by Rafael Deras
On October 6, 1965, the Los Angeles Dodgers were in Minnesota taking on the Twins in game one of the World Series. Scheduled to take the mound for the Dodgers was their ace, Cy Young Award-winner Sandy Koufax. But Koufax, being Jewish, shocked the nation by refusing to pitch in order to observe Yom Kippur, which fell on the same day. This act of courage garnered the respect and admiration of many Jewish Americans and drew criticism from other circles. Suddenly, the holiday of Yom Kippur received widespread attention and Jews everywhere felt a sense of pride for their heritage and had great respect for Sandy Koufax for his commitment to Jewish principle. Koufax was not the first Jewish baseball player to decline playing on Yom Kippur however. Hank Greenberg, the great homerun slugger for the Detroit Tigers, sat out a game while in a tense pennant race in 1934. Yet somehow it is Sandy Koufax who remains the most famous Jewish athlete who wouldn’t compromise his religious values for the game.
A bit more about Sandy Koufax…
Koufax was born Sanford Braun on December 30, 1935 and was raised in Brooklyn, New York. His parents divorced when he was three, so he took the name of his stepfather, Irving Koufax. Sandy excelled on the basketball court as a teenager and played for a team at the local Jewish Community Center. While pitching in high school, Brooklyn Dodgers scout Al Campanis asked Koufax to come to Ebbets Field for a tryout and was amazed saying, “There are two times in my life the hairs on my arms stood up: The first time I saw the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.”
Koufax was soon signed by the Dodgers and took the place of then mediocre relief pitcher and future Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. From 1955-1960, Koufax was relegated to a small role on the team and posted only modest numbers. After the 1960 season, Koufax began an intense workout schedule and fixed some of the hitches in his delivery. The 1961 season was a breakout year for Koufax and he became an all-star pitcher and broke Christy Mathewson’s National League strikeout record. Koufax would come to dominate baseball over the next five seasons. He won the Cy Young Award three times, pitched three no-hitters (including a perfect game in ‘65) and led the now Los Angeles Dodgers to World Series victories in ’63 and ’65
, and a loss in ’66. Plagued by an arthritic left elbow, Koufax was forced into retirement after the 1966 season. Koufax left the game after an incredible season in which he posted a 27-9 record and a 1.73 ERA.
After retirement, Koufax worked as a baseball announcer for NBC for six seasons and was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. In April 2007, more than four decades after his retirement from baseball, Koufax was the final player chosen in the inaugural Israel Baseball League draft by the Modi’in Miracle. The Miracle’s manager, Art Shamsky, said, “It’s been 41 years between starts for him. If he’s rested and ready to take the mound again, we want him on our team.” Koufax declined to join the Miracle, despite the fact that he would have been working on 14,875 days rest.