Sandy Koufax's refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur still resonates

A half-century later, Sandy Koufax is remembered as much for what he didn't do in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series against the Twins as what he did do in three other games of the series. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Half a century ago, when Los Angeles Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax chose not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur, Elliot Strom was a 15-year-old baseball fan in Toronto. After attending services that morning, Strom, who acknowledges that at the time he "wasn't the best synagogue attender in the world," told his father he planned to stay home that afternoon and watch the World Series on TV rather than return for late services. This did not go over well.

"My father was very unhappy with me,'' Strom recalls. "He said, 'The star pitcher for the Dodgers is not going to pitch in the game. This is the kind of commitment he's showing. Where is your commitment?'"

So Strom did not watch the game at home. Instead, he spent the holiest day in the Jewish calendar in synagogue. And he, like countless other Jewish fans, never forgot the significance of Koufax's decision.

"For kids growing up then, there was a sense of, 'Here is someone on the world stage,'" Strom says. "You could think of a million good arguments why he should go and pitch that day. But if not pitching was that important and the right thing to do, that ought to tell the rest of us something.

"He was important for all of us from then on because he made that commitment.''

Strom, now 65, is the rabbi emeritus at Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown, Pennsylvania. He says it would be a great story if he became a rabbi because of Koufax, but it took him several more years to find his way into a more observant life. Still, what Koufax did on Yom Kippur 50 years ago was always in the back of Strom's mind.

"He became the great hero,'' he says. "For American Jews, what Koufax did was huge.''

Of course, for many Dodgers fans, what the legendary left-hander would go on to do in Game 7 of that series looms as equally large as what he didn't do in Game 1. But that's getting ahead of the story.

While it stretched to the full seven games, the 1965 World Series was not an autumn classic in the sense that it featured tight, close games. Only one game was decided by fewer than four runs, and only once did a team rally from a deficit -- and that was simply a one-run hole that lasted just half an inning. In addition to Koufax's Game 1 decision, what also made the '65 Series significant was who was playing ... and who was not.

The Dodgers had been in -- and won -- the World Series as recently as 1963, but it was an entirely new experience for the Twins and their fans. The team had played in Minnesota for only five summers; owner Calvin Griffith moved the Washington Senators there in 1961. Prior to that relocation, the franchise hadn't reached the World Series since 1932.

Meanwhile, the New York Yankees spent October at home for the first time in six years. New York had played in 14 of the 16 previous World Series, winning nine of them. Then along came the Twins, who had finished tied for sixth the previous season but won the 1965 pennant by seven games behind a hard-hitting lineup that included future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, three-time American League batting champ Tony Oliva and shortstop/sparkplug Zoilo Versalles as well as a rotation led by ace Jim Kaat and 21-game-winner Mudcat Grant. New York, to the relief -- and delight -- of many, would not reach the World Series for another 11 years.

"In those days it was always the Yankees in the World Series,'' Oliva says. "We won [the pennant] in 1965 and changed that in the American League. After that, the Yankees didn't win again for a long time. We showed that the Yankees can be beat. I think that was good for baseball.''

The Dodgers had a much more challenging time winning the National League pennant that season. They battled the rival San Francisco Giants all season -- including, literally, the infamous Juan Marichal-John Roseboro incident in late August -- and were 4½ games back with just 16 left. The Dodgers won 15 of those remaining 16 games -- a stretch preceded by Koufax's perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 9 -- and won the pennant by two games.

They did so almost entirely on the shoulders of their pitchers because their offense was among the worst of any team that ever reached the World Series. Los Angeles scored just 608 runs and hit only 78 home runs during the 1965 regular season. Its offense was so anemic, a pitcher was one of the most potent sluggers on the team: right-hander Don Drysdale belted seven home runs and led the entire roster with an .839 OPS. The Dodgers' offense was so poor, in fact -- or perhaps Drysdale, like 2014 World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner, was that good -- that Los Angeles manager Walter Alston used Drysdale as a pinch hitter in Game 2 of the series with runners on second and third.

The World Series opened in Minnesota. Back then, the Twins played at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, where the Mall of America now stands. Minnesotans, who had also hosted the All-Star Game that summer, were thrilled to see their team in the World Series -- as were many other baseball fans in the Upper Midwest. New Yorker writer Roger Angell noted seeing license plates from many surrounding states at the ballpark. "The infection seemed absolute,'' he wrote. "Perhaps not the loudest case of baseball fever I've ever experienced but one of the happiest.''

The ceremonial first pitch of the series was thrown out by then-U.S. vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, a proud Minnesotan for whom the Twins' next home -- the Metrodome -- would be named. But again, of much more significance was who wasn't pitching that game.

