Fifty years ago today Los Angeles pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to pitch. It was the first game of the World Series. The LA Dodgers were playing the Minnesota Twins and the Jewish pitcher, Koufax, had decided not to pitch. Sandy Koufax wasn’t just any pitcher. That year, 1965, he had 26 pitching wins, an earned run average of 2.04, pitched 27 complete games, had pitched a perfect game and set a 20th century record of 382 strike outs. Koufax was way more than a “good” pitcher. And not to leave out the fact that he won the National League’s Cy Young award for pitching that year. This was the pitcher who wasn’t going to pitch in the first game of World Series!?!
When asked on ESPN in 2000 why he chose to do it Koufax said, “There was no hard decision for me. It was a thing of respect. I wasn’t trying to make a statement and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.”
For most if not all Jews his decision was a source of immense pride. His respect for his faith transcended baseball. Imagine a Jew, in 1965, placing personal faith above the national pastime.
He wasn’t the first Jew to sit out a game for religious principles. Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers sat out a game on Yom Kippur during a 1934 pennant race. Koufax’s decision is better known because Koufax was in the pinnacle of his career whereas Greenberg hadn’t at the time reached it.
At the time I both admired Koufax’s courage and resented it. I admired him for his courage. I resented him because now my parents had a reason for me to not play baseball when it conflicted with Hebrew school or Sunday or Saturday school. Yes, in my day the Reform kids attended three days a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays after school and on Saturday or Sunday mornings. “If Sandy Koufax can miss the world series you can miss a little league game,” my mother would say. Thanks Sandy! My non-Jewish coaches did not have the same nuanced approach to pride and religion as did Koufax or my mom.
Yet life really is about making right choices and Koufax’s decision about making the right choice still resonates amongst Jews today.
Years ago downtown Burlington had far more locally owned businesses than it does today. Today many of the businesses are owned by large chains but thirty years ago Jewish merchants were to be found everywhere. And one of the nice things about Jewishly owned businesses is that they, not all but many, closed on the Yom Tovs. It was nice. It was a source of pride. It impressed upon the non-Jewish community that we believed in our faith and practice. And that on certain days of the year it wasn’t all about business and money but about faith, family and our belief in God. It was our time to outwardly manifest ourselves to a world not always so well acquainted with their Jews neighbors.
We had certain unpublished rules in those days. Rule 1: You don’t go to school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover or Shavuot. And if there is a game on a festival you will not be playing. Rule 2: You don’t go to work on those days either. And if you have a business you stay away from it. Rule 3: You always had a festive meal at home, with relatives or friends. Rule 4: Everyone would see each other at Shul, Temple or the Synagogue.
Generally everyone seemed to live by these four rules.
It saddens me that so many have abandoned these four simple rules. Maybe that’s why the Sandy Koufax decision still resonates so loudly today. It all comes down to making the right decision. Remember Koufax’s reasoning. For him, “It was a thing of respect.” While I’m not in position to ask Mr. Koufax to define what he meant by respect I think I can assume a few things about his reasoning.
First: He was being respectful to his religious beliefs. Judaism was more than a meaningless institution to him. And if in fact it had meaning then he needed to demonstrate its meaning in his own life and his own practice. Baseball would come second not first!
Second: Mr. Koufax believed that he needed to be respectful to his own community. I think he was concerned about how it would look to be playing baseball on the holiest day of the year while his community was in synagogue.
Jewish public school teachers have told me how they feel when they take off religious holidays when fellow Jewish teachers don’t. After coming back from a religious observance non-Jewish faulty and the administration frequently ask why they were off when other Jewish teachers were not thus forcing the observant teachers to defend themselves. Mr. Koufax understood that the decision not to play wasn’t all about him. He was a public figure. He’s behavior would reflect upon way more than himself alone.
And third: Mr. Koufax understood that he needed to model the behavior he held dear. Imagine if Mr. Koufax had played on this Yom Kippur fifty years ago? What message would that have instilled in the Jewish children of his day?
There is a story of an American executive traveling to Japan for business. The American businessman encounters his two Japanese colleagues and they head out for dinner. Given the proximity of the restaurant they decide to walk. As they approach a cross walk the American quickly looks both ways yet proceeds against the light. As he moves down the sidewalk he notes his two Japanese colleagues are not accompanying him. He is forced to wait so they can catch up. When they do he asks, “Why did you hesitate and not cross with me? There were no cars coming.” One of the two Japanese executives answered, “While it is true that no car was coming, a child could have been watching us.”
Our children are watching us. Our children need us to show them the way. Be a Jew! Be proud! Happy New Year!