograph.  The Men’s Club of my Temple sponsored a number of baseball card shows, and I even have a personal letter on my Temple letterhead stationery from the late Bobby Thomson  (“the shot heard round the world”) who spoke at one of our shows. I also started a “sub-collection” of Jewish baseball players. I couldn’t have been more delighted that my Temple chose a baseball stadium venue for my retirement celebration this past June. It was a magical afternoon. This past weekend I attended the world’s largest sports memorabilia convention that took place in Chicago.  Once again, with my now-grown son Zach, we walked the large convention hall of dealers. I got to see some of my heroes of the past, including Pete Rose Jr., Reggie Jackson, and even had my picture taken with Zach and Cal Ripken Jr.

As those in Temple Sholom in Bridgewater (where I served as rabbi for 40 years) know, I have often used baseball themes in my High Holiday sermons and divrei Torah.  As I see it, baseball has been a constant in an ever-changing American society. America has changed a great deal in the past hundred years, and although there have been changes in the game of baseball (with video replay, limited time allotted to pitchers between pitches, lowering of the pitcher’s mound, designated hitters and the like), the game is still basically much the same. Americans see baseball as being stable, something that reminds them of the past. It represents America values, all that we have ever seen as good, and that gives us a feeling of security.

The timing of the start of the baseball season says it all. Funny how it often coincides with Passover, which is all about our birth as a nation with one focus—reaching the Promised Land (the World Series) and about coming from the evils of Egypt ( a dark, cold winter). And then there are my personal memories of seeing a Yankee game during Chol HaMoed Passover. While everyone else is feasting on soft pretzels and coke, I am munching a matzah and Passover soda.

Half a century ago, no less than the Lubavitcher rebbe taught a lesson about Yiddishkeit with the help of baseball. The Rebbe asked a visiting bar mitzvah boy about his favorite game. When the boy responded “baseball” the Rebbe explained the special lesson to the boy who was coming of age. “In your heart you have a big field. The two sides are the good inclination, and the negative one. Until now they played kid’s stuff, but from now on the game’s for real. Remember, just as in baseball, the side which plays best will win. If you only want to, you can always overcome your evil inclination.”

Ritual is a big part of Judaism, one of its building blocks. And so are its customs, actions accepted by much of the community, but have not (yet) achieved the status of law. For instance, does a congregation stand or sit when reciting the Shema? Is there a requirement for women to wear head coverings when in Temple? Baseball too has its many rituals. When losing the game, players often reverse their caps when a rally is needed. Batters often fiddle with their batting gloves in a certain manner each time they step to the plate.

Many baseball purists do not want to see baseball change. They believe that one change leads to another, and once on the road of change, it cannot easily be stopped. Thus, they would want baseball to remain as it was for fear of seeing it become a game that they do not recognize. Many traditionalists in Judaism are also in favor of the status quo, fearing that change will diminish their Judaism. I have learned that meaningful change is good, both for baseball and certainly for Judaism. Remember that the original baseball players did not wear gloves, so you cannot say that baseball has not changed!  And I think it has changed for the better. Similarly, who could have imagined women rabbis and cantors, and Kabbalat Shabbat services on the beach – changes that have so greatly enriched Judaism!

We are told in the Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin that we will be judged in the world to come by what we took the opportunity to enjoy and what we did not seek to enjoy. It was Rav who in that same text said that “a man will have a demerit in his record on judgement day for everything he beheld with his eyes and declined to enjoy.” And it is a character named Ray in one of my favorite movies Field of Dreams who has an opportunity to fulfil his dream, and sets out on his mission to build a baseball field. He definitely heeded the advice of Rav, for he had the opportunity to do something for everyone’s enjoyment, and did it, saying, “if we build it, they will come. “For if he did not, Ray would (according to Rav) be found wanting.

In the words of the late Bart Giamotti, baseball’s 7th commissioner:

This is the last place where Americans dream.

This is the last great arena,

The last great arena

Where everybody can learn the lessons of life.

May we all take the opportunity to build our own Field of Dreams.

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