Sandy Koufax still stirs up emotions of Jewish baseball fans
The story of the Dodgers lefty sitting out the High Holy Day remains the bible-esque super story for Jewish baseball fans five decades after the fact.
by David Lengel, The Guardian
October 21, 2017
Before pitching in games 2, 5 & 7 of the 1965 World Series,
Sandy Koufax famously chose to sit out the opener on observance
of the Jewish High Holy Day of Yom Kippur.
(Photo: Focus On Sports/Getty Images)
Fifty-two years ago this week, Bob Bodziner was sitting on the floor of his apartment in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, staring at his television set. The then seven-year-old was mourning his father, who had died months earlier, and the kinescope, black and white images beaming in from Minnesota were serving as a welcome distraction. The Twins were getting set to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series, but Bodziner was most concerned with who wasn’t: Sandy Koufax.
“I just remember thinking the timing of the holiday was unfair and then the Dodgers lost Game 1. I was not happy.”
It was Yom Kippur, 6 October 1965, the day Sandy Koufax’s choice to forgo work and observe the Jewish Day of Atonement, rather than pitch in the Series opener, instantly became the bible-esque super story for Jewish baseball fans.
“It wasn’t a great year for me, but I fell for Koufax,” said Bodziner, who would eventually produce the well-known This Week in Baseball television program. “He was from Brooklyn, a Jewish guy. I could walk to his Lafayette high school. I’ll never forget that World Series, because of what he did and because of my dad.”
Many fans own a memory that defines their relationship with the game: a first glance at a big league diamond, catching a foul ball, a pre-game autograph, or, perhaps something more momentous – a slow, rolling ball bouncing through Bill Buckner’s legs, for example.
For a small group of baseball fans from a certain era, their moment didn’t involve a game-saving catch or a timely home run. It didn’t even take place on a field, which is exactly why one players nod to his faith exploded into a multi-generational Jewish fairy tale that is still told five decades later. Manhattan-born Rabbi Gordon Tucker grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and kept following the team after they moved to Los Angeles in 1957, if only due to Koufax’s presence.
“I’ve said to the congregation, to the over-60 crowd, ‘you have to keep that story alive and tell your grandchildren – you have an obligation to do that.’”
Back in 1965, the news that Sandy Koufax would sit out Game 1 wasn’t actually news at all, considering that the lefty’s contract specifically noted that he would be excused on Yom Kippur. On Friday 1 October, five days before the World Series was to begin, UPI reported that owner Walter O’Malley would stand firmly behind the beliefs of his 26-game winner, one who shredded NL batters via a record 382 strikeouts, not allowing him to pitch “under any circumstances”, even if he had a dispensation. That backing from team brass ran straight through to the Dodgers clubhouse.
“Sandy was such a star on our club, we said: ‘If this is Sandy’s decision then it’s OK,’” Claude Osteen, the starting pitcher during the Dodgers’ vital win in Game 3 told the Guardian. “I think it was more a respect for his beliefs and religion and the guys just kind of took it with a grain of salt.”
That wasn’t the case for Jews, especially in Brooklyn, the ancestral home of both the Dodgers and the hurler who came to be known as “Left Hand of God.”
Sandy Koufax didn’t spend an inning in the minor leagues,
joining his home-town Brooklyn Dodgers as a bonus baby
at the start of the 1955 season.
(Photo: Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
A decade earlier, as an 18-year-old rookie playing a sport that featured few Jews, Koufax reached mythical status simply by suiting up for the Brooks during their lone championship season of 1955. Cantor Jack Mendelson, grew up in a religious home down the block from Koufax’ father’s law practice in the Borough Park neighborhood.
“After choir we’d go outside Temple Beth El and pick up some girls or something. Sandy would walk these two big white dogs past the synagogue and it was like: ‘Hey Sandy!’ Everyone knew him. I remember him talking to us and telling us stories. He was gentle, he was soft spoken: we were younger and he was really sweet to us, and we were so damn proud as Jewish kids. We all felt something, some sort of a crazy pride ... Back then the Holocaust was still fresh, and so when a kid like that makes it, man, it was tremendous for us.”
By October of 1965, despite an arthritic arm that would ultimately end his career at age 30, Koufax was into the fifth season of a six-year mercurial run that saw the southpaw transform from a frustrated, control challenged hurler with unharnessed heat, into a precise portrait of dominance, one admired not just by Jewish people, but by the whole of the baseball community. However, another stunning season, one that included a perfect game, an ERA of 2.08 (actually up from 1.74 in 1964), 27 complete games and eight shutouts over a staggering 335.2 innings pitched, had something of a hiccup: Yom Kippur and Game 1 fell on the very same day. Hall-of-Fame hurler Don Drysdale, only a downgrade when compared to one of the most overpowering pitchers of all-time, took the ball for Los Angeles manager Walter Alston, who watched his no2 starter lose 8-2.
On the one hand, Jews would not have been surprised by Koufax’s choice to sit out, because many who, like Koufax, aren’t observant on a daily basis, often choose to honor the high holy day and not work. How Jews, secular and non-secular, choose to weave their Judaism into everyday life is deeply personal, and although we don’t know how Koufax rationalized his decision, what we do know is that when we consider the high stakes of the Series, one being played inside a country where Jews still faced certain roadblocks integrating into main-stream America, Koufax’s very public move to stay true to traditions became a moment the Jewish community celebrated and cherished.
“One kid whispered to another kid in class: it went around like wildfire,” said Mendelson. “Did you hear about Koufax?’ And it became the talk of the school, the talk of the town. It really meant a lot to my parents, to me. We talked about it at the table. ‘That a boy, that a boy,’ my father said.”
Koufax’s ardent attention to personal privacy means we may never discover his thoughts on the day, or where he actually spent it, a story within a story that has been subject of seemingly endless speculation among the Jewish community. But it’s clear that his sitting out Game 1 (Koufax lost Game 2 allowing just one earned run in six innings) set up the opportunity for him to toss what are arguably the most dominant set of World Series games a pitcher has ever thrown: two shutouts on just two days rest.
“There was no decision in our minds as to who would pitch,” said Osteen. “We didn’t care how much rest he had.”
Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, one of the greatest one-two punches in baseball history, celebrate after defeating the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series.
(Photo: Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
Twins lefty Jim Kaat, who enjoyed a borderline Hall-of-Fame career himself, faced Koufax at a chilly Minnesota Municipal Stadium during the decisive Game 7.
“Lou Johnson hooked a shot off the foul pole in left field, that made it 1-0. Normally when you’re down 1-0 you say no big deal, but with Sandy, you knew you were in trouble. It was a pretty helpless feeling.”
On a day he didn’t have his legendary looping curveball, Koufax rounded up his MVP performance by striking out 10 Twins, bringing another level of delight to a community he’d already inspired.
“It was a victory because it honored something that was transcendent that goes beyond baseball,” Tucker said. “For those of us for whom Judaism mattered, it was honoring that, and in a paradoxical way, at the same time it was honoring baseball because it was using the sport as a vehicle to make that statement. And baseball was a worthy vehicle for which to make it.”
10/14/65: Sandy Koufax gets the final out as the Dodgers go on to win the World Series after beating the Twins 2-0 in Game 7
10/6/63: Sandy Koufax gets the final out as the Dodgers go on to win the World Series after beating the Yankees 2-1 in Game 4