Worshipping Koufax, Worshipping God

My father, a first-generation American, was an accountant, which is relevant because he was a sedentary, chubby, somewhat bookish man who never tossed a ball with me, not once, and who paid no attention to Major League Baseball. When I was growing up in the 1960s, there were millions of Jewish fathers who were accountants and lawyers and doctors and teachers and salesmen, but (understatement) there weren’t many professional Jewish athletes, much less one like Dodger ace Sandy Koufax, who 50 years ago October 6 abdicated pitching the first game of the World Series in Minneapolis against the Twins — the World Series! —because it happened to fall on Yom Kippur. The heavens shook. God may have sanctified Yom Kippur. For American Jewish boys like me, Koufax’s gesture that day re-sanctified it and re-sanctified us. It is fair to say that we would never be the same.

Even before that day, Koufax filled a niche — actually a canyon. Sure there had been a few Jewish ballplayers; the Dodgers in the late ’50s had the Sherry brothers, catcher Norm and pitcher Larry — both of whom, by the way, played on Yom Kippur. But Jews were generally journeymen, marginalized in sport as they had so often been marginalized in life. Only towering slugger Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers, nicknamed the “Jewish Babe Ruth,” and Cleveland Indian third baseman Al Rosen qualified as stars — the kind to whom Jews could point with pride. Greenberg, in fact, had foresworn playing on Yom Kippur in 1934, which earned him genuflection among Jews then, but the Tigers had already all but captured the pennant, so it was an absence without sacrifice, and Rosen had told himself he wasn’t going to play on Yom Kippur during the 1954 World Series, which would have fallen on Game 6, but the Giants made the point moot when they swept the Indians.

Koufax was different. He wasn’t just a player who happened to be Jewish, like Greenberg and Rosen; he was a Jewish pitcher, by which I don’t mean he wore peyes and a yarmulke, but that he personified what we Jews wanted in an athletic co-religionist. He was tall, lean, darkly handsome, the most Semitic-looking and the handsomest player in baseball, and though Brooklyn born, he carried himself like an aristocrat. His pitching motion was pure elegance — smooth, clean, economical. Furthermore, he thought the game as well as he threw it. He was the pitcher of the book. In his autobiography, which as a teenager I consumed like a religious student poring over the Talmud, he describes pitching in the 1963 World Series against the Yankees and thinking not just three or four batters ahead, but three or four innings ahead, strategizing over whom he would face and what he had thrown them previously. This was a pitcher for a Jew to love — a pitcher a Jew could sit down with over a chessboard while gentiles were quaffing beers with their heroes. When, as a kid, I flipped through the Baseball Register, which is a compendium of the record of every player in the game, most players listed their hobbies as hunting and fishing. We Jews knew Koufax wasn’t ever going to go hunting or fishing.

For all that, the decision not to play on Yom Kippur really wasn’t a decision. The New York Times announced it in a small item, an afterthought, not only with the information that Koufax had it written into his contract that he wouldn’t play on Yom Kippur, but also with a quote from Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley that O’Malley wouldn’t let him pitch “under any circumstances,” even if Koufax had wanted to. Still, agonizing decision or not, it was one thing for Koufax to be a Jew, it was another thing for Koufax to pitch like a Jew. But it was something else entirely for Koufax to observe Yom Kippur as did his fellow Jews, and on the opening day of the World Series, no less. This was taking Judaism to a new level, and it was, we all realized, a proclamation that American Jews in the public glare seldom made. Koufax might as well have taken the mound in a long black coat and a shtreimel.

The effect of that proclamation was powerful not only on us at the time, but on what Koufax would mean to Jews, and even to non-Jews, thereafter. As his biographer Jane Leavy, put it, “In that moment, he became known as much for what he refused to do as for what he did on the mound. By refusing to pitch, Koufax defined himself as a man of principle who placed faith above craft.” And she wrote that, in doing so, Koufax “became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience.” What Koufax did was break the rule that Jews in America shouldn’t be too overt about their Jewishness. He told us that one of the greatest of American rituals, the World Series, could give way to the greatest of Jewish observances — could and should. Koufax was not only proclaiming his Jewishness, he was proclaiming his value system. What made this even more impressive is that Koufax was not an observant Jew. He pitched on the Sabbath.

