Rabbi Sandy

Good morning, it’s Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. Fifty-three years ago today, the most famous rabbi in America announced his retirement. He had been suffering for years from arthritis and the pain became just too debilitating, he explained. People mourned the announcement. At 30 years old, he seem too young to be hanging it up. Then again, Sandy Koufax wasn’t really a rabbi. He was a major league baseball player — perhaps the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time — and an icon to Jewish kids (and not only kids) all over this country.

The “rabbi” moniker was first given to him by the genuine article: prominent Jewish scholar and rabbi Brad Hirschfield. Koufax was humbled by the compliment, but it was fitting.

Anyone fortunate enough to see Sandy Koufax pitch in his prime was witnessing baseball played nearly to perfection. Such artistry in any human endeavor tends to ignite our fancy and spark otherworldly comparisons. “There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stood up,” Dodgers general manager Al Campanis once recalled. “The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.”

A high school basketball and baseball star in the Borough Park neighborhood of his native Brooklyn, Sanford Koufax signed a professional baseball contract with the hometown team in 1955 after a tryout at Ebbets Field. By 1961, he had established himself as the best pitcher in baseball. In 1962, he would pitch the first of his four career no-hitters — a record at the time — and he did so in consecutive seasons, culminating in a 1965 perfect game. This gem was captured in all its drama by another Hall of Famer, Dodgers announcer Vin Scully. (“There are 29,000 people in the ballpark,” Scully intoned in his melodious voice in the top of the ninth, “and a million butterflies.”)

Koufax struck out the last six Cubs he faced that night, entering the history books as well as our imaginations. More than five decades later, it’s difficult to remember the mood of the times, but Sandy Koufax had signed with the Dodgers only 10 years after the Holocaust was ended by the Allies’ liberation of Europe. In 1965, Koufax would not only lead the Dodgers to the National League pennant, he then declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

His team took this announcement in stride. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who was Catholic, quipped to reporters that he’d ask the pope about making it rain that day. The Dodgers could afford to be high-minded because they had another ace on their pitching staff, and that man, Hall of Fame right-hander Don Drysdale, assured Koufax that he would take care of the Minnesota Twins in Game 1, and Koufax could do his thing in Game 2.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Drysdale got shelled in the series opener and the Dodgers lost the second game, 5-1, even though Koufax only gave up one earned run. But this was a team that was tough to rattle. After the first game, Drysdale quipped to manager Walter Alston, “Hey, skip, bet you wish I was Jewish today too.” As they headed back to Los Angeles, down two games to none in the best-of-seven series, the Dodgers were a confident bunch. Koufax’s decision to put his faith ahead of a game seemed to give the team a sense of serenity. Or maybe it was simply that they knew how good their pitching was.

One thing is certain, though: By not pitching on his religion’s Day of Atonement, Sandy Koufax gave Jews all over the country — Dodger fans and Dodger haters, baseball fans and non-baseball fans — a sense of pride and belonging that remains to this day.

One movie character in the 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski” described Judaism as “3,000 years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax.” In her magnificent 2002 biography of Koufax, former Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy put it this way: “He was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sandy.”

At the time, non-Jews and secular sportswriters were perhaps a bit slow to appreciate the impact of Koufax’s gesture. Although it devoted 7,000 words to a piece explaining why Koufax was the magazine’s 1965 Sportsman of the Year, Sports Illustrated never mentioned the Yom Kippur angle. Reprising the events of that season on the 50th anniversary of the ’65 Series, the magazine atoned for this oversight.

It quoted Michael Paley, at the time a13-year-old Jewish kid in suburban Boston, as saying that Koufax’s decision to not pitch on Yom Kippur became the talk of his neighborhood. “It’s one of the best American Jewish stories we have,” said Paley, now a rabbi and scholar at the Jewish Resource Center of the UJA Federation of New York. “He didn’t see the burden of his identity, he saw the possibility of it.”

“It was the beginning of changed feelings about being Jewish in America,” Rabbi Paley added. “Because of Sandy, we were admired.” Well, yes, but there was also the little detail of how that World Series played out. Koufax wouldn’t lose again: He pitched a complete game shutout in Game 5, and came back on two days’ rest, pitching in pain to dominate the Twins in Game 7 with a three-hit shutout.

Forty-five years later, Sandy Koufax, graying but still handsome, stood in the East Room of the White House, one of the honorees celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month. Our country’s first African American president was in good form that day, and seemed to channel a borscht belt comedian when he spotted Koufax in the front row. “Sandy and I actually have something in common,” Obama said. “We are both lefties. He can’t pitch on Yom Kippur; I can’t pitch.”

For Koufax, though, the more evocative moment came after the ceremony ended when he was approached by Brad Hirschfield, who asked Koufax what it felt like to be a Hall of Famer and “one of the most important rabbis of the 20th century.”

“Believe me,” Koufax replied, “I’m no rabbi.” Hirschfield wrote later that he explained to Koufax that the All-Star pitcher had empowered a generation of Jews to claim their Jewishness with “pride, confidence, and joy,” and that if that didn’t constitute being a great rabbi, he didn’t know what did.

Koufax, as gracious as we remembered him from those long ago summers, replied, “Thank you, rabbi, for putting me in your club.” 

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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