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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2002 / 24 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

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A Pitcher and a Mentsh

Sandy Koufax's 'Jewish sensibility' made him an unlikely Jewish hero | On Oct. 6, 1965, Sandy Koufax stepped out of baseball history into Jewish history. In a story that has been recited from countless synagogue pulpits, the legendary Los Angeles Dodger lefty opted to skip the first game of the World Series because it coincided with Yom Kippur.

That much is known by even the most casual observer of sports as well as by most American Jews. But what is most interesting about Sandy's Day of Atonement that year is what most of us think we know about him and which actually is untrue.

As author Jane Leavy relates in her splendid new biography, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy", the pitcher "was apocryphally seen at synagogues throughout the Twin Cities [game one was at the home field of the Minnesota Twins] and even in Los Angeles."

At the closest synagogue to the ballpark, the rabbi actually told his congregation that Koufax was seated in the back. The rabbi even recalled later that he and Koufax nodded to each other but "He did not want to impinge on the pitcher's privacy. Nor did he wish to make an example of him. After all, Koufax wasn't so observant."

In fact, as Leavy relates, "Koufax did not attend services there that day or anywhere else." Instead, he chose to stay alone in his hotel room that day.

The symbolism of the day when Koufax didn't pitch seems almost as powerful as the statistics and stories that painted the picture of his excellence on the days when he did take to the mound.

In the preface to her book, Leavy relates how Koufax's Yom Kippur influenced her own life. She tells us that when covering the U.S. Tennis Open for The Washington Post in 1983 on Yom Kippur, it suddenly occurred to her that 18 years earlier Koufax had taken the day off. "I have not worked on the High Holidays since. Sandy Koufax had made himself at home in my soul."


Yet to Koufax, this event, like all of his amazing baseball achievements, was no big deal.

"I'm just a normal 27-year-old bachelor who happens to be of the Jewish faith," he once complained to a sportswriter. He never complained about the anti-Semitism he encountered early in his career, even long after his retirement. As Leavy puts it, "It violates his code of honor to argue with the dead or the past."

Even his teammates knew little about his inner thoughts. Like many of his fans, most of them assumed he was an extremely pious Jew. "How else to explain his decision not to pitch except as a reflection of compelling belief? Why else would anyone voluntarily skip the World Series?" Leavy asks.

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She answers her question by calling it a "sensibility." She writes that Koufax's "sacrifice was greater than his teammates knew." He once confided to a rabbi that knew him, "I'm Jewish. I'm a role model. I want them to understand they have to have pride."

In truth, Koufax was not at all observant. He had no Bar Mitzvah ceremony and has never been known to speak about his Jewish identity except to merely acknowledge it.

Like many other American Jews who grew up in the America of the 1940s and 1950s, Koufax's life was largely one that was not defined by Jewish causes. He was Jewish by birth and by the culture of the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he spent his adolescence.

As one of his high school classmates explained it, "You're Jewish but you don't hold it up. ... You were Jewish because you were born Jewish. ... Because you were from Brooklyn. ... You were Jewish by osmosis. You grew up in a shtetl."

To those, like me, who spend our careers chronicling the toll of assimilation on a shrinking American Jewish population, it is a familiar story. Jewish "by osmosis" is the standard formula for Jewish disintegration. An identity rooted in a tradition that goes unobserved and in which youngsters are not educated is not one that has much chance of survival. Looked at that way, Koufax's biography must, by definition, be one that cannot be counted as a Jewish triumph.

But that would be to misunderstand his life and times. For Jews of his day, being accepted as Americans on an equal footing was most important. This is illustrated by the fact that, according to Leavy, Koufax's parents were actually offended when the New York Yankees sent a Jewish scout to his home to attempt to sign the teenager to a contract. Apparently, they felt the Yankees were pandering to them.

A modest man, Koufax's unwillingness to revel in his celebrity or to cash in on it is both refreshing and a standing rebuke to a contemporary sports culture built around the strutting showoffs who care more about image than performance.

What makes him so compelling today is not so much his amazing record from 1961 to 1966 when he dominated baseball, but his quiet voice in a time when anything less than a shout is considered low-key in athletics. He is an American anomaly: a sports hero who never bragged about his achievements and never wanted to be in the media spotlight.

Though he encouraged his friends to talk to Leavy, Koufax did not submit to interviews for the book. He confirmed biographical details but nothing else. The 67-year-old retired athlete would have preferred that no book be written about him, but did not interfere with the effort.

What Leavy discovered in her research was that Koufax was universally respected by his peers and friends, with literally no one having a bad word to say about him. His dignity and consideration for others appear to have been matched only by his determination to succeed.


As for his place in baseball history, the arguments about where exactly to rank Koufax among the all-time pitching greats will go on as long as baseball exists. His career, which consisted of a mediocre beginning followed by six seasons of unmatched excellence, was cut short by a case of traumatic arthritis that forced him to retire at the end of the 1966 season at the age of 31.

His is one of the shortest periods of dominance for any baseball hall-of-famer. Skeptics will point out that his break-out as a star coincided with the Dodgers move to the pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles from their previous homes in the more intimate confines of Ebbets Field and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. They will also note that he played during a historical period when pitching dominated hitting as it did in no other time in baseball history.

But the Koufax legend, like his enigmatic personality defies exact description.

In the end, the only way to describe the man is as a "mentsh," a decent human being and a great athlete.

As Leavy writes, "Koufax defined himself as a man of principle who placed faith above craft. He became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience. As John Goodman put it in the movie 'The Big Lebowski': 'Three thousand years of beautiful tradition: from Moses to Sandy Koufax.' "

It is one thing to be compared to Bob Gibson, Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson or any other great pitcher. But to be linked with Moses in the imagination of America, that's special. That's a legacy every American Jew can take pride in.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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