day 30: regular jew

Today is 30 days, which is two days and four weeks of the omer: gevruah she’b’hod.

Thumbing through potentials today was brutal. I had thought to choose Hall of Famer Tim Raines, but there was that whole Pittsburgh drug trials thing. And then I considered Orlando Cepeda, but he was arrested for smuggling marijuana. (Look, pot should be legal, but agreeing to carry five pounds of it from Colombia back to the U.S. is just dumb.) So I thought, let’s go with Magglio Ordóñez . . . who campaigned for Hugo Chavez.

(Of course, as I type I’m listening to a conversation between Dave Zirin and Scoop Jackson about how we have the unreasonable expectation of athletes of color that they have no flaws in order to be heroes. “Black people don’t have very many people to be heroes,” said Jackson.)

athletics72a-1
1972 WS Championship As: Mike Epstein is last on the right in the back row, and our old friend Catfish Hunter is front middle.

But I’m going with the Jew. Which is apt, since Holtzman got his nickname when he joined the As in 1972 and found himself as one of two Jewish players on the squad, just Mike Epstein and him. They were called “Super Jew” and “Regular Jew,” because of their respective bulk, which you can see in this priceless photo of some of the members of that year’s WS Championship team. Epstein is the big guy.

Of course, this choice does nothing for my quest for diversity, because Holtzman played on the same team, in the same position, as Day 27’s Catfish Hunter. This is what I get for not planning the whole roster in advance . . .

So, all evidence notwithstanding, I’m not actually anti-Koufax. BUT. As I’ve said before, he wasn’t the only Jewish baseball player to ever observe the holidays. And Holtzman actually won more games, 174 in the regular season and six more in postseason play. Of course, he did pitch “only” two no-hitters (to Koufax’s four). His August 19, 1969, no-hitter with the Cubs is re-told beautifully here, complete with video of the highlights, including one of the wind just robbing the Braves’ Hank Aaron (whom we’ll get to later) of a home run. Holtzman’s feat was even more remarkable because he didn’t strike out a single batter that day.

One of Holtzman’s early performances, at age 20, on September 15, 1966 (the day after Yom Kippur), became known as the “The Battle of the Jewish Lefties,” as he nearly no-hit Koufax and the pennant-winning Dodgers. He faced the minimum through eight innings, settling for a 2-1, two-hit, one-walk, complete-game win.

The guy could hit, too. In Game 4 of the 1972 World Series he hit a home run over the head of left fielder Bill Buckner (non sequitur dig: not scored E-3) to give the As a 1-0 lead. “That was a looong tater,” proclaimed one of the announcers, before explaining that “here in Oakland, the players call home runs ‘dingers.'”

Holtzman sat out the Erev Rosh Hashanah game on September 8, 1972. (Epstein didn’t.) But both of these nice Jewish boys got themselves to shul the next morning and made it to the ballpark in time for the game that night.

Four days earlier, though, Holtzman and Epstein found themselves in Chicago in advance of a series against the White Sox when news of the Munich Massacre — the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics by the terrorist group Black September — reached them. As their nicknames might indicate, Holtzman and Epstein had generally faced antisemitic micro-aggressions as part of the As organization; neither had considered their Jewishness as anything that merited public attention. But as Jason Turbow writes in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, “It was easy to avoid identifying as Jewish within the context of baseball . . . right up until it wasn’t.” That night, Holtzman and Epstein instinctively found each other, and they spent a good part of the night talking and walking around outside in Chicago’s early fall chill. They decided they wanted to wear black armbands on their uniforms to acknowledge the tragedy, and those armbands stayed on through the playoffs, right up until the World Series.

I keep coming back to the figure of Aaron as I think about hod, but I think today is especially apropos. As I’ve noted before, Rabbi Art Green says of this quiet leader: “Even when tragedy befalls him—Aaron lost two sons to an excess of religious enthusiasm—he stands silent in acceptance, knowing he will continue in the life of worship. Perhaps life cannot be changed; Aaron accepts it and finds it beautiful as it is.”

This quality of Aaron, “humble wisdom,” combined with quiet strength well encapsulate this day, 30, and this regular Jew.

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