It’s one thing to be Jewish and another thing to keep kosher. Not that it really matters, but when it comes to being a professional baseball player and following Jewish dietary laws, the two paths hardly ever meet. Morrie Arnovich is probably the lone exception.
Sandy Koufax earned his Jewish stripes after sitting out game 1 of the 1965 World Series because the day fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish Calendar. It’s the day of atonement when one asks forgiveness. Koufax fasted with fellow Jews as he apparently did throughout his life and then returned to eating and doing whatever he wanted to do like throwing back to back shutouts in games 5 and 7 of that same Series.
Long before Koufax was Hank Greenberg. In 1934, his Detroit Tigers were set to play a key game against the New York Yankees on Rosh Hoshanah; the Jewish New Year. Greenberg skipped batting practice, but then decided to play. He hit two home runs and led the Tigers to a 2-1 win.Ten days later on Yom Kippur, Greenberg sat out and was honored with a surprise standing ovation at Shaarey Zedek Temple in Detroit.
The decision to play or not to play during Jewish high holidays includes rookie pitcher Harry Eisenstadt. In 1935, he was called on as a relief pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and served up a grand slam. There’s also Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Eddie Feinberg who in 1938 went 0 for 8 during a Yom Kippur doubleheader. Feinberg had two Jewish teammates on that Phillies team-Morrie Arnovich and Phil Weintraub. They both decided to not play.
Morrie Arnovich was a rare bird when it comes to Jewish baseball players or Jews in general. Most Jews are not religious, don’t keep Kosher, and know only bits and pieces about the tradition. They identify themselves as cultural Jews. And yet, there would be no hava nagila or Borscht Belt comedy without those strange Jews and their crazy rituals. The religion came before Hollywood.
Morrie Arnovich enjoyed a brief 7 year big league career with the Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Giants. He was an outfielder, an all-star in 1938, and lost 5 years of baseball life due to the war. Nothing strange about that. He wasn’t the only one, but Morrie Arnovich was the only ballplayer who insisted on Kosher hot dogs throughout his entire life. What make his story even more compelling is that he was born, raised, and buried in Superior, Wisconsin.
Superior sits on the western edge of Lake Superior, tucked away in the northwest corner of Wisconsin. It’s not a hot bed for Jewish life. Yet, two of Arnovich’s cousins and an uncle were rabbis. He studied Hebrew, attended synagogue, probably observed Shabbat and kept Kosher. It’s one thing to remain an observant Jew when being raised by a Jewish mother, but to do it on the road as a baseball player? Challenge is an understatement.
Observing Jewish ritual dietary laws require discipline, an unwavering-obstinate faith and a shochet or ritual slaughterer.
I don’t know how Arnovich did it as a baseball player or a US soldier for that matter. But he’s listed at 5’10” and 168 pounds so he was eating something. Nowadays most cans of Tuna have the U, R, or K on the label indicating Kosher, but back in Arnovitch’s day? Forget it. Nonetheless, the Phillies purchased his contract in 1935. He banged out 522 hits during 7 seasons, good for a .287 batting average.
Observant Jews like Arnovich typically shut down from Friday to Saturday sundown, for Shabbat. They pray, sleep, sing, make L’chaim whisky and vodka toasts, sleep some more, pray again, and eat lots of food. It’s prohibited to carry objects including baseball gloves and bats, make fire, or play instruments.
If it ever happens, an observant Yid will have to be a starting pitcher with his rest day scheduled for Friday night and Saturday afternoon. I’m still hoping for the Crown Heights Lions Baseball team to take root in Brooklyn.