Catching up with the baseball legend, as the 50th anniversary of his iconic Yom Kippur day off approaches. An exclusive Jewish Week interview.
“I can’t picture people talking about me 50 years from now.”
— Sandy Koufax in a 1965 Sports Illustrated interview.
Glendale, Ariz. — Baseballs in hand, Kyle Leibel, a 14-year-old fan from East Meadow, L.I., and John Fuchs, a pal from Phoenix, patrolled the grounds of the Los Angeles Dodgers spring training site here one recent morning, looking for autographs.
In the early days of the Dodgers’ preparation for the 2014 season, the teens, among dozens of other fans, chased down pitchers and catchers, traditionally the first players to report to spring training.
Then Steven Leibel, Kyle’s father, steered them to a scrum of fans pressed against a chain link fence, clamoring for an autograph from a white-haired senior citizen.
Kyle and his friend didn’t know much about the former player — Sandy Koufax — at the center of the fans’ attention, but Steven Leibel quickly filled them in: Koufax, now 78, is a long-retired Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher, the wielder of an overpowering fastball and a drop-off-a-table curveball who dominated National League hitters for an unmatched six-year stretch in the early 1960s. He retired at 30 because of an arthritic left arm, and cemented his reputation in the Jewish community for declining to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Koufax noticed the teens across the fence. “Are you out of school?” he kidded them. “You shouldn’t be out of school.”
The question was rhetorical. Kyle and John didn’t answer. They got his autograph. “Thank you, Mr. Koufax,” they yelled. Then they ran off, in search of other, younger players. But before they did, Steven Leibel made sure they knew what they had: “You got the autograph of the century.”
Welcome to the life of Sandy Koufax, No. 32, a reluctant hero who, in an age of selfies and Twitter, has carved out a rare zone of privacy for himself. When he does venture into the public eye, his signature is in demand. Next season, though, the 50th anniversary of arguably the most famous game a major league pitcher did not pitch, Koufax will likely find himself in a brighter spotlight. The subject of countless sermons and newspaper columns and bar/bat mitzvah speeches in the last 49 years, that game, that decision, that moment that served as a touchstone of an emerging Jewish confidence in this country, will likely be recalled again in the Jewish community, and perhaps beyond.
This season — the Dodgers open against the Arizona Diamondbacks on March 22 and 23 in Australia — will be Koufax’s last before American Jewry relives that World Series, before the 2015 commemorations begin, before the onslaught of historical essays and requests for his thoughts.
Not that he’s likely to answer many questions or make many personal appearances. Koufax notoriously avoids making himself a celebrity, an elusiveness that has undoubtedly added to his mystique. He rarely grants interviews.
But for reasons he did not reveal, he agreed to be interviewed by The Jewish Week that morning at spring training, two days before he was struck in the head by a foul ball during the team’s batting practice. (He was shaken, received treatment by the Dodgers’ trainer, and was OK the next day.)
It was a sunny, unusually warm winter week in this Phoenix suburb. Outfitted in a white golf shirt, cargo shorts and running shoes, Koufax sat at a small beach table outside the Dodgers’ headquarters, in the shadow of an umbrella, a pair of sunglasses over his eyes. He’s still in shape, his grip strong; he looks at least 10 years younger than his age.
Koufax spoke for about a half-hour, in short replies, sharing — as is his wont — snippets of his career but nothing about his inner life. He was civil, courteous; but being subjected to an interview was clearly painful; he looked like a hitter must have looked at the plate, facing a Koufax fastball. Public self-reflection is not his comfort zone.
After introductions, the conversation turned quickly to Yom Kippur of 1965, which fell during the Dodgers-Minnesota Twins World Series; it is the subject that most interests Jewish fans. Yet Koufax wrote virtually nothing about it in his 1966 autobiography, devoting two paragraphs to the historic game. “I had already pitched and lost the second game because of the coincidence of the opening game falling on Yom Kippur,” he wrote, looking back at his start in game 2. “There was never any decision to make … because there was never any possibility that I would pitch. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows that I don’t work that day.”
A reader does not learn from the autobiography how Koufax spent that day (reportedly in his room at the ritzy St. Paul Hotel a few blocks from the banks of the Mississippi), if he prayed, if he fasted, if he followed the game on TV or radio, if he looked out the window at downtown St. Paul or at rowers from the Minnesota Boat Club, which is housed on a small island across from the hotel.
“You’re not going to learn about that now,” Koufax told The Jewish Week.
What he did that day in ’65 was private; he never talks publicly about it.
Taking off on Yom Kippur wasn’t a big deal, he said. “It was something I always did.” In 11 previous seasons with the Dodgers, in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles, he had taken off Yom Kippur, which had occurred during the regular season, he said. He had adjusted his pitching schedule each year to make up for the missed start, while spending the holiday with his parents.
Yom Kippur in 1965 drew more notice, Koufax said, only because of the confluence with the World Series.
Why didn’t he play that game?
It’s as simple as that?
“It’s as simple as that,” Koufax said.
He wasn’t trying to make a statement about Jewish pride?
Did anyone — owners, management, teammates — pressure him to start the Series, a pitcher’s most prestigious assignment?
He shook his head. “No pressure.”
Was it a risk — could he endanger his standing with the team?
Did the other Dodgers ask him, when he showed up to pitch the next day, what he had done on Yom Kippur? Did they ask anything about the holiday?
“No discussion.” They were used to his absence on the Day of Atonement; then, back to business.
Did he have any idea that that day of rest — barely a month after he pitched his fourth and final career no-hitter, this time a perfect game — would make him an icon?
He shook his head. “No.”
When did he start to realize that, for many Jewish fans, he would become more famous for the one game he didn’t pitch than for the hundreds he did?
The buzz began, a little, the next year; the momentum built afterwards. “There have been 49 years since then,” Koufax said.
Does the ongoing fuss surprise him?
“I wasn’t the first” — the first Jewish star to sit out a Yom Kippur game, he said, trying to deflect the focus from him. “Hank Greenberg did it.”
Greenberg is the Hall of Fame first baseman for the Detroit Tigers; his Yom Kippur off came in 1934, during the end of the Tigers’ successful drive for the American League championship.
Koufax answered several questions, declined to answer others, then stood up and walked into the Dodgers’ headquarters building.
‘In the Jewish Ether’
He spent a few hours that morning tending to his official duties, working with Dodger pitchers as a part-time instructor — his official title is Special Advisor to Dodgers’ Chairman Mark Walter — while along the way giving his autograph to fans who held out balls or programs or old baseball cards for a signature scribbled by the most famous left hand in American Jewish history.
Most of the people who walked in front of the barricades, Dodger employees and members of the media, wore cardboard i.d. badges on strings around their neck. Koufax didn’t. “He doesn’t need a staff i.d.,” said Steven Brener, the team’s longtime public relations adviser.
A few hundred fans, of all ages and genders and ethnic backgrounds, gathered around a small grassy field at the spring training site – it looks like a modest community college, low-slung buildings scattered among green fields – that morning a few hours before Koufax was due to show up. “They’re all here for him,” Brener pronounced.
In an era of over-hyped and over-commercialized athletes, Koufax is a throwback. Nearly five decades after he stopped pitching, his star has not dimmed, his reputation as a superstar and as a mensch still intact. “Forget the other fellow,” legendary manager Casey Stengel once said of Walter Johnson, an early-20th-Century pitcher who still ranks second in the major leagues in career wins. Stengel had faced Johnson at bat. “The Jewish kid is probably the best of them,” Stengel said.
Today, Koufax’s player card is a must-have in the Jewish Major Leaguers (jewishmajorleaguers.org) collection, a ball signed by him occupies a space of honor in Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, his picture shares space with 2012 Olympic gymnast Aly Reisman on the cover of the updated “Jewish Sports Stars: Athletic heroes past and present” (Kar-Ben Publishing).
He was the symbolic final draft pick in the now-defunct Israel Baseball League’s sole season in 2011, taken by the Modi’in Miracles.
All because of one game in which he sat out.
Koufax’s decision to observe Yom Kippur in 1965 didn’t attract particular attention in the media at first. The New York Times and New York Post reported matter-of-factly that he would miss the start because that day was “the holiest Jewish holiday.” The Daily News was on strike that week. This newspaper’s predecessor, the Jewish Week & American Examiner, made no mention of the game.
But, through word of mouth in Jewish circles, everyone knew. Over time, that game assumed mythic proportions.
