There are three things any self-respecting Jewish boy should want to grow up to be: a doctor, a lawyer, or Sandy Koufax. Unfortunately, I don't like blood, I'm afraid of courtrooms, and Sandy Duncan has a better arm than I do.
I became a reporter, a profession that at least allows me to write
about Koufax, who I continued to idolize long after my baseball career
ended in the sixth grade. It's been 45 years since Koufax refused to
pitch the first game of the World Series on Yom Kippur, yet he remains the go-to American Jewish sports icon. He's even name-checked in The Big Lebowski:
The Dude: It's all part your sick Cynthia thing, man. Taking care of her fucking dog. Going to her fucking synagogue. You're living in the fucking past.
Walter Sobchak: Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax...You're goddamn right I'm living in the fucking past!
The past is hard to escape, especially when it comes to Koufax. By not taking the mound for the Dodgers against the Twins on Oct. 6, 1965, on the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, he became a cultural touchstone.
"By refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience," author Jane Leavy wrote in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy. "He was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sandy. A moral exemplar, and single too! (Such a catch!)"
Koufax, who wasn't particularly observant, had no clue that his decision would carry so much weight—then or now.
"I believe he was thinking, 'I'm going to pitch the next day. What's the big deal? We have [star pitcher] Don Drysdale starting'," Leavy said in a Q and A with Sports Illustrated in 2002. "And, in a way, that makes it even sweeter. Yom Kippur is a day of sacrifice. .... And here's Koufax, who's doing this reflexively not out of his own great belief, but really more in deference to others. So it was a much greater sacrifice on his part. For a more religious man it might have been a no-brainer. For Koufax, it was the right thing to do."
And in doing the right thing, Koufax inspired a generation of Jewish players that came after him.
In a December 1999 profile of former Dodgers player Shawn Green—who's Jewish—SI's Michael Bamberger describes the outfielder reacting to an article about Koufax:
He was an aristocrat in spikes, with a gentleman's carriage and an assassin's arsenal—his fastball and curve. His last six seasons are mythic: 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA. He threw 27 complete games with a painfully arthritic arm in 1966 and then quit. He slipped into a private life fundamentally no different from his days as a beloved public icon: unfailingly true to his ideal. He always put team before self, modesty before fame and God before the World Series.
Green put down the Koufax tribute and thought to himself, That's the way to lead a life. I hope I get to meet him.