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The Chosen One
Jane Leavy
September 09, 2002
Sandy Koufax overcame bigotry and constant, searing pain to become the greatest pitcher of his time, but his finest moment came on the day he refused to take the mound in the World Series
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September 09, 2002

The Chosen One

Sandy Koufax overcame bigotry and constant, searing pain to become the greatest pitcher of his time, but his finest moment came on the day he refused to take the mound in the World Series

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In September, when Sandy Amoros's dramatic catch in Yankee Stadium's leftfield finally made the Bums world champions, Koufax had a fine view of the play—from the dugout. After the game he drove across town to attend class at Columbia, where he had enrolled in architecture school. No one in academia suspected he was a ballplayer. When he asked for permission to miss that day's class in order to attend a Dodgers victory party, he told his professor, "I'm one of the pitchers, although I don't pitch too much vet."

Ten years later, on the evening of Sept. 9, 1965, Sandy Koufax, now the ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers' staff, pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. Less than a month later he achieved another kind of perfection by refusing to pitch the opening game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Coincidentally, it was on Sept. 9 that Major League Baseball announced that the World Series would open on Oct. 6. At that point in the season it wasn't at all clear that the Dodgers would be in the Series, but as they won 18 of their last 22 games, headlines began to appear: KOUFAX PROBLEM: JEWISH HOLIDAY. Koufax told reporters, smiling, "I'm praying for rain." He also said he would consult the rabbis (as Detroit Tigers star Hank Greenberg had done) to discuss a dispensation. He was joking. He never intended to pitch on Yom Kippur.

In Koufax's Brooklyn Dodgers days, management encouraged him to take the day off on Jewish holidays. It was a show of respect to their heavily Jewish fan base—and a shrewd marketing strategy. Koufax later said, in light of how little he was contributing at that point in his career, "[The Dodgers] were probably glad I was gone."

In the fall of 1961 manager Walter Alston scheduled him to pitch on a Jewish holiday. An hour after sundown marks the end of holiday observances in the Jewish faith, so after sundown on Sept. 20, 1961, Koufax took the mound and beat the Cubs 3-2 in 13 innings, striking out 15. Soon after, a fan sent Alston a 1962 calendar with all the Jewish holidays marked. From then on Alston made sure he consulted Danny Goodman, the team's director of advertising and novelties, before making out his starting rotation.

Fans, players and sportswriters all assumed that Koufax was devout. In fact Koufax, like Greenberg, was neither a devout nor even an observant Jew. In the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up, being Jewish was more often cultural than religious. Many of the boys, including Koufax, were not bar mitzvahed. "His Jewishness has nothing to do with whether he wears a yarmulke every day," Wilpon says. "And I will tell you this—he is very Jewish."

Koufax never spoke publicly about religion except to acknowledge his Jewishness. After years of traveling with Koufax, Phil Collier, the late beat writer for The San Diego Union, could not recall a single conversation on the subject until one day at Los Angeles International Airport when a fan interrupted Koufax at a urinal to ask, "Would you mind settling an argument for me?"

"Sandy said, 'No, I don't mind.'

"The guy waited until we washed up. I swear to God, we walked halfway across the terminal. He introduces us to five or six people. He says to Sandy, 'Are you Jewish? I bet money you're Jewish.'

"I wanted to knock the guy on his ass, dragging [Sandy] across the airport for that. Sandy couldn't have been nicer about it. He said, 'Yes, I am. It was nice to meet all of you. I hope you'll forgive us. We have a plane to catch.' "

On Oct. 2 the Dodgers clinched the pennant and prepared to meet the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series. The morning of the opening game the Saint Paul Pioneer Press carried the following dispatch:

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