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Why Sandy Koufax Still Matters

November 7, 2015

 

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

 

The anniversary was the source of much speculation about lu yehi – “what if”, or “if only.”  People wonder what would have happened had Rabin not been shot, especially in terms of relations with the Palestinians.  The conversation is not too different from the kinds of discussions we Americans engaged in for decades after the assassination of President Kennedy.

 

As a history major, I recall the assessment of those who pointed to various statements and actions by Kennedy to support their contention that he would have kept us out of Viet Nam. And with equal passion, there were those who said they were able to “prove” that he was a cold war warrior who would have committed more troops to fight in South East Asia.

 

Similarly, there are those who point to Rabin’s signing a treaty with Arafat on the White House lawn and agreeing to the Oslo accord as evidence of his resolve and intent to continue to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians. They say history would be very different had Rabin lived and been able to continue his pursuit of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  And there are those who point to a number of actions he took and things he said in his final speech to the Knesset to arrive with equal certainty at the opposite conclusion.  They suggest that he would not have tolerated Arafat’s deceptions and duplicity and that the unrelenting terrorist attacks he unleashed would have led Rabin to reassess the trustworthiness of the Palestinians and of the whole process.

 

The truth is the exercise is futile because it is impossible to know what the outcome would have been and the direction history would have taken. World events do not take place in a vacuum, and any assessment must take into consideration external factors beyond the individual actors.

 

But there is another anniversary about which I want to speak this morning, one whose impact is far more certain. The truth is I am stretching it a little bit, because the anniversary actually occurred a month ago, on October 6 — but that’s because there was a time when the World Series took place in October.  However, since the fall classic just ended earlier this week, with the Kansas City Royals beating the New York Mets for the title, I feel I am on stable ground to speak about a baseball game that took place 50 years ago and which had reverberations way beyond a single game.

 

I am of course, referring to the decision by LA Dodgers all-star Sandy Koufax in October of 1965 to sit out the first game of the World Series because it took place on Yom Kippur.

 

While we may speculate about the impact of the loss of major historical figures, and I do not mean to minimize or trivialize or compare the two, but as author Neal Gabler wrote, “For American Jewish boys like me, Koufax’s gesture that day re-sanctified us.” He goes on to say about, in what may sound to be hyperbolic terms, “It is fair to say that we would never be the same.”

 

In an era when there were no divisional playoffs, and designated hitters and instant replay were not yet invented, when twitter did not yet exist, the world was very different.   Conformity was still the norm, and American Jews were afraid to be too assertive about their identity.  They were uncomfortable about proclaiming their Jewishness too loudly.  It was before the Six Day War, and Israel had not yet shown the world that Jews could stand up and defend themselves.

 

As Gabler pointed out, Koufax not only was a Jew, but he pitched like a Jew. Koufax wrote in his autobiography that when he pitched in the 1963 World Series against the Yankees he thought not just three or four batters ahead, but three or four innings ahead. He approached the game with a yiddishe cup.

 

More important than how he thought or played, he acted like a Jew. Not that he wore a shtreimel instead of a baseball cap, and not that he was so religious, but he was willing to take a stand and teach all of us, Jews and non-Jews about priorities, about values, identity and pride.

 

To this day, Koufax’s statistics are amazing.

 

In the five years before he retired from the game in 1966, he dominated the game, striking out 10 or more batters in 97 games, winning 25 or more games three seasons, and pitching no hitters in four consecutive seasons. He had an Earned Run Average one year of 1.73, and his ERA in four world series games was .95.  In 1965 he didn’t miss a start all season, and threw the most perfect game in baseball history in September. His incredible record led Yogi Berra to say, “I can see how he won 25 games. What I can’t understand is how he lost five.”

 

So his decision to sit out the first game of the World Series a month later, 50 years ago, when he had led the majors with 26 wins, was no minor thing for his team or for the legions of Dodgers fans.

 

Don Drysdale pitched instead that day and the Dodgers lost the first game 8 – 2. When he was clobbered by the opposing team’s batters, and taken out of the game, it is widely reported that he said to the manager Walter Alston, “I bet you wish I was Jewish.”

 

For those who wonder why I am sharing so many baseball stats with you today, I want you to know that God and the Torah express a great interest in baseball. In fact, the famous opening words of the Torah really were not meant to describe the creation of the world, but actually in truth, refer to an important baseball game.  That’s right.  The first words of Torah tell us, “In the big inning…”

 

Why was this event 50 years ago so significant and still reverberates today?

 

As I said, it is not that he was religious or particularly observant, but as Gabler writes, “What Koufax did was break the rule that Jews in America shouldn’t be too overt about their Jewishness.” By showing that one of America’s greatest rituals, the fall classic was secondary when compared to an important Jewish observance he taught us about priorities.  His act was an affirmation not just that he was Jewish, but a lesson every rabbi, regardless of affiliation, since the Talmud has attempted to make:  the primacy of Jewish values over secular values.

 

Koufax pitched the next day, in the second game of the series and lost. He came back four days later to shut out the Minnesota Twins in game five by striking out 10 and giving up only four hits.  It all came down to the last game, and even though he had only had two days rest, with the series tied 3 -3, he was called upon to pitch the seventh and final game.  He came through, allowing only three hits and pitched a shutout, clinching the pennant for the Dodgers.

 

To understand the gravity of his decision to sit out the first game of the World Series, keep in mind that his gesture came at a time when Jews changed their names and hid their identity in order to be accepted in American society. In order not to draw attention to their ethnicity, a Jew could be a Jew at home, but had to be an American in public.  Think – the TV show, “Mad Men.”

 

So here comes a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. With both his dazzling play and then courageous willingness to take a stand he inspired a whole generation of Jews to not be ashamed of being Jewish.

 

In the 1998 Coen brothers movie, “The Big Lebowski”, Walter Sobchak who converted to Judaism and continued to be Jewish even after divorcing his wife explained his pride in his adopted religion and captured the significance of it when he said, “three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax.”

 

Koufax’s act galvanized was so simple, but bold, and inspired young Jews then to be proud of our heritage, and still does today.

 

Our Torah portion today focuses, not on the Diaspora or baseball, but it does focus on the generation to come after Abraham. It was necessary after the death of Sarah for Isaac to find a wife and to fulfill the promise to perpetuate the people of Israel.  It was also necessary to show the link to the land of Israel.

 

As Yitzhak Rabin said in his final speech to the Knesset in October of 1995, “The Jewish people, which has known suffering and pain, has also known how to preserve its faith, its heritage and its tradition during thousands of years of exile, and has realized the dream of generations. We have, with our own eyes, been privileged to see the return to Zion, the return of the children to their borders.

 

“Here, in the land of Israel, we returned and built a nation. Here, in the land of Israel, we established a state. The land of the prophets, which bequeathed to the world the values of morality, law and justice, was, after two thousand years, restored to its lawful owners — the members of the Jewish people. On its land, we have built an exceptional national home and state.”

So regardless of which team we root for, or where we live – in Israel or as Jews in the Diaspora, may a single act remind us what is important, and how proud we should be to be Jews.

 


Also published on Medium.

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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.