By Larry Gordon
Because of Ben & Jerry’s, we all stopped talking about Jacob Steinmetz for a few days last week. Jacob, as you know, was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks a few weeks ago, creating a buzz about being the first graduate of a New York yeshiva to attract the attention of a Major League Baseball team, with the possibility of becoming the first shomer Shabbos athlete to make it into major league baseball.
I spoke with several family members of Jacob, who turned 18 last week. Our conversations were predicated on their anonymity because they do not want to divert any attention from Jacob’s shining moment.
The fact of the matter is that wherever you live this is a momentous event that garners special attention for Orthodox Jews everywhere. The reflex reaction is that this has never been possible because of the matter of Shabbos and yom tov, but in these modern times, it seems that it is possible to make this happen within the parameters of the commitment to Shabbos and yom tov.
Now that a couple of weeks have passed by since the news broke we can place this into some kind of perspective. The reality of life today is that most of us are baseball fans. Even if you do not follow the sport at this point in your life, if you lived in New York at some juncture, you or your children were fans of either the Mets or the Yankees.
If you are an observant Jew who is also a baseball fan then the events around the life of young Jacob Steinmetz is exactly what you have been waiting for. Jacob attended the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR). During the last year while our schools were sometimes open and at other times closed due to the pandemic, Jacob was attending a baseball academy in Florida and participating in Zoom classes at HAFTR.
Down in Florida, the academy team had the opportunity to play ball with college teams. In case you are wondering how this evolved, scouts for schools attend these games in search of talent. That is when Fordham University discovered Jacob and wanted him to attend their school and pitch for their team.
For now, though, it seems that college is on hold as Jacob signed on with the Diamondbacks and received a $500,000 signing bonus. Jacob is a strapping six feet, six inches tall, and his pitching repertoire features a 97 MPH fastball, which, of course, caught the attention of all the baseball scouts as well as the Diamondbacks.
Aside from his extraordinary pitching ability, most of the talk around here after news of the signing broke was how a teenager from an Orthodox Jewish Five Towns family and a graduate from one of our local yeshivas would handle the entry to professional baseball, reconciling it with his commitment to observing Shabbos and the holidays.
I spoke with Jacob on Sunday evening when he was back at the hotel in Scottsdale where the newly inaugurated rookies were receiving orientation about life in professional baseball.
This was his first Shabbos in Arizona and he said that it went well. “We returned to the hotel way before Shabbos on Friday afternoon so that wasn’t an issue,” he said. At mid-morning on Shabbos he walked from the hotel to the training complex where the Diamondbacks play their spring training games, and he said that went well, too. The distance to the ball park from the hotel is less than a mile.
He added that at this stage they are just receiving orientation so there was no ball playing or drills over this past Shabbos. A relative of his with whom I spoke with last week said that the team is well aware of his religious observance and has told him that he will not have to throw competitively on Saturdays. Additionally, Jacob is in touch with the local Chabad rabbi who is assisting him with whatever his religious needs might be.
As far as food is concerned, the Diamondbacks management is ordering the food he needs from the local kosher restaurants. Jacob will be in Arizona until early September and will return home for the yomim tovim. In the fall, he will most likely be assigned to an instructional league where he will be able to hone his skills in a winter ball league.
Rabbi Heshie Billet, rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere who led the congregation for 40 years, adds a poignant and personal perspective:
“Jacob Steinmetz is a fine young man. He is unselfish and kind. He has many friends. His parents, Elliot and Sima, were both raised in the best of Orthodox Jewish families. The Steinmetz and Shatz clans have been among the strong and influential religious Zionist families in their respective communities. They attend daily minyanim, study Torah daily, and are active in their respective communities. I say this with firsthand experience regarding Patti and Michael Steinmetz. Elliot, Jacob’s dad, has made the YU Maccabee Basketball team into first-class winners on and off the court. Truly a kiddush Hashem. None of this could happen without Sima’s support.”
Regarding the challenges Jacob will face, Rabbi Billet adds, “I hope and pray that Jacob will have the strength and fortitude to maintain his family’s strong Jewish commitment. The news of his MLB draft has created quite a stir in our community and beyond. Jacob will face many challenges. We all hope and pray that by remaining who he has been brought up to be and being true to the values of his tradition, he will make a kiddush Hashem as well.”
Nothing is coincidental and Rabbi Billet concludes, “Jacob was drafted number 77. Seventy-seven is עז (“oz”) in Hebrew. It means strength. Hashem should bless Jacob with the strength that he will need.”
The only precedent to Jacob’s experience right now dates back to 1956 when Sandy Koufax was scheduled to pitch game one of the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Minnesota Twins. The first game of the series was scheduled for October 6, which was Yom Kippur. Koufax said that if the Dodgers qualified for the World Series he would choose to sit out the first game.
At the time, Koufax said that he was hoping that the first game of the World Series would be rained out. Walter O’Malley, who was the owner of the Dodgers back then, said, “I will not let Sandy pitch on Yom Kippur under any circumstances.” He added, “I cannot let the boy do that to himself.”
For young baseball fans, that was an exhilarating event where our favorite hobby or interest—baseball—touched the dominant and most important aspect of our lives—Shabbos and yom tov. It was a mesmerizing moment when right there in the sports pages of our local newspapers, the subject of the day was Yom Kippur as it impacts on baseball.
Sandy Koufax was not an Orthodox Jew, and, unfortunately, properly observing Shabbos was not an issue for him. But for Jews of this type of background—which happens to be the overwhelming majority of American Jews—the High Holidays is another matter entirely. That is where the line gets drawn and that is where a good deal of the American Jewish world was jolted and forced to think about Yom Kippur.
Interestingly, at the same time, the Minnesota Twins had a catcher, Earl Batty, who was a Seventh Day Adventist. He preferred not to play ball on Saturday and was accommodated accordingly.
In the ’65 World Series, after Koufax said he would skip game one, Don Drysdale, who won 23 games that year, started game one. It did not go that well for Drysdale as the Twins erupted for six runs in the third inning. The Dodgers lost the game 8–2, and Drysdale said after the game to Manager Walter Alston that he was sure the manager wished that Drysdale was also Jewish so that he could have skipped that game, too.
Other famous Jewish ball players included Hank Greenberg, who played for the Detroit Tigers and hit two home runs in game one of the World Series in 1934. That day was the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Greenberg sat out the game that was played on Yom Kippur that same year.
Edgar Guest wrote a poem, “Speaking of Greenberg,” on the subject of Greenberg’s 1934 decision to sit out the Yom Kippur World Series game. He wrote:
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, ‘We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat
But he’s true to his religion—and I honor him for that.’
On Sunday, I asked Jacob if there were any other Jewish ball players in the hotel or on the Diamondbacks rookie team with him. He chuckled for a moment and said there was no one even close to anything like that.
Jacob Steinmetz is a hometown boy and we are rooting for him—and, by extension, the Diamondbacks. He has the potential to be a major league ball player and a historical figure, an inspiration for yeshiva kids who will be hoping and praying for his success … even when his team is playing the Yankees or the Mets.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.