Skip To Content

What Philip Roth and Sandy Koufax have in common

When Philip Roth’s estate was auctioned off in July of last year, among his possessions was a 1963 Topps baseball card of Sandy Koufax. It sold for $950.

“Roth, a baseball and Dodgers fan, was a lefty like Koufax to whom some felt Roth bore a resemblance,” Litchfield County Auctions wrote in the lot description.

The resemblance wasn’t simply physical. Roth’s impact on American letters was akin to Koufax’s contributions to America’s pastime: enduring, impressive and undeniably Jewish.

Koufax, who turns 85 today, was born in Brooklyn and pitched 12 seasons for the Dodgers, moving with them from his native borough to Los Angeles in 1958.

Dubbed the “Left Arm of God,” he is one of 21 pitchers to throw a perfect game and holds the record for the second most no-hitters of all time (he was the first to crack four). The bonus baby was the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation.

He remains the foremost David of the mound — if a 6-foot-2-inch-tall one — having slung countless fastballs past giants at the plate. Yet, it was one of Koufax’s off-field exploits that many Jews remember best. In October of 1965, he decided to sit out the opening game of the World Series, which fell on Yom Kippur.

“There was no hard decision for me,” Koufax said in a 2000 ESPN documentary. “It was just a thing of respect. I wasn’t trying to make a statement, and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.”

It did, continuing to pose a conundrum — or set a hallowed precedent — for Jewish players whose late season games often overlap with the Days of Awe. Hank Greenberg may have beat him to the punch, excusing himself from a Yom Kippur game in 1934 during the Tigers’ pennant race. But it wasn’t the World Series. And Greenberg, while perhaps our greatest slugger, wasn’t Koufax.

Koufax has been tight-lipped about whether or not he went to shul that day — or even fasted — but it hardly matters.

As with Roth, his brand of Jewishness needn’t be religious to have meaning, nor is it divorced from tradition. Such an identity can be complex, fluid and of a piece, like the snaking stitches of a baseball, or Koufax’s dreaded four-seamer.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.