The famously reclusive Koufax, now 79, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is not regarded as a particularly devout Jew, but he never pitched during Yom Kippur in his career. In 1961, he did pitch a night game after the day of atonement officially ended at sundown. He threw 205 pitches over 13 innings while striking out 15 to beat the Cubs that game.

Koufax later said he did not agonize over whether to pitch Game 1 of the '65 World Series.

"Most people admired Koufax for putting his religion before his job. I'm sure there were others who were furious, saying that he wasn't that religious -- and I don't think he really was -- but that didn't make any difference. It was his decision and everyone respected it. They understood." Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully

"There was no hard decision for me," Koufax told ESPN in 2000. "It was just a thing of respect. I wasn't trying to make a statement, and I had no idea that it would impact that many people."

Nor was it an issue with his Dodgers teammates.

"Nobody said a word. Nobody thought a bad thing about him,'' says Wes Parker, the first baseman on that 1965 L.A. team. "We respected him because he was doing it because of his religion. He was being true to himself.''

Second baseman and 1965 rookie of the year Jim Lefebvre agrees, saying while the media might have made a fuss about Koufax's decision, the Dodgers simply didn't care. "Whatever Sandy wanted to do, we were all on board,'' he says.

"Most people admired Koufax for putting his religion before his job,'' longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully says. "I'm sure there were others who were furious, saying that he wasn't that religious -- and I don't think he really was -- but that didn't make any difference. It was his decision, and everyone respected it. They understood.''

John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, was born to two Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1947. The family immigrated to America in 1949, and Thorn fell in love with baseball. Thorn was in college when Koufax chose not to pitch on Yom Kippur.

"What struck me [about his decision], as an 18-year-old, was that America must be a very great place,'' Thorn says. "That a Jew cannot only profess his faith openly but take a stance for his religion in opposition to the national religion -- and baseball is America's national religion.''

Plus, it wasn't like the Dodgers were reduced to starting, say, Mat Latos in Koufax's place. As Thorn says, there wasn't much of a drop-off with Drysdale, a future Hall of Famer who was 23-12 with a 2.77 ERA in 1965 (not to mention those seven homers).

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Drysdale did not fare well against Minnesota in Game 1. The Twins scored seven runs off him in less than three innings in their eventual 8-2 victory, as both Versalles and Don Mincher homered.

Minnesota roughed up the big right-hander so badly that when manager Walter Alston came out to the mound to relieve him, Drysdale quipped, "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.''

Koufax, the Dodgers' ace, soon-to-be Cy Young winner and newly minted Jewish hero, started Game 2. And he lost 5-1.

He didn't pitch badly. Twins Game 2 starter Jim Kaat recalls seeing Koufax warm up close to him and telling pitching coach Johnny Sain, "If I give up a run, this game is over. I don't see anyone hitting this guy.''

Koufax held the Twins scoreless until the sixth inning, when Oliva doubled in the game's first run and scored the second (the first was unearned). Alston had Drysdale pinch hit for Koufax in the seventh inning, and the Twins went on to score three runs off reliever Ron Perranoski and take a 2-0 lead in the series as it shifted to Los Angeles.

"We got on the plane to come back,'' Lefebvre says. "I was sitting up in the front, and Don looked at Sandy and said, 'Boy we got ourselves in a hell of a mess.' And then they just laughed, like it was a big joke. I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wow, they're almost having fun with it.' For me, losing the first two games of the World Series was devastating. But they were simply like, 'Where do we go from here?'

"That's just the way they were, guys who knew how to win. They knew we would come back and make it into a series.''

Back at Dodger Stadium for Game 3, left-hander Claude Osteen shut out the Twins 4-0. Drysdale beat them the next day 7-2 to even the series. And then Koufax shut out Minnesota, allowing four hits in a 7-0 win in Game 5 to move the Dodgers one victory away from winning the series.

"When I faced Sandy in Los Angeles, he did something to me that no other pitcher did to me before: He threw me five fastballs in a row that I didn't touch," says Oliva, who struck out twice in Game 5. "I swung and I missed completely. The bat never touched the ball. It looked like the ball saw the bat and moved. Really, that's what it looked like.

"After the game, I told my wife, 'Honey, I have to go see the eye doctor. I think something is wrong with my eyes because I never swing at five fastballs in a row and never touch the ball.' But I did against Sandy. He was great."

The Twins recovered, though -- as they usually do when the World Series returns to Minnesota. They have played 12 World Series home games in their history and lost only once. (Of course, they also have never won a World Series road game.) The Twins beat Osteen and the Dodgers 5-1 in Game 6 to send the series to a climactic, winner-take-all final game.

The question was, who would start for Los Angeles: Drysdale on full rest or Koufax on just two days' rest? This time religion had nothing to do with the decision.

Parker was so distraught over the Game 6 loss he cried in the clubhouse bathroom. "I felt like we were going to lose Game 7. I thought we were dead," he says. "We really took the Twins to task in Los Angeