October 6, 1965, was the most important day of the year for this 29-year-old native of Brooklyn. Not only was it Game One of the World Series, but it was also Yom Kippur. Sandy Koufax, the ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers, had been contemplating what he would do if confronted with this situation.
A baseball team’s best starting pitcher nearly always starts Game One – winning the first game of the World Series gives a team a significant advantage going forward. On the other hand, a Jew is not supposed to work on Yom Kippur, how much more so a Jew with the public profile of Koufax, who was and still is a role model for Jewish sports fans.
A few days before Game One, Koufax informed the Associated Press that he would let a rabbi advise him on what to do. “If we sew up the pennant, I plan to take it up and find out the proceedings. If I’m told it isn’t proper to pitch, then I won’t because I wouldn’t feel right about it.”
“If we sew up the pennant, I plan to take it up and find out the proceedings. If I’m told it isn’t proper to pitch, then I won’t because I wouldn’t feel right about it.”Sandy Koufax
Nevertheless, Koufax hoped that he would not need to make the decision in the first place. “I’m praying for rain Wednesday. It has to rain. It would solve the whole matter.”
The Dodgers’ owner, Walter O’Malley, ultimately decided for Koufax by not letting him pitch regardless of what choice the Jewish pitcher would have made himself. “I can’t let the boy do that to himself,” O’Malley told the AP.
Don Drysdale took the mound in Minnesota against the Twins in Koufax’s stead. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, the usually excellent pitcher allowed eight batters to reach base and left the game in the third inning with his team down 7 to 1. Drysdale famously made light of his dismal performance when his manager, Walter Alston, pulled him from the game. “I bet you wish I was Jewish today, too,” he told Alston.
Koufax ended up pitching three other outstanding games in the series and led the Dodgers to their fourth World Series title with a complete game shutout in Game Seven. After not having pitched on Yom Kippur, Koufax allowed only one earned run in 24 innings in the series, putting up a performance that earned him the World Series Most Valuable Player award.
Guided by Judaism
This story is well known in Jewish and sports circles for good reason. It is, however, only one of the many instances in which Koufax allowed his Judaism to guide him. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the pitcher refrained from playing on the first night of Passover in 1959, on Rosh Hashanah in 1961 and 1963, and in Game Four of the 1959 World Series, which was also played on Rosh Hashanah.
The story of Koufax’s skipped start on Yom Kippur has additional Jewish elements. The day after Koufax skipped Game One, a Chabad rabbi named Moshe Feller visited him in his hotel room to thank the pitcher for the service he did for the Jewish people by not pitching the previous day. Rabbi Feller came armed with a pair of tefillin, in typical Chabad fashion.
According to Dovid Zakilkowski of chabad.org, Feller was initially unsure whether Koufax should wear right-handed or left-handed tefillin, given that the pitcher threw with his left hand but hit right-handed, and that one wears tefillin on one’s weaker arm. “Considering what your left arm has accomplished,” the rabbi said to Koufax, “I decided to get you the type you put on your right arm.”
Koufax’s career was cut short by arthritis in his left arm. Despite retiring at the age of 30, when most pitchers enter their prime years, he retired as one of the greatest pitchers in history. The National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Koufax in 1972 as the youngest-ever member of the elite institution.
Unsurprisingly, Koufax is also a member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, New York, the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Beverly Hills, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya.
ALTHOUGH IT has been over five decades since the now 86-year-old Hall of Famer has pitched professionally, Koufax has made appearances in the Jewish world in more recent years. The lefty attended a reception for Jewish Heritage Month at the White House where he was honored by President Barack Obama in 2010. In addition, the Modi’in Miracle selected Koufax with the last pick in the Israel Baseball League’s inaugural draft in 2007.
Koufax never took the mound for the Miracle, but he continues to serve as an inspiration to Jewish baseball players from Little League through Major League Baseball. Max Fried, a Jewish left-handed starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, wears Koufax’s No. 32 on the back of his uniform.
Fried, who won his first World Series title last year, is part of the next generation of professional Jewish baseball players and staff who are following in the footsteps of Koufax. Koufax proved that Jewish boys can reach their dreams of not only playing baseball professionally, but being among the best in the sport.
Thanks in large part to the inspiration of Sandy Koufax and other Jewish trailblazers like Hank Greenberg, Jews are now thriving at the highest levels of baseball. There are currently over 10 Jewish players on Major League Baseball teams, as well as two Jewish managers, more than a handful of executives and owners, and the former commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig.
In an incredible feat, Israel fielded a baseball team at the Tokyo Olympic Games last summer. Team Israel competed in a field of baseball powerhouses that included the US, Japan and the Dominican Republic.
When asked what figure in Jewish history he would like to meet, Team Israel pitcher Jonathan De Marte’s answer was not surprising. “Sandy Koufax. Because I don’t know how you could ever sit out a World Series game for a holiday,” he told The Jerusalem Post’s Elli Wohlgelernter last year. “I would like to know what it was like to be in that situation.”
“Sandy Koufax. Because I don’t know how you could ever sit out a World Series game for a holiday.”Jonathan De Marte
Perhaps De Marte will get to ask Koufax himself. A visit from the Hall of Famer could do wonders for the team.