If Earl Starr had been just a little bit better at baseball, he might have made his appearance at Safeco Field at an Old Timers’ Game. As a young man he was scouted and signed by the then-Philadelphia Athletics (known universally these days as the Oakland A’s). But instead of pursuing his sports career, he traded his bat and glove for the Torah and the Talmud and became a rabbi.
Yet, even that did not keep him off the Mariners’ home field, for at least one pitch from the mound. On May 6, Rabbi Starr, who is retiring from Temple De Hirsch Sinai after 31 years as the senior rabbi, tossed out the ceremonial first pitch at the team’s home game against the Toronto Blue Jays. The honorary pitch was just one of a series of events the temple membership have arranged this month to say thank you to the spry 70-year-old who has led them in worship since 1970.
“We talked about doing all kinds of things for Rabbi Starr, this being his final year as the senior rabbi at temple,” said Dan Bean, an event promoter who is a member of the Temple De Hirsch Sinai congregation. Bean is serving as co-chair for a gala celebration at the Sheraton Hotel on June 10 to honor Rabbi Starr. “That’s going to be much more about him being a rabbi and about what he’s meant to the temple over the last 30 years,” he said.
In Philadelphia, where he went to high school in the late 1940s, Starr was a three-letter athlete as well as an excellent student. But his religious bent was already in evidence when he attended Temple University, where he was in Hillel, serving as the student chairman of religion and worship. After graduating in 1952, he attended Hebrew Union College and was ordained as a rabbi in 1957. Having served as a student rabbi in Indiana and Ohio, he returned to Philadelphia to take over as rabbi and education director at Congregation Rodeph Shalom from 1957 to 1961.
He spent the next seven years in Wilkes-Barre. Under his leadership, the congregation more than doubled, from 120 families to 270. After one more year back home in Philadelphia, he moved his family to Seattle, accepting the senior rabbi’s position at Temple De Hirsch in 1970. Less than a year later, he helped complete the merger between the Capitol Hill Temple and its suburban counterpart, Temple Sinai, creating the current combined congregation with more than 1,500 families in both the city center and the surrounding suburban area. Having earned his first Ph.D. in 1965, Rabbi Starr has continued to study and teach at a number of institutions of higher learning. He was a history lecturer at King’s College in Pennsylvania and was appointed assistant professor of history there in 1967. From 1973 to 1979 he lectured at Seattle Pacific University and has taught at the University of Washington since 1988. In addition to his history and religious studies, Earl Starr has also trained in marriage and family counseling.
Bean said that along with the more formal tributes, a number of the people involved in the event planning were trying to come up with another way to show their affection and respect for their rabbi.
“I truly wanted to figure out a way to show Rabbi Starr how much I love him and how much he’s meant to me,” said Bean, “and not just me personally, but the whole congregation.” Inevitably, he said, the subject of baseball came up, “because very few people love baseball as much as Earl Starr.”
Larry Broder, Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s executive director, said this was a fitting way for the congregation to demonstrate their admiration and respect for Starr’s long years of service and the contributions he has made to the temple and the larger community, since he is widely known as the Mariners’ No. 1 fan. He estimated that 350 tickets to the Sunday afternoon game were sold through the temple to congregation members who wanted to be there for the ceremonial pitch. Added to the number of people who already had tickets of their own, he guessed that as many as 500 to 600 members of Temple De Hirsch Sinai might have been on hand.
“I played against him when I played softball on one of the other teams in the old temple league. I’ll never forget playing third base and having him come plowing into me,” Broder said. “Almost every sermon has some baseball story woven into it — it’s fitting that this is one of the many events that we’re doing to honor him and recognize him.”
Mariners President Chuck Armstrong, who knows Rabbi Starr from his numerous community activities and his efforts to garner community support for building the club’s new home, was immediately engaged in the effort, and the plans were made for him to make his pitch.
“Rabbi Starr has been a leader in this community for many years and has been a strong supporter of the Seattle Mariners. It’s our great pleasure to honor this man who has given so much of his life to service in this community,” Armstrong said.
At 1:30 in the afternoon, under the kind of clear blue sky that is in every true baseball fan’s favorite memories of the game, Earl Starr strode out to the pitcher’s mound, a giant version of himself projected on the stadium’s screen.
“I would have felt better if they’d asked me 10 years ago, when I could still throw,” he joked beforehand. “It’s a thrill to do it and I hope I won’t embarrass anyone, including myself.” His pitch came in low and outside, but it had no trouble reaching the catcher’s glove.
“They didn’t boo, so that’s a good thing,” he said, grinning as he walked back across the green. “It wasn’t too bad, was it?”