Myth and fact part of legacy from Sandy Koufax’s Yom Kippur choice
On Oct. 7, 1965, the day after the Minnesota Twins had defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series, a 28-year-old Hasidic rabbi named Moshe Feller approached the desk clerk at the St. Paul Hotel and told him he wanted to speak with Sandy Koufax.
The clerk considered the bearded man in the black hat and sidelocks before him. Like everyone else, he surely knew that Koufax had not pitched Game 1 because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and he must have figured this man was the pitcher’s rabbi. He gave him the phone number to Koufax’s room.
Koufax answered. Rabbi Feller told him what he had done was remarkable, putting religion before his career, and that as a result more people had not gone to work and more children had not gone to school to observe the holiday. He said he wanted to present Koufax with a pair of tefillin, scrolls of scripture worn by Jewish men during weekday prayers.
Koufax invited the rabbi up to his room on the eighth floor.
In Rabbi Feller’s account, he told Koufax he was proud of him for “the greatest act of dedication to our Jewish values that had even been done publicly” and presented him with the tefillin, which he said Koufax took out of their velvet box and handled reverently.
Whether or not such a meeting actually occurred—Koufax, who is now 79, did not respond to requests for comment for this article—Rabbi Feller’s story speaks to the powerful impact Koufax’s decision had on American Jews, both then and now, 50 years later. “It’s something that’s engraved on every Jew’s mind,” says Rabbi Feller, now 78. “More Jews know Sandy Koufax than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Yet with another Yom Kippur having arrived at sundown on Tuesday, there remains mystery to the story. The few times that Koufax has explained his decision not to pitch that first game of the ’65 Series, he has claimed it was routine, that he always observed the High Holy Days by not pitching. In his eponymous autobiography published the following year, he wrote, “There was never any decision to make … because there was never any possibility that I would pitch. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows I don’t work that day.”
In the 2010 documentary film Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, Koufax said, “I had taken Yom Kippur off for 10 years. It was just something I’d always done with respect.” He repeated that rationale in a 2014 interview with the newspaper the Jewish Week.
It’s not that simple. In 1960, Koufax pitched two innings of scoreless relief on Oct. 1, the day of Yom Kippur, not long after the holiday ended at sundown, in an otherwise forgettable loss to the Cubs on the next-to-last day of the season with the Dodgers 13 games out of first place. The following year, Koufax started for Los Angeles on Sept. 20, with the first pitch coming mere minutes after sundown ended on Yom Kippur. He threw 205 pitches that night and went all 13 innings to beat the Cubs, even though the Dodgers were again out of contention for the pennant. For both games he showed up at work before the holiday—and its restrictions—ended.
When he announced his intention not to pitch Game 1 the week before the 1965 Series, Koufax said he had not suited up for World Series games in the past when they fell on Yom Kippur. But that was because it had never been an issue; the holiday had never fallen on a game day in the four previous years that the Dodgers appeared in the World Series when Koufax was part of the team (1955 and ’56 with Brooklyn and ’59 and ’63 after the franchise moved to Los Angeles).
So why, in 1965, did he defer to his religion, when he hadn’t in the past?
Most likely because the circumstances had changed. The Sandy Koufax of 1960 and ’61 was not the Sandy Koufax of ’65. During the first six years of his career (1955–60), he had been mediocre, losing more games than he won, and could show up at the ballpark on the High Holy Days without attracting much attention or causing any controversy.
But after he learned not to try to throw as hard as he could—which actually gave his fearsome fastball more movement—that changed. From 1961 to ’65, Koufax went 102–38, posting the National League’s lowest ERA each of the last four seasons, and pitched a no-hitter in each of those years, too, including a perfect game in September 1965. The ’65 season had been the best of his career; he led the majors with 26 wins and a 2.04 ERA and struck out 382 batters, shattering Bob Feller’s single-season record of 348. In an era in which only one pitcher in baseball won the Cy Young Award, Koufax was a unanimous choice, the second time in three years he had won the honor (he would do so again in 1966, his last season).
Koufax was a secular Jew, but he had been raised in the Jewish neighborhood of Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn. He no doubt understood that for him as the marquee star to pitch the first game of the World Series on Yom Kippur would be a blow to his people, a very public repudiation of their traditions. More would be lost—even if he won the game—than gained.
It helped, of course, that he had a very competent replacement in future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, who had won 23 games that season and two previous World Series starts.
His Dodgers teammates had not pressured Koufax either way, and one told SI recently that they had not considered it a big deal even after Drysdale lost Game 1. (When manager Walt Alston came out to remove Drysdale in the third inning with the Dodgers trailing 7–1, the pitcher is said to have quipped, “I bet you wish I were Jewish, too.”)
“Sandy thought it was the right thing to do—it was,” says Dick Tracewski, then a Dodgers infielder and a former roommate of Koufax’s. “Everybody respected that.”
When Koufax first announced his decision near the end of the regular season, it was a small item in most mainstream newspapers outside of Los Angeles. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, a Roman Catholic, even joked to reporters, “I’m going to ask the Pope to see what he can do about rain.”
But Koufax’s decision was instantly big news among Jews across the country. Michael Paley was a 13-year-old boy living in suburban Boston when he heard on the radio that Koufax would not pitch on Yom Kippur. The decision became the talk of his block. “It was the beginning of changed feelings about being Jewish in America,” says Paley, now a rabbi and scholar at the Jewish Resource Center of UJA-Federation of New York. “Because of Sandy, we were admired.”
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