If he had just been a Jewish ballplayer, dayenu, it would have been enough.
If he had just been arguably the best pitcher of his generation, dayenu.
But when Sandy Koufax declined to take the mound for the first game of the 1965 World Series? More than enough.
Fifty years later, Koufax’s decision to sit out the game is a signal moment in American-Jewish history, one that even a black Baptist preacher like the Rev. Jesse Jackson called “one of the great statements in American athletics.” It inspired individuals as different as a Chabad rabbi who personally thanked Koufax the next day, a famed New York Met who would himself sit out during the High Holy Days, and a current Major Leaguer who calls Koufax a “role model.”
Ironically, when Sports Illustrated asked Koufax that year about his place alongside the game’s great pitchers, he replied, “I can’t picture people talking about me 50 years from now.”
In 1965, Koufax was finishing up his penultimate season in the Major Leagues, having led the Los Angeles Dodgers to the National League pennant. The World Series was scheduled to begin Oct. 6 against the American League champs, the Minnesota Twins.
As the ace of the staff, the starting assignment fell to Koufax. But the future Hall of Famer calmly told his employers he would not take the ball that day: It was Yom Kippur.
Koufax did not grow up in a particularly observant household, but like Hank Greenberg — the first Jewish baseball superstar a generation before — he felt a responsibility to honor his heritage. While the Dodgers were losing the first game, Koufax was holed up at the team’s hotel in St. Paul.
He started and lost the second game to put the Dodgers in a 2-0 hole. He bounced back to win the fifth game and returned on two days rest (instead of the usual four) to throw a 2-0 shutout to give the Dodgers the world championship. Koufax was named Series MVP and Sports Illustrated honored him as their Sportsman of the Year.
Considering Koufax’s stature, the press at the time took little note regarding the reason for his absence. The Sporting News, considered “the Bible of baseball,” didn’t mention it at all and The New York Times just ran a four-paragraph wire service story.
Rabbi Moshe Feller was 28 and a fervent baseball fan when he learned of Koufax’s decision and made one of his own. Taking a bold step that would be impossible in today’s security-conscious celebrity world, the Minnesotan went to the Dodgers’ hotel the day after Yom Kippur with a gift for Koufax.
“I wanted to associate his famous left arm with tefillin,” Feller, now 78 and the director of Chabad Lubavitch in St. Paul, told NJJN. “I knew the hotel where they were staying and I decided to go down and make a presentation. Now how would that be? Everybody in the world would love to talk to Sandy Koufax; he was the most famous Jew of the time. The likelihood of him seeing me on the day he was going to pitch and getting through to him? But I’m going to try.”
Feller took the tefillin — the leather boxes and straps used by observant Jews during morning prayers — to the front desk. He told the clerk, “‘I am Rabbi Feller and I want to speak to Mr. Koufax.’ Now everybody knew he was Jewish — he didn’t pitch the day before — so I must be his rabbi.”
The clerk gave him Koufax’s room number and Feller called from a house phone, making introductions: “The Lubavitcher Rebbe greatly appreciates what you did; we all do. You gave us an assist. You know how many Jewish kids didn’t go to school, how many Jewish businessmen didn’t go to business on Yom Kippur because you didn’t pitch? More Jews knew about when Yom Kippur is from reading in the sports pages that you’re not pitching than knew from the Jewish calendar because more Jews read the sports pages than from the calendar.”
Koufax invited Feller up to his room and was “very gracious” when accepting the gift. “He held the tefillin and fondled the tefillin in the velvet bag. I wanted to put them on with him, but he intimated to me that he could do it himself,” said Feller.
As the brief visit came to an end, Koufax said, “Rabbi Feller, they make a big fuss over the fact that I don’t pitch on Yom Kippur. I don’t pitch on Rosh Hashana either!”
“It was a big kiddush Hashem,” or glorification of God’s name, Feller said. “He’s not particularly religious, but he knows he’s a role model and people look up to him. So there was no way he was going to pitch on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar…. He accomplished so much with that deed. It swelled the pride of Jews the world over and of men of good faith of all religions that a guy thought more in this materialistic world where making a buck is number one, he chose to stick by principles that were important.”
Former Major Leaguer Art Shamsky was in his second year with the New York Mets in 1969 when he informed manager Gil Hodges he would be taking some time off for the High Holy Days. In the heat of the Mets’ pennant race, it was easier for a part-timer like Shamsky to take off than if he had been an everyday player.
“I learned of Koufax’s decision…when the announcement was made,” said Shamsky, who made his debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1965. “It didn’t affect me on a personal or religious level because at that time I considered myself a baseball player who just happened to be Jewish.”
Shamsky said his decision “was strictly something that I felt I had to do. Over the years I have been astounded by the number of people who have thanked me for doing it, some of whom hadn’t been born yet.”
The Major Leaguer
Sam Fuld, a 10-year Major Leaguer currently with the Oakland Athletics, called Koufax “a role model for many, including myself.” Fuld spoke with NJJN on the day the Athletics were hosting their Jewish Heritage Night game. “There are only so many Jewish ballplayers out there,” he said. “And [Koufax] was the biggest star of them all.”
Fuld laughed when asked about the tendency of Jewish sports fans to “claim” ballplayers as one of their own, regardless of how tangential their relationship is to Judaism. “It’s never bothered me,” said Fuld, the product of an interfaith marriage who celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays growing up. “I’ve always embraced that part of my heritage and am proud to be a part of the Jewish community. I like that I’m expected to be a role model, much like Sandy Koufax was…. If I can be a role model to Jewish kids, I’m very much happy and honored to be a part of that.”
“For Koufax, history will show that he not only was one of the greatest pitchers ever, but his status as a person with great moral character will live on forever,” Shamsky said.
“It is a tribute to him that he has lived his life right. Fifty years later people still remember.”