This Day in History

1965: Baseball Legend Refuses to Pitch on Yom Kippur

For Jews, Sandy Koufax's decision to refrain from leading the Los Angeles Dodgers in an important championship game encapsulated a moment of pride, sacrifice and commitment.

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Yom Kippur in 1965 fell on October 6, a Wednesday. That’s also the day that the first game of the World Series, the best-out-of-seven championship game between the winning teams of Major League Baseball’s American and National Leagues, fell that year. In 1965, those teams were the Minnesota Twins, who had won the American League pennant, and the National League’s Los Angeles Dodgers.

Often, game one of the World Series sets the tone for the rest of the championship match-up, and both teams usually start with their best pitcher. For the Dodgers, that pitcher would have been Sandy Koufax, the 29-year-old southpaw (left-handed) who had become a pitching legend since the start of his major league career in 1955. On October 6, 1965, he also became a Jewish-American legend, because of his decision not to play in the opening game of the World Series.

Sandy Koufax was born Sanford Braun on December 30, 1935, Brooklyn, New York. When he was three, his parents, Jack Braun and the former Evelyn Lichtenstein, divorced; when Evelyn remarried, six years later, to Irving Koufax, Sandy took his stepfather’s surname.

Koufax attended Lafayette High School, in Bensonhurst, New York, where, in his senior year, he was captain of the basketball team. Baseball was his second sport. When he entered the University of Cincinnati, in the fall of 1953, it was without a sports scholarship, and when he showed up for basketball tryouts, he was unannounced. He played a single season on the school’s baseball team before his prodigious pitching arm was discovered by professional scouts and he was offered a contract with the Dodgers, then still based in Brooklyn.

During his first season, in 1955, Koufax played in only 12 games, only two of which were wins. With his strong but wild arm, he gave up almost as many walks as he gained strikeouts. In fact, it was only in the 1961 season, by which point the team had moved to Los Angeles, that Koufax really came into his own. That year, he led the league in strikeouts (269), and he was chosen for the season’s two All-Star Games. In 1962, he pitched his first no-hitter, and in the following season he led the league in win, strikeouts and earned-run average (the number of runs given up per nine innings pitched). That year, the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series in four games, and Koufax pitched both games 1 and 4.

In 1964, Koufax had 19 wins before he was diagnosed with traumatic arthritis in his left arm, and he was forced to retire for the season in August. By the following spring, he was limited to one game a week, and each outing was accompanied by pain-killers, an anti-inflammatory drug, Caspolin balm, and a soaking of his left elbow in ice after the game.

Every appearance was painful for Koufax, but he had the best record in the league that year, and he led the team to another pennant. Then came the World Series.

Koufax was not religiously observant, and he was known to be seen eating ham sandwiches while on the road. But for him, it was a no-brainer that he wouldn’t pitch on Yom Kippur. After all, it was the first game of the series, not the seventh, and he knew that he could pitch the following day. But it was a big story, and for Jews both young and old, it encapsulated a moment of pride, sacrifice and commitment, in an era when most of them did not wear their ethnic identity on their sleeves (or pitching elbows).

The St. Paul Pioneer Press carried a story before the game in Metropolitan Stadium, in Bloomington, Minnesota, explaining how Koufax had left the team’s hotel on Tuesday evening, before the start of Yom Kippur: “He planned to attend services today and rejoin the team tonight for his starting assignment in Thursday’s second game of the world series. He was asked whether he would view today’s game on television or listen to radio accounts. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t think that’s possible.’”

On Yom Kippur afternoon, Rabbi Bernard Raskas, at the Temple of Aaron, in St. Paul, the synagogue closest to the stadium, informed congregants that Koufax had been in the sanctuary for services that morning. Raskas had not wanted to encroach on the pitcher’s privacy on that holy day by introducing him to the congregation, but he said that he and Koufax had nodded to each other.

Jane Leavy, who describes the rabbi’s account in her 2003 biography of Koufax, says that, in fact, “Koufax did not attend services there that day or anywhere else… [F]riends say he chose to stay alone in his hotel room.”

Don Drysdale pitched for the Dodgers in that first game – and the team lost 2-0. When Koufax pitched the next day, they lost 5-1. Back at Dodger Stadium, the team won three straight, with game number five being pitched by Koufax, 7-0. Back in Minnesota, however, on October 13, the Dodgers were again defeated, forcing a final, seventh game in the series.

Koufax agreed to pitch, although it would be his third outing in eight days. He lasted the entire game, and the team won, 2-0. After it was over, in the locker room, broadcaster Vin Scully asked Koufax how he felt, noting that after game five, Koufax had said that he felt like he was 100 years old. “Well, Vinnie, I feel like I’m a hundred and one. I’m just glad it’s over and I don’t have to do this again for four whole months.”

The next season, 1966, was Koufax’s final one as a major league player. He and fellow pitcher Don Drysdale negotiated jointly with the team, after seeing that the Dodgers were trying to play each of them off against the other in contract talks before the season. They didn’t show up until the final week of spring training, and only after they were awarded contracts of $125,000 and $110,000 each, for Koufax and Drysdale respectively. That year, the Dodgers made it to the World Series again, but were defeated in four games by the Baltimore Orioles. That’s when Koufax announced his retirement.

Koufax was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, making him the youngest player ever chosen. In the years that followed his retirement, he worked as a baseball commentator for NBC Television, and as a minor league pitching coach for the Dodgers for more than a decade. He has been married and divorced twice. He published a ghost-written autobiography in 1966, but mainly, he has kept out the limelight, maintaining his dignity with gentlemanly grace. He rarely comments on public stories about him, and he famously doesn’t read them.

When President Barack Obama introduced Koufax at the White House in 2010, at a reception honoring the start of Jewish American Heritage Month, he said that he had “something in common” with him: “He can’t pitch on Yom Kippur. I can’t pitch.”

Jane Leavy wrote about Koufax in her book, “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy”: “To the extent that he removed himself from public view, it was not so much because he believed there are no second acts in American life, as because he was determined to have one. He does not disavow who he was or what he accomplished. He is proud of it.”