Editorial Opinion

The Legacy of Sandy Koufax

By Ronald C. Kiener

I was 11 years old, and my hometown team was in the World Series. How great is that?

My Minnesota Twins, led by slugger Harmon Killebrew, had blasted through the American League with 102 wins. Our ace pitcher had 21 wins, and we boasted both the American League MVP and batting champion. This would be the very first World Series for Minneapolis and Saint Paul, for the Twins had only recently come to the ‘Land of Ten Thousand Lakes’ from Washington, D.C. (the team then was named the Senators). The Twins were to face the Los Angeles Dodgers, which had to win 13 of their last 14 games to squeak out the National League pennant in the final days of the season.

It would be another 22 long years before a baseball game would be played in Minnesota in October. But I didn’t know that at the time back in 1965. A child’s dream – my team was in the Fall Classic.

Except I remember none of it today. Not a single thing about the games. I remember one thing and one thing only – how proud I was as a Jewish suburban kid that Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers’ ace pitcher scheduled for Game One, was agonizing whether to play because the game fell that year on Yom Kippur.

Throughout his entire career, Koufax had taken off the Jewish High Holidays when they coincided with a scheduled start. The Dodgers organization was accommodating, for Koufax would simply pitch on short rest the day before so he could assure himself a day off for Jewish observance. But there was no ‘day before’ when it came to Game One of the World Series.

I knew nothing of baseball’s history. I did not know that in 1934 at season’s end Hank Greenberg played during a tight pennant race for the Detroit Tigers on Rosh HaShanah, but declined to play an even more pennant-deciding game nine days later on Yom Kippur. This, in a Detroit that had given America a Father Coughlin and a Henry Ford.

On Rosh HaShanah, Greenberg belted out two homers — the only runs scored by Detroit in a must-have victory. The next day, the Detroit Free Press ran a headline wishing Greenberg a happy new year in Hebrew!

But then Greenberg announced he would be out on Yom Kippur.

On game day the Free Press published a poem by gentile poet Edgar Guest:

“Came Yom Kippur — holy fast day world wide 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!’”

I knew none of this. I wasn’t even bar mitzvah.

In Minnesota, my Hebrew school chums wondered: Would he or wouldn’t he? Would Koufax play? If not, where would he go to pray? Since Game One was being played in the Twin Cities, we all wondered if Koufax would show up at our shul. That week, my buddies and I from the community Talmud Torah traded rumors of “Sandy” sightings at Beth El, at Adath, at Tiferet, at Temple Israel, and at Bnai Abe. Would Koufax be davening with us?

Alas, none of my friends could produce a confirmed report that the man with the golden arm had visited a shul in the Twin Cities. There is no doubt that down to this day the Jews of the Twin Cities have a collective memory that Koufax was amongst us. Years later, however, it was reported Koufax stayed in his hotel that day. To this day I do not know.

We beat up on the replacement Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale that first game at Metropolitan Stadium. After Drysdale had given up seven runs in three innings, Dodgers manager Smokey Alston came out to the mound to pull his replacement starter. Quipped Drysdale to Alston as he handed over the ball: “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.”

The next day, the Twins even beat Koufax. Three games in Los Angeles – one pitched by Koufax – were all won by the Dodgers. Back at the Met, the Twins won Game Six, and then it was Koufax a third time in Game Seven. And we were completely shut out.

I don’t recall mourning my home team’s bitter Game Seven loss at home. I don’t honestly remember anything about the games.

But I have never forgotten what Sandy Koufax did for a generation of American Jews.

Ronald Kiener is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board 
of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

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