This month marks the 45th anniversary of the Munich massacre, when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the 1972 Summer Olympics. In America, two Jewish baseball players for the Oakland A’s struggled to process the tragedy.
On September 5, 1972, at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany, eight Palestinian terrorists breached lax perimeter security and broke into two apartments being used by the Israeli Olympic team. They captured, held hostage and eventually killed 11 athletes and coaches in what came to be known as the Black September attack, after the faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization that carried out the act. The news was met with horror around the world.
The A’s were in Chicago in advance of a series against the White Sox when the news reached them. With a rare night off, the team’s two Jewish players, Ken Holtzman and Mike Epstein, found themselves independently pacing their rooms at the Ambassador Hotel, unable to sit still. The information filled the space around them, drawing the walls in close. Neither man had been to Israel, but both felt a visceral connection to the events. Beyond even the religious connection, Epstein had participated in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, when baseball was a demonstration sport, and couldn’t stop thinking about how proud he had been as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played at Meiji Jingu Stadium. For such terror to happen to people representing their country, as he had, who had been bursting with pride, as he had been, was beyond his ability to reconcile. Unable to stand his solitude, Epstein went to the lobby seeking…something. There he found Holtzman, who had descended from his room for the very same reason.
When Holtzman joined the team at the beginning of the season, he had approached his Jewishness as something that hardly merited undue public attention. Teammates nicknamed him and Epstein “Jew” and “Super Jew,” respectively, a lighthearted homage to their heritage and respective bulk. (Rollie Fingers, Holtzman’s roommate and close friend, took to calling him “Regular Jew” to lend some heft to the nickname.) Holtzman’s wife Michelle was all too happy to play it up. When the Oakland Tribune contacted her for a profile of her husband shortly after he was acquired, she cut right to the chase. “Is Ken a big eater?” she said. “Well, no more so than any other Jewish boy. Do you want me to go through the whole ethnic bit? You know, the chicken soup, the matzah balls and the rest? Yes. He loves chicken soup. Yes, I cook it all the time for him. No, it doesn’t help him win games. When I married him, Ken was tall and rangy. But after feeding him for the past nine months, he’s now short and fat.”
Things hadn’t been so different for Epstein, who upon reaching the big leagues was labeled “a kosher Lou Gehrig” by one writer and “Mickey Mantle bred on blintzes and gefilte fish” by another.
This, though, was different. Holtzman never sought to play up the differences between his own heritage and those of his teammates, but at that moment he wanted nothing more than the companionship of somebody who understood who he was. When he saw Epstein enter the lobby, neither of them had to say a thing; within moments they were out the front door, walking the streets of Chicago. “We just wanted to be with each other and bond,” said Epstein. “We tried to understand what it was all about. What did those athletes do? What is it they did that was wrong?” The ballplayers paced off block after block, hour after hour, hands dug deep into jacket pockets in the September chill. They weren’t just Jews but Jewish athletes, going about their professional lives in a strange city, as the Israelis had been doing a day earlier. They were down, and they wanted explanations they knew would never come. In that moment each was all the other had.
It was one thing to be quietly Jewish inside a major league clubhouse, but some moments called for more. Something like the decision by Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg not to play in a tight pennant race in 1934 on the most important day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. Like Sandy Koufax doing the same thing 31 years later, only this time in the World Series. It was easy to avoid identifying as Jewish within the context of baseball…right up until it wasn’t. “This is who I am,” said Epstein. “I put on tefillin at different shuls in different cities. I was bar mitzvahed. I can read Hebrew. I’m a Jew.”
The walk helped, but it wasn’t enough. Both men wanted to make a deeper statement—to themselves, to each other, and, as athletes, to the world. Much of it was personal, but part of it wasn’t; at the time there was no way to be sure that the atrocity in Munich was even an isolated incident. “Believe it or not, some people thought that the ramifications were that other Jewish athletes could be at risk,” said Holtzman. “Who’s to say it won’t happen to Jewish athletes in the United States, or that me or Mike wouldn’t become targets? We just didn’t know.” The players wanted a physical manifestation of their feelings. As they walked they hit upon the idea of armbands, black armbands, to wear in remembrance of the deceased and to acknowledge the terror. Upon returning to the hotel, they tracked down clubhouse manager Frank Ciensczyk to see if anything could be done. He said he’d get right on it.
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At the ballpark the following day Epstein and Holtzman arrived to find black strips of fabric already attached to their uniform jerseys. They also learned that they had a partner in their endeavor. Reggie Jackson had heard about the plan and asked Ciensczyk to make him one too. The action precipitated deeply held and wildly divergent feelings from the Jewish duo about the team’s most mercurial player.
“Reggie had no business putting it on,” said Epstein, whose issues with Jackson had culminated with Reggie’s “no Jews in Texas” comment that led to their fistfight in May. “It had nothing to do with him. It called attention. He wanted to be known, he wanted to be seen. Kenny and I had a bond, and he was not part of that. But would we expect anything else?”
Holtzman disagreed. “Everybody recognized that for me and Mike it was kind of a special situation,” he said, looking back. “And Reggie just chose to…it’s funny about Reggie.” With that, the pitcher launched into a story about Jackson’s father, Martinez, a tailor from the predominantly Jewish township of Wyncotte, Pennsylvania. Holtzman’s own father, Henry—who, like his father before him, dealt in industrial machinery—sat next to Martinez Jackson while watching several of their sons’ games, and the two became friendly. “Mr. Jackson knew some Hebrew and Yiddish words because he had a largely Jewish clientele, so Reggie must have been exposed to that,” said Holtzman. “He had contact with Jewish people growing up and was not entirely unaware of Jewish cultural characteristics. So when I saw Reggie with that armband, I felt that he was understanding what me and Mike were going through. He didn’t have anything to do with being Jewish, but felt it appropriate to show solidarity not only with his own teammates, but with the fact that athletes were getting killed. Reggie is often accused by other players of grandstanding, of showboating, of trying to be the center of attention. Call it whatever you want, but Reggie’s a lot deeper than that, okay? A lot deeper than that.”
The press immediately latched on, racing to each man for comment. Beyond statements of solidarity with the Israelis, none of them took a firm stance. This was not a political statement, they said, but a personal one. “It was sorrowful,” said Holtzman. “That’s what it was.”
Four days after the tragedy, Epstein was faced with a choice similar to those encountered by Koufax and Greenberg generations earlier. Jewish holidays begin and end at sundown, and that Friday night was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, second only to Yom Kippur in terms of importance. Holtzman, not scheduled to pitch, was excused from the ballpark. Epstein, however, opted to play and went 4-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs. With Saturday’s game scheduled at night, both men could attend synagogue in the morning, Epstein returning to the ballpark in time for the game. The armbands stayed on their uniforms all week…and through the next…and right on into the playoffs. They came off for the World Series, but by then the statement had been made. “It was an emotional period,” said Epstein, looking back. “We’re Jews. I’m just glad we did something.”
Jason Turbow is the author of Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic.