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Sandy Koufax and the Yom Kippur Question

 

Introduction

It has been over 30 years since Sandy Koufax first shocked America by saying that it is more important to be true to his Jewish faith than to pitch in the opening game of the World Series. Since that time his religious devotion has become the stuff of legend. In 1997 a children's book called "The Koufax Dilemma" by Steven Schnur was published. It described the conflicts that a Jewish boy had about pitching in his little league game on Passover. As memories fade and observance levels of the Jewish community change, one hears how religious Sandy Koufax was -- that he didn't pitch on the high holidays, that he took off for Passover, that he traveled with kosher food, etc.

Here is a typical example of a news posting from early 1998, showing how Koufax's Jewish observance has turned into legend:

>>Well, Sandy Koufax did refuse to pitch the opening game of the World
>>Series because it was on Yom Kippur.
>
>I think he had a clause in his contract that he would be excused from
>playing during the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays. Is that right?
>

It is a well documented and indisputable fact that Sandy Koufax was one of the best pitchers in baseball history. It is also an indisputable fact that he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it conflicted with Yom Kippur.

I have examined his record and have determined a few other facts about his pitching history on Jewish holidays. The information presented in this article is meant to distinguish legend from reality. I have great admiration for him as a person and as a Jew. His action on Yom Kippur of 1965 made all American Jews proud. He deserves to be celebrated and remembered for taking this courageous step.

This article is an attempt to "set the record" straight on when he pitched on Jewish holidays throughout his career. My goal in writing this is to show that he was not a super-religious Jew. Like many American Jews, he worked on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) and did not particularly observe many of the religious holidays. Also like many American Jews, he felt a particular need to observe Yom Kippur as a special day devoted to Jewish worship.

 

Jewish Holidays and the baseball season

The Jewish day runs from sundown to sundown. A baseball night game that starts before sundown overlaps 2 Jewish days. A day game played in early spring or late fall may end after nightfall, thus overlapping 2 Jewish days.

All the major Jewish holidays usually coincide with baseball season:

 

 

Yom Kippur

Starting with the 1927 movie "The Jazz Singer", American Jews have shown that Yom Kippur is a special day -- THE special day -- no matter what level of observance the person may have. The character played by Al Jolson has a major singing career on Broadway, but he puts it on hold, disappointing his fans and managers, as well as risking his future career, in order to properly observe Yom Kippur.

In the 1934 Hank Greenberg caused a national sensation when he considered missing an important game in order to observe Rosh Hashanah. He ended up playing the game (hitting 2 home runs that were dubbed "kosher" by the media). The following week he sat out the game on Yom Kippur. Later on, Al Rosen, and other lesser known Jewish players followed his lead and refused to play on Yom Kippur.

By the early 1960s there were few Jewish stars to keep this tradition alive. Sandy Koufax had been quietly following this principle for most of his career -- it just happened that it never became a big issue until 1965. Here is what he says about it in his autobiography:

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows that I don't work that day. When Yom Kippur falls during the season, as it usually does, it has always been a simpler matter of pitching a day earlier, with two days' rest, when my turn happened to be coming up. (Koufax, 258)

As part of the Koufax legend, his Yom Kippur observance served as an excuse to educate his manager:

Alston unwittingly scheduled Koufax to pitch a ball game on Yom Kippur, probably the most holy day on the Jewish calendar. Koufax asked to be excused. Stan Williams replaced Koufax in the rotation for that day and was beaten.

Alston was immediately criticized by irate fans for not planning his pitching rotation to make allowance for Jewish holidays. A fan mailed Alston a 1962 calendar, with all the Jewish holidays marked (Hano, 133).

Sandy Koufax never pitched on games that conflicted with either the evening (Kol Nidre service), or morning service (Shacharit and Musaf). He twice pitched games that conflicted with the afternoon and concluding services. In both 1960 and 1961 he pitched in night games that started after Yom Kippur was over. I assume that in order to get to the stadium he had to leave midway through the afternoon services. In doing this, he was like many American Jews who find that they can't spend the entire day in prayer at the synagogue.

In 1960 (October 1), he pitched 2 innings in relief in a night game. Yom Kippur ended around 6:45 PM -- before game time. He would have had to be in the clubhouse at least an hour or two before game time. Did he pitch during Yom Kippur? -- absolutely not. Was he suited up and in the clubhouse before sundown? -- very likely.

