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.
Steve Stone, the only Jewish pitcher besides Koufax to win a Cy Young award, seems to feel the same way. Growing up near Cleveland in the 1950s and '60s, Stone idolized Koufax. Whenever he could, Stone tried to wear 32, Koufax's number, even after he reached the majors in 1971.
"For me to be mentioned in the same sentence as Sandy Koufax," said Stone, 63, who's now a broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox. "I view it with a great deal of pride. He was my hero."
Stone told me that he took the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off every season. He said that more than anything, the choice was about honoring his family, which came to the United States from Russia and Hungary.
"If you really believe in your team above all else, it's a really shallow viewpoint on life," Stone said. "Teams come and go, players come and go, I don't believe your religious beliefs come and go."
It's not clear, though, that this attitude has been passed down to today's players. The Nationals' Jason Marquis, who's Jewish, said recently that he would pitch on Friday, even though Yom Kippur begins at sundown. "Your team expects you to do your job and not let your teammates down," he told reporters, "and that's the approach I take."
Even if Marquis had decided to sit out Friday night's game, the situations are radically different. Koufax missed the first game of the World Series. (Though he ended up being named Series MVP after pitching a shutout in the deciding Game 7.) He was the best pitcher in baseball, which at the time was still the most popular sport in America.
On the other hand, as Leavy said, "Is anybody going to really care if Jason Marquis doesn't pitch for the sad-ass Washington Nationals?" It's also difficult to compare eras. Koufax's famous decision occurred in 1965, barely two decades after the liberation of the concentration camps.
"I do think the moment mattered more [then], because of the emergence of that time of American Jewish populous that was struggling with its own identity issues," said Leavy, whose new book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, comes out in October. "Do we subsume our religion and ourselves to the greater American culture or is it more important to be identified as Jews?" Koufax chose the latter route. "There are some things all of us do, regardless what religion we are," Stone said, "that transcend what we do for a living." Even now.
In February 2009, Venus Williams railed against the UAE for barring Israeli Shahar Peer from a tennis tournament in Dubai. "My parents both came from the South in the '40s and '50s and just—you know, it was an outrage, really," Williams told SI during the U.S. Open. "Just like: Are you serious? Can you really exclude someone?" Husain Abdullah, an NFL defensive back, has fasted from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan since he was 7. This year, the Muslim holy month coincided with training camp. Somehow, he made it through. "A lot of people may look at things differently, but I feel it is required for us to fast," Abdullah told The New York Times. "And we've been fasting my whole life, pretty much. I try to protect my fasting because it really means a lot to me."
I'm still sad I didn't grow up to be Sandy Koufax, but his legacy remains. Thank God for that.