The greatest game they never played |

The greatest game they never played

Ian Cropp
Daily file photoIan Crop

Most athletes are remembered for how and when they played the game. Few, however, are remembered for when they decided not to play. Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax had many outstanding performances on the field, but their decisions not to play on this day made their play all the more special. Both baseball players sat out to observe the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur.

Greenberg was the first popular Jewish baseball player to deal with the issue of playing on the day of atonement, and after striking an agreement with his rabbi, he decided to play on Rosh Hashanah and sit out Yom Kippur during the 1934 season while his team was in the midst of a pennant race. Koufax sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series to sit in synagogue to observe the holiday. Their decision not to play was the ultimate thanks to God. They may have been jeopardizing their teams’ chances at winning a championship, but they showed that a few things are more important than sports, their profession.As kids have been told by all of their coaches growing up, family and God should come first. For a kid whose dream it is to play any sport at the professional level, it is difficult to face a dilemma of having to miss a game. Leave the decision to the child, and they may chose to skip an important family or religious event to play his or her sport.When top professional athletes make decisions not to play in such crucial games, it sets a standard that others are more likely to follow. Young basketball players want to dunk like Jordan, aspiring hockey players want to puckhandle like Gretzky, and maybe some little leaguers want to pitch and pray like Koufax.

Hard decisionsBoth players put their personal reputations on the line to make a statement. While Greenberg’s Tigers had all but wrapped up the pennant, his decision not to play came at a time of heightened anti-Semitism in America. Koufax had the advantage of Greenberg’s precedent, but came under a more watchful eye of the media, and his Dodgers were playing in the World Series.Greenberg and Koufax sitting out on Yom Kippur wasn’t as monumental as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, although it was one of several important instances of an athlete in the minority providing hope to future generations of athletes.Not only were Greenberg’s and Koufax’s decision not to take the field courageous, but they were selfless. Unlike President Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics that prevented all American athletes from competing after at least four years of training, the baseball players made the decision with the others of their faith in mind.They showed that athletes should not be afraid to wear their religion on their sleeve. Some have said religion has no place in sports, while others have argued that sports are a religion. As Greenberg and Koufax’s teammates can attest, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or how devout to your faith you may be, as long as you are a team player. (It helped that Greenberg and Koufax were Hall-of-Fame players).

Eight othersAs great as they were, Greenberg and Koufax were only one player on a team. Both the Tigers and Dodgers lost in their absence, but on a different day, the result may have been different. Then again, on a different day, Greenberg and Koufax would have been able to play.Baseball is a team sport, and they knew they had a obligation to bat and pitch for their team, but on this day, they chose to pray and atone for a different team.Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or, Colorado

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