Reading Bruce Markusen’s Baseball’s Last Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s, an entertaining account of the team that dominated the American League in the early- to mid-1970’s, I was struck by the following piece of information about the 1972 A’s season: “Later in the year, when terrorists murdered several Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games, [Ken] Holtzman, [Mike] Epstein and Reggie Jackson wore black armbands in tribute to those who had been slain.”
Fascinated, I wanted to learn as much as I could about this gesture.
Why did this interest me so? As a Jew, I deeply admired fellow Jews Ken Holtzman and Mike Epstein for choosing to don the armbands. In this age of moral ambiguity, where celebrity is too often and too easily mistaken for character, their act impressed me in its sincerity and visibility.
Surely, no one would have faulted Holtzman or Epstein if they chose not to acknowledge the tragedy at the Munich Olympics. After all, they were baseball players, not statesmen or rabbis. Plus, on the job, both faced the unique pressures of a hotly contested pennant race. Notwithstanding all this, Holtzman and Epstein remembered what was truly important – their Jewish identity. Through their actions, Holtzman and Epstein powerfully and unequivocally affirmed the significance of their faith. In this way, the black armbands augmented as well as honored the legacy of Jewish ballplayers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, who refused to play on Yom Kippur.
Reggie Jackson’s participation was more of a puzzle. Why did Jackson, a non-Jewish African-American, choose to do this? As a kid growing up in central New Jersey in the late 1970’s who loved the New York Yankees, Jackson was part man, part myth to me. I marveled at Reggie’s seemingly limitless self-confidence, his strong sense of conviction as well as his amazing feats in clutch situations. Who could forget his electrifying performance in the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers? His baseball card was always prized; to my parents’ dismay and astonishment, my older brother Todd and I even loved the Reggie candy bar.
On September 6, 1972, the Oakland A’s played the Chicago White Sox at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Coming into the game, the A’s led the American League’s West Division by three games over the second place White Sox. This two game series would directly and significantly impact the pennant race, as a White Sox sweep would reduce the A’s lead to only one game with the end of the regular season drawing near.
Remember, Major League Baseball used a different playoff format in the early 1970’s: in each of the two leagues the winner of the West Division would meet the winner of the East Division in a best 3 of 5 game series to determine which team would represent its league in the World Series. A lot was on the line here. And, if anything, the pressure was on the A’s to win – the year before, the A’s had won the American League West handily by 16 games, only to be swept in the playoff by the American League East winners, the Baltimore Orioles.
A’s manager Dick Williams started southpaw Ken Holtzman, who had a record of 15-11 coming into the game. Tom Bradley (13-12) was the White Sox starter. Reggie Jackson started in centerfield and batted fourth; Mike Epstein played first base and hit fifth.
For the record, Oakland won by the score of 9-1. Despite a shaky first inning in which he yielded Chicago’s lone run, Holtzman notched a complete game victory. Epstein went 2 for 4, with 2 runs scored, while Jackson was 3 for 5 (one of the hits being his 23rd home run of the season), with 3 runs scored and 1 RBI. Holtzman went 0 for 4 at the plate.