Still, while far more religious Jews than I were kvelling, I suffered pangs. Like so many Jewish kids, even those who grew up Cub fans on the North Side of Chicago, as I did, I became a Dodger fan because of Koufax. For my bar mitzvah I asked for a clunky Grundig shortwave radio because, in what may have been the only benefit of the Vietnam War, Armed Forces Radio transmitted West Coast Dodger games to the troops, and I would be able to hear Koufax’s performances described in the dulcet tones of Vin Scully.

The exhilaration of Koufax was that he had bested the gentiles at their own national pastime; that he was the very best pitcher quite possibly in the history of the game; that in 1965 he led the league in wins with 26 and in earned run average, and set a strikeout record. But what good was the achievement if he didn’t cap it with a World Series championship? In asserting his Jewhood and satisfying the Jews, he was disappointing Dodger fans. At 15 I was both Jew and Dodger fan, which was both the dilemma and the point. I respected the fact that he respected the holiday. But I wanted him to win the damn series. I wanted him to put those gentiles in their place. And, whether I realized it or not, I wanted him to compensate for the dad who couldn’t throw. I knew that Jews could be noble. Lots of Jews were noble. I wanted them to be champions.

This was wrenching: to be Jews or to be better than gentiles, to be Jews or to be Americans. In forsaking that first game, Koufax raised his religious values above secular ones, which was something of an astonishment for Jews and gentiles alike and an act of high integrity, but he also raised those values above the obligations I thought he owed his teammates — and me, for God’s sake. Some Dodger fans, some Dodgers even, said it wasn’t a big deal. Don Drysdale, who would start in Koufax’s place, was a great pitcher in his own right, and in any case, Koufax would be pitching Game 2. But if it wasn’t a big deal, if there wasn’t a chance that the Dodgers would lose the series because of Koufax’s decision, then it wouldn’t have constituted a sacrifice for Koufax, and Koufax’s gesture would have been just that — a gesture. What made it more is that he was risking the title.

In the event, Drysdale got pounded, lasted only two and two-thirds innings and yielding seven runs. The Dodgers lost 8–2. When manager Walter Alston went to the mound to take out Drysdale, Drysdale was alleged to have said, almost certainly apocryphally, “I bet you wish I was Jewish.” So much for “it didn’t matter.” It has been reported that Koufax didn’t listen to the game, presumably because it would have compromised his giving the day to God. There were Koufax sightings at Minneapolis synagogues, though Koufax didn’t go to synagogue that day either. By one account, the next morning, before the game, a young Hasidic rabbi came to his hotel room to salute him and to make him a gift of tefillin, though, with Koufax batting right-handed and pitching left-handed, the rabbi couldn’t decide which arm to put them on. It didn’t matter — Koufax didn’t wear them.

Later that day, Koufax started Game 2. “If he fails,” Times sports columnist Arthur Daley wrote, “they are in trouble, the deepest kind of trouble.” Koufax fared better than Drysdale; after all, he was Sandy Koufax. But he gave up two runs, one earned, in six innings, and the Dodgers went on to lose 5–1. The deepest kind of trouble brewed.

But drama was part of the sacrifice, and he was vindicated in the only way he could be vindicated. Four days after his loss, Koufax pitched Game Five and shut out the Twins on four hits while striking out 10. Then, pitching on two days’ rest, he started the decisive Game Seven, and shut out the Twins once again on three hits, winning the series and demonstrating that he (or He) wasn’t going to let down the team. It was biblical. Koufax had put himself in the position in which he had to do the near-impossible in order to justify his sacrifice.

So we Jewish Dodger fans got our nobility and our victory, the latter all the sweeter because of the former. I doubt too many folks who aren’t devout fans remember the championship, fewer still the rocky course the Dodgers took to win it. But plenty of folks still remember Koufax’s absence. They remember it because it challenged America to accept a Jewish hero on his terms. They remember it because it was a moment when Jewish Americans vanquished the fear of being Jewish and when gentiles had to give Jews respect, even if they didn’t fully comprehend why Koufax did what he did.

It made me proud to be a Dodger fan, proud to be a Koufax fan, and proud to be an American Jew.

Neal Gabler is an author and Dodger fan. He is currently at work on a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

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