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Yom Run: Baseballs’ immortal keepers of the Jewish high holiday

More than half a century later, Sandy Koufax’s decision not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series between his Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins, still reverberate loudly and clearly among American Jews. The greatest pitcher of his day, enjoying a five-year dominant span unparalleled in Baseball history, decided to respect Yom Kippur rather than play in the number one showpiece of American sports.

What amplified Koufax’s decision was that it was coupled by sporting greatness. He would in fact start Game 2 and lose, but then pitched a four-hit complete game shutout victory in Game 5, and set up a dramatic ending to this tale of sports and faith. On only two days rest he won Game 7 with another complete game shutout in Minneapolis and lead the Dodgers to a dramatic championship.

sandy koufax in action. There wasn’t a Jewish kid that didn’t get lift out of what he represented

Sandy Koufax in action. There wasn’t a Jewish kid that didn’t get lift out of what he represented

Bob Costas, legendary Sports broadcaster, recalled years later: “Every single Jewish kid I grew up with in New York revered Sandy Koufax, and thought that it was something very important, very significant, that he didn’t pitch on a high holiday… but then when he came back on two days rest to pitch (and win) Game 7… there wasn’t a Jewish kid that I knew that didn’t get lift out of what that represented.”

But what did it represent?

Koufax was not a religious man. He did not articulate his decision with high words of faith over sport but simply stated in a matter-of-factly way: “The club knows that I don’t work on that day”. These simple words spoke volumes to a generation of Jews often not afforded leave on their religious festivals from at best ignorant and often intolerant employers. Now America saw the famous Dodgers granting their most important employee his religious rights on a critical day. For Jews it represented confidence within American life. For non-Jews a sign of respect.

A year later Koufax would retire young, at age 31, and was the youngest player ever to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In her biography of Koufax “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” author Jane Leavy writes: “By refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience. He was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sandy. A moral exemplar, and single too!”

Koufax was not the first Baseball superstar not to play a critical game on Yom Kippur. 31 years earlier, in 1934, Hank Greenberg, the great slugger of the Detroit Tigers, sat out a Yom Kippur game whilst his team engaged in a tight pennant race. These were much more difficult times for American Jews. Fueled by Henry Ford, Anti-Semitism was rampant in Michigan.

But Greenberg’s loyalty to his religion impressed many. Including Detroit’s popular and inspirational poet Edgar A. Guest, who devoted a poem to Greenberg that was printed on the front page of the Detroit Free Press.

The poem ends: 

Came Yom Kippur—holy feast day worldwide 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 on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,

But he’s true to his religion—and I honor him for that!”

Hank Greenberg. As the first true Jewish American sporting icon, Greenberg understood his position as a symbol

Hank Greenberg. As the first true Jewish American sporting icon, Greenberg understood his position as a symbol

Greenberg encountered anti-Semitism at levels Koufax would never face. 1934 was his breakout season with 26 home runs and by 1938 he was threatening Babe Ruth’s legendary record of 60 home runs in a season. But he was halted on 58 and it was speculated that the American League had told pitchers to walk Greenberg (thus not affording him the opportunity to hit a home run) in order to prevent the record falling into the hands of Jew. Greenberg dismissed these theories as “Crazy”.

As the first true Jewish American sporting icon, Greenberg understood his position as a symbol to the general society. In 1941 he was rejected by the military for health reasons but asked for a re-examination in order to serve in WWII. He was the first Major League player to volunteer to the Army Air Force. He served 47 months – more than any other Baseball player in WWII and saw action in the Pacific Arena as a special service officer.

In 1945 he returned to Baseball and was still able to lead the American League in Home Runs in 1946. A year later he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League. One of the club owners was music legend Bing Crosby. He recorded a song “Goodbye, Mr. Ball, Goodbye” with Greenberg and Groucho Marx to celebrate his arrival – and help pay his salary.

This was his final season and he would still make one last social stand. As a Jew he was one of the few players to openly welcome Jackie Robinson into the League as the first African-American player in the 20th century.

Ronen Dorfan