“There are three things any self-respecting Jewish boy should want to grow up to be: a doctor, a lawyer, or Sandy Koufax,” freelance writer Alan Seigel wrote in 2010. “A generation of young Jews considered him ‘the greatest Jew in America,’” Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna tells The Jewish Week. “In an era when lots of Jews thought it was best to keep their Judaism quiet,” Koufax’s act “gave some Jews courage to be outwardly Jewish in other ways — by wearing a Jewish symbol, demonstrating for Soviet Jews, or the like.”
The missed World Series start “was in the Jewish ether after ’65,” says Steven Schnur, a Scarsdale author and college instructor whose 1997 book about a fifth-grader who is supposed to pitch an important game for his team on the first night of Passover is titled “The Koufax Dilemma” (William Morrow). Koufax, Schnur says, “was the universal symbol of a Jew who made a choice that we as a community admired.
“It has nothing to do with an Orthodox lifestyle,” or with a commitment to observance of halacha, says Schnur, who identifies himself as a committed Reform Jew.
Koufax, who grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, was (and remains, as far as is known) devoutly secular, with little formal Jewish education and (according to all accounts) no bar mitzvah. He intermarried twice and divorced twice; he has no children.
“A secular, non-practicing Jew,” is Jane Leavy’s description in “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” (Harper Perennial, 2002). A secular Jew who became a symbol for the entire Jewish community, Koufax committed an act of respect for Jewish tradition that even reached into Orthodox circles.
“As we boys huddled in the lobby of shul that Kol Nidrei night the talk was not on Teshuva [repentance], rather it was on Koufax,” Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, a haredi spiritual leader who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Passaic, N.J., wrote last year on the aish.com website.
That Yom Kippur game came only two decades after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, two years before Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War, which gave American Jews a boost of pride.
“When Sandy Koufax stated that he would not pitch on Yom Kippur, many Jews in America stood a little taller and had a better sense of self-worth and Jewish pride. That was as true in the Orthodox observant community as it was in the general Jewish community,” says Rabbi Berel Wein, an Orthodox scholar and historian who now lives in Jerusalem. “His refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur influenced that generation of American Jews to become more publicly assertive and to be less ashamed of their Jewishness. The decision of Koufax to do the Jewish thing so publicly and in such a quintessential American setting as the World Series pumped a new confidence into that generation of American Jews.”
A new expression entered the US lexicon – to “pull a Koufax;” i.e., to do the right thing when faced with a moral quandary. Or, in a specifically Jewish context, to put Judaism first.
Koufax “always put team before self, modesty before fame and God before the World Series,” Sports Illustrated declared in 1999 in naming him number one in the magazine’s list of “Favorite Athletes of the Century.”
For many Americans, Koufax’s decision to sit out a World Series game transcended Greenberg’s similar decision.
“What makes Koufax’s episode so enduring,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University, “is the reaction of the baseball world — Christian world — to his decision.”
Koufax’s announcement that he would not pitch on Yom Kippur “was met with wide understanding and tolerance and constituted a reflection of the new levels of acceptance Jews were beginning to feel in the 1960s,” Gurock says. “It symbolized acceptance for our minority faith in an increasingly pluralistic world.”
Koufax helped define a new type of Jew and a new type of athlete, David Kaufman writes in “Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity – Sandy Koufax, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand” (Brandeis University Press, 2012).
Kaufman, an associate professor of religion at Hofstra University, defines Jewhooing:as “Jewish celebrity consciousness.” His book studies four prominent, quintessential Jewish celebrities who represented a generational change in Jewish image.
“Koufax embodied the “Jewish” quality of intelligence –he was a gentleman and a scholar – a trait valued in baseball far more than in other sports,” Kaufman writes. “Koufax had become the ultimate symbol of Jewish American success, powerfully demonstrating that Jews could succeed in a non-Jewish world while retaining the best of themselves as Jews: integration without assimilation, Americanism without goyism.”
‘In most people’s estimation, he is a ‘Super Jew” … a “nice Jewish boy,” in contrast to comic Lenny Bruce’s edgy, profane persona, Kaufman says in an email interview. “It’s all far more complicated than we usually admit.
“Was it just the simple notion that we welcomed having our tradition welcomed by the national pastime, or was it also some indication of our own guilt and self-criticism for not building an American Jewish culture/community that would make such self-sacrifice self-evident?
“I think the typical Jewish male’s adoration of Koufax … is a bit sad and even pathetic, inasmuch as it functions as compensation for feelings of unmanliness and emasculation that are all-too-characteristic of American Jewish men,” Kaufman told The Jewish Week.
According to Sports Illustrated, Koufax once told Rabbi Hillel Silverman, a veteran spiritual leader who has served congregations in California and Connecticut, “I’m Jewish. I’m a role model. I want them” — other Jews — “to understand they have to have pride.”
Jewish fans often tell him, “Thank you for not pitching,” Koufax says.
He says he talked about his 1965 decision with Shawn Green, a Jewish major leaguer from 1993 to 2007 (he spent time with the Dodgers and Mets), who twice faced his own Yom Kippur dilemma, “I didn’t tell him what to do.”
A growing number of Jewish athletes in the major leagues, the NFL and college football are facing the same decision about playing or praying. Almost all opt to play, citing their responsibilities to their teammates.
Does Koufax think they’re making a wrong decision?
“I don’t judge,” he says.
The day after Yom Kippur in 1965, Koufax was visited at his hotel in St. Paul by Rabbi Moshe Feller, a Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic leader. The desk clerk “probably figured I’m his rabbi,” Rabbi Feller said of his access to the star. The rabbi came with a set of tefillin.
Koufax accepted the gift. Rabbi Feller did not report if Koufax donned the tefillin that day. Either does Koufax. “He gave me the tefillin,” he says.
Since retiring, Koufax, who has lived in California and Maine, now resides in Vero Beach, Fla.; He’s taken up fishing and golf and marathon running. He has worked, at times, as a minor league pitching coach, as a broadcaster for NBC and as an instructor for the New York Mets, who are owned by Fred Wilpon, a high school teammate.
He did not return to the University of Cincinnati, which he left when he signed with the Dodgers; he did not take up architecture, his college major.
How does he spend his time nowadays?
“I keep busy.”
Usually, by design, out of the public eye. .Many people who heard about this upcoming story asked, “Is he still alive?”
“Koufax didn’t want to grow old being Sandy Koufax,” being famous for being famous, Jane Leavy wrote in her biography.
“This is not an authorized biography,” Leavy once said of her book, which is regarded as the definitive book on Koufax. “Reluctantly tolerated is more like it. Koufax made it clear to me from the very beginning that he had no interest in participating in this project financially or editorially.” Neither did Koufax actively oppose the book, she said in a Q&A near the end of the biography. “If it was going to be done, he wanted it to be done right. Thus, he gave me access to his friends, no small item, and agreed to verify matters of personal history.”
“Koufax’s reluctance to speak about himself extended even to his family,” Edward Gruver writes in “Koufax” (Taylor Publishing Company, 2000). “When his autobiography was published in 1966, his mother read it so she could learn more about her famous son. ‘You never tell me anything,’ she told him.”
“Koufax might be,” the Bleacher Report website opined in 2010, “the most famous hermit left in American ‘public’ life … after the death of J.D. Salinger earlier this year.” His occasional public forays — throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at the Dodgers’ opening home game in 2008, attending a White House reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month in 2010 — are headline news.
“Here’s a Sandy Koufax shocker: He’ll spend a night in the spotlight,” the Los Angeles Times stated in 2010 when Koufax agreed to appear at a fund-raising dinner for manager Joe Torre’s Safe at Home foundation, which combats domestic abuse.
"I’m not a loner. I’m not a hermit,” Koufax says in his interview with The Jewish Week. “I go to movies. I go to restaurants.”
The autograph seekers are often rewarded.
Robert Trujillo, 72, who grew up in New Mexico listening to the Dodgers’ games on radio, says he drove from his current home in Southern California to the spring training site in Glendale to get a pair of Koufax autographs for his grandchildren. He achieved his goal that day.
Steven Leibel, 51, who came from Long Island, says he heard Sandy Koufax stories as a kid from his father, a “rabid” baseball fan. Mostly, he heard about Yom Kippur 1965. “That was his top story. He kept telling that story.” Koufax’s decision that year “said the Jewish religion is more important than a baseball game.”
Now it’s Leibel’s top story. “My wife is from Israel. She doesn’t know baseball, but she loves to keep hearing that story.”
Leibel says his kids are too young to appreciate Koufax’s impact. They’ll hear more as they grow older — as Kyle did the other day here, when he got Koufax’s autograph.
The Koufax stories, the tale of the ’65 World Series, won’t stop with his children, Leibel says. He hopes his children will carry on the family tradition. “Hopefully they’ll to continue tell that story to their children.”
ADD YOUR COMMENT
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.