A Lesson for Today: Koufax Follows His Faith

This month’s column is about religion, democracy, sports and, of course, the 1960s – a connection that makes us think a bit about ourselves, what we stand for, and what America is today.

For sure, the ’60s was a period of strong pitchers in baseball. One of the strongest was the southpaw Dodger ace, Sanford (“Sandy”) Koufax (b. 1935), who helped the Dodgers sweep the Yankees in the 1963 World Series, striking out a record 15 batters in Game 1. The Dodgers were back in the series against the Twins in ’65, and, no surprise – Koufax was slated to pitch the opener. He’d just had the best year of his career, after all, leading the majors with 26 wins and a 2.04 ERA, striking out 382 batters, shattering the next best single season record of Bob Feller’s by 34.

This year of all years, it seemed natural and fitting for Koufax to take the mound to open the Series . . . except there was a hitch.

The first game of the World Series – October 6 – happened to fall on the holiest of Jewish holy days – Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and for Koufax, his faith came before his career. He would go on to pitch in Games 2, 5, and 7 and help his team win the championship, but not Game 1. That day, Koufax would observe his faith off the field, away from the crowds, away from the stadium, apart from his team, at the St. Paul Hotel. His fellow pitching ace, 6’5″ Don Drysdale, opened.

I understand that Koufax actually pitched on Yom Kippur in the years before 1961, and irregularly on such Jewish holidays as Rosh Hashanah and Passover, but not afterwards. His faith increased, or maybe his faith made him good. After all, 1920s Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire said, “God made me fast.” Koufax may have believed this too, since, in his most formidable years – from 1962-1965 – Koufax became firmest in this faith.

Koufax’s boss, Walter O’Malley, implied the possibility of faith being an intensely personal and sustaining thing – perhaps the very secret of Koufax’s success, stating to the press “I won’t let Sandy pitch on Yom Kippur under any circumstances. I can’t let the boy do that to himself.”

The great 1981 British historical sports drama, Chariots of Fire, appears an apt comparison here indeed. Don Drysdale is Harold Abrahams to Sandy Koufax’s Eric Liddell “who wouldn’t run on Sundays” in the 1924 Olympics.

Koufax was quoted as saying to UPI’s Milton Richman that “a man is entitled to his belief and I believe I should not work on Yom Kippur. It’s as simple as all that and I have never had any trouble on that account since I’ve been in baseball.” If he did not credit his faith directly, it appeared as a given in his life and work as an athlete.

It turned out that 1965 capped a kind of shooting-star career, since Koufax retired the following season after just a decade. And he went into history not only a legend in sport but a legend to his people Рthe American Jewish community.  Sports Illustrated writer, Josh Rosengreen, quotes a certain Hasidic rabbi named Moshe Feller, 78, who was in Minnesota for the Series, reflected decades later that he thought that what happened on Yom Kippur that day in 1965 (two years before the terrible 1967 Arab-Israeli War) inspired every Jew around the country, and made Koufax better-known than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!

Now 86, Koufax remains only the most remembered of Jews who struggled to balance the requirements of MLB and faith. One is tempted to say that hadn’t Koufax been as good as he was, he couldn’t have opted out. Maybe, but the amazing tale of the mere 160 Jews in the history of the game includes many “opt-outers” like Detroit Tigers star Hank Greenberg from the 1930s, Al Rosen of Cleveland in the 1950s, Jesse Levis of the 1990s Brewers, or Shawn Green, recently retired from the Dodgers.

The relationship of sports to faith is a private matter, I suppose for most athletes – only occasionally sensationalized in, for example, whether to stand for the National Anthem or the ability of a high school football team to pray before a game.

Koufax reminds us, however, that, though mostly private, the assertion of faith as a decider of action in the public square remains a powerful option that many Americans refuse to relinquish casually. Whether in wedding cakes for gay couples, abortion, or issues of contraception, it symbolizes discretion, the freedom to choose, and individual prerogatives – literally a sacred right of conscience, .

Lately we have bluntly tested the appeals to faith as a bulwark against government mandates: May a minister keep his church open amidst COVID? ¬†Must an employer like Walter O’Malley honor an opt-out of a vaccine based on religiously-based objections?

The 1960s certainly appears to bring up an issue to discuss that balances faith and competition, faith and business, faith and sport. If Koufax had been forced that October day to pitch, he might have won the opener that Drysdale lost. But somehow, the contour of life that comes from free will and responsibility might fade. And I suppose it’s best to ask if something is lost across a society if mandates preclude discretion, the power of mandates blocks the power of faith, the individual bows to the state without options.

“The ’60s Today strikes again, making us think. This time through sport. What about a religious exemption for the Wuhan virus vaccine? Must we all “run on Sundays?”

What would Sandy say?

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