[Please see “Editor’s Note” at the end of this article.]
October 6, 1965. Yom Kippur night.
It just so happened that Game 1 of the 1965 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins fell on this night at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota with nearly 48,000 people in the stands. They were all waiting to see Dodgers starter Sandy Koufax, but what they got instead was Don Drysdale.
What the heck was manager Walter Alston thinking?
Well, this wasn’t an Alston thing — this was a Jewish holiday thing.
The best pitcher in baseball was taking himself out of the lineup because Game 1 fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax had made the decision himself not to play on the holiest holiday in Judaism.
This was quite an incredible act by the kid from Brooklyn. It wasn’t even that he was extremely religious, but this was important to him, and he decided to do it even though it may have hurt his team (and the Dodgers did end up losing game one). His teammates supported him, and Koufax said he felt “no pressure” from them.
Koufax’s decision may not have been an easy one to make. Just 20 years removed from the Holocaust in Germany, many American Jews were still subject to discrimination. Because Koufax was in the public spotlight, this was a big moment for the Jewish community around the United States. People paid attention.
“By refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience,” wrote author Jane Leavy in her biography of Koufax.
This moment was about more than baseball. Koufax wanted to make a statement, and he sure did with this decision. I’m sure that he inspired many Jewish athletes, young and old, from all parts of the country, and sometimes that’s what matters in the end.
Koufax probably anticipated some backlash, but he had enough pride in himself and his religion that he didn’t care. The impact he made was most important, and “respect” was the word he used when asked why he sat out the game.
In the end, it all worked out. The Dodgers won the World Series when Koufax came back to pitch brilliantly in Game 7 on two days’ rest to clinch the Series.
This year, Yom Kippur begins Tuesday at sundown. This marks the 50th anniversary since Koufax’s famous decision.
Was it the right call? Was it the wrong call? None of us is qualified to make that judgment.
Right or wrong, Koufax made the decision himself, and he wasn’t going to let anyone get in the way. That is pretty cool in itself.
For many American Jews who were struggling to decide which part of their identity took precedence, Koufax will be remembered not so much for the pitches he threw as for the ones he chose not to.
Alan Seigel, in his 2010 article in The Atlantic, might have summed it up best: “There are three things any self-respecting Jewish boy should want to grow up to be: a doctor, a lawyer, or Sandy Koufax.”
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article included a headline with extremely poor word choice, which is still reflected in the URL. When we decided to change the headline, we also chose not to change the URL, which would break existing links to the article. The author, Josh Eastern, is himself Jewish, and a reading of the article (with words like “incredible,” “inspired,” “pride,” “respect,” etc.) makes it very clear where he stands with regards to Koufax’s decision to sit out the game. We messed up with the headline, and we will do better.