Some time ago — he’s not actually sure when — Rabbi Hershey Novack received an email about a St. Louis Cardinals program that provided local clergy with free season passes to games.
Novack, the co-director of Chabad on Campus at Washington University, waited a few years but then applied and received a pass from the team. Never mind that he was from Los Angeles and remained a Dodgers fan.
“It’s a very kind and welcoming gesture for a baseball team to say to people who may have allegiances to teams they followed as children, ‘Hey, you’re welcome in our region, and we’re glad you’re here,’ ” Novack said.
The Cardinals appear to be one of just three Major League Baseball teams — perhaps all major American sports teams — that provide local clergy with free or discounted passes to games. The other two organizations are the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox.
Just as Novack is uncertain when or how he found out about the program, Cardinals officials don’t know who was behind the idea to start offering passes to clergy.
But they have maintained the program as a gesture of goodwill to local people of faith, a team representative said.
“I think it started in part because of the organization trying to be a good community partner,” said Michael Hall, Cardinals vice president of community relations.
He said the team has been offering the passes for at least 50 years.
The team provides clergy within a 100-mile radius of Busch Stadium with a pass for general admission or standing-room tickets for the general admission or standing-room tickets for the rabbi or minister or imam and a guest. Some games are excluded, for example on opening day, when games are sold out or when the Chicago Cubs are in town. The team offers a maximum of 1,000 passes each year and never falls short of applications.
The Red Sox started the program in the 1970s for any clergy in New England to receive a pair of discounted standing-room tickets, said Zineb Curran, vice president of corporate communications. With the discount, that’s $10.
Sam Kennedy, the team’s president and CEO, told the Boston Globe in 2008 that a former owner started the program because of his connection to the Catholic church. Kennedy is the son of an Episcopalian priest and grew up attending 30 to 40 games each year because of the pass.
“That’s how [Kennedy] said he developed his love for the Red Sox, and his dream was always to work for the Red Sox,” Curran said.
The team has handed out about 300 passes this season, at least half of which went to rabbis, Curran said.
A Reds spokesperson also did not know the origin of the team’s program, which provides a pass to up to 190 religious leaders each year that can then be used by any person at that house of worship.
When Rabbi Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul moved to St. Louis from Baltimore about a decade ago, one of the only things he knew about the city was how popular the Cardinals were, he said.
Tendler, who grew up an Orioles fan, started signing up for the Cardinals pass six or seven years ago. He has rarely used it, but when he mentions to rabbis in other parts of the country that the Cardinals offer clergy passes, “people are very impressed by it. It gives St. Louis very much a family type of feel,” he said.
The pass serves other purposes, too. Novack has converted from being a Dodgers fan to cheering for the Birds, he said.
He became attached to baseball during the 1988 World Series, when gimpy Dodgers outfielder Kirk Gibson came off the bench to hit his famous home run to win Game 1.
“Baseball is thoughtful,” Novack said. “Baseball is deliberative. Baseball is more American than apple pie.”
These days, he attends three to five games each year.
“This is the team that’s associated with the city I’m associated with, and it feels appropriate to root for the home team,” Novack said, adding that the passes are “a generous gesture.”
“It’s a way of saying that St. Louis is a special town.”