The following year he pitched a memorable 13 inning game on Yom Kippur (September 20, 1961) in which he threw a remarkable 205 pitches (Koufax, p. 158). Yom Kippur ended around 7:00 PM -- before game time. This was an amazing performance for any pitcher -- regardless of age, race, or religion. It becomes even more impressive when you realize that he had fasted for 25 hours prior to the game. As in the previous year, he must have had to cut his Yom Kippur observance short by a few hours in order to prepare for the game. Did he pitch an official game during Yom Kippur? -- absolutely not.

As for the traditional meal breaking the fast -- perhaps he had a little meal in the clubhouse just before the game. I found no data on this aspect of his observance.

Like the Al Jolson character in the movie, and like many American Jews, Sandy Koufax had strong feelings about being a Jew, but did not necessarily observe every detail of the religious strictures. Many people feel that they have "done their part" by sitting in services 4 or 6 hours rather than the full amount. Perhaps this is how he felt about it. Given the pressures that he was under, I don't blame him.

His willingness to publicly declare that he was a Jew (even if it was only one day a year) brought a tremendous amount of pride to the entire Jewish community.

 

Other Holidays

Sandy Koufax seems to have ensured never to pitch on days that conflicted with the Passover seder. He pitched 2 day and 2 night games that conflicted with the important parts of the Passover holiday. He recorded 3 wins from these games, the best being a 10 strikeout, 5-hitter at Chicago on 4/10/63.

Like many Jews, Sandy Koufax took no special steps to avoid working on Shavuot. Of his 8 games pitched on this holiday, his best was a 6-hit shutout at Milwaukee on 5/28/63. He won 5 of the games he pitched on this holiday.

Sandy Koufax seems to have ensured never to pitch on either day of Rosh Hashanah. Of his 3 games that started within minutes after Rosh Hashanah ended, he lost one and had 2 no decisions. His loss was to Philadelphia on 9/12/61. He was taken out after 1 1/3 innings after giving up 6 runs.

In his 2 World Series appearances on Sukkot or Shemini Atzeret, he had a 1-1 record, including his famous 4-hit, 10 strikeout, shoutout of Minnesota on October 11, 1965 (his next appearance after losing game 2).

 

Conclusion

Sandy Koufax was a wonderful role model for many people, both Jew and non-Jew. We should recall and celebrate his many accomplishments. We should also recall the strong public stance he took as a Jew -- even if it created complications for his work life.

We should not let the myths overshadow the man. His accomplishments are quite sufficient to make him stand far above most other baseball pitchers in history. All Americans Jews already revere him -- there is no need to try to make him into some sort of religious paragon.

A poem by Edgar Guest about Hank Greenberg's Yom Kippur observance is also quite apropos about Koufax's observance:

Come Yom Kippur -- holy fast day world-wide over to the Jew
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn't come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney "We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he's true to his religion -- and I honor him for that!"

(quoted in Richler)

 

Statistics

 

World Series games played on Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret

Regular season games played on Jewish holidays

Regular season games played on Jewish High Holidays

Career Summary Statistics compared to Jewish Holiday statistics

Bibliography

Books and magazine articles:

Hano, Arnold, "Sandy Koufax Strikeout King". New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1966.

Koufax, Sandy, with Linn, Ed, "Koufax". New York: Viking Press, 1966.

Levine, Peter, "Ellis Island to Ebbets Field". New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Neft, David S. and Cohen, Richard M., "The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, 10th edition". New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Paretchan, Harold R., "The World Series, The Statistical Record", revised edition. South Brunswick and New York: A.S. Barnes and co., 1974.

Richler, Mordecai "Koufax the Incomparable", Commentary, Nov. 1966.

Online Bibliography:

The Retrosheet Project -- archive of historical baseball data.

The Hebrew Calendar Home Page -- excellent interactive Hebrew Calendar program.

Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table for One Year -- sunrise/sunset information for any US location, any year.

"Sandy Koufax taught pride to generation of young Jews" by Rabbi Lee Bycel, September 20, 1996.

DejaNews -- archive of newsgroup discussions.

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© 1999 Eldad Ganin. May not be reproduced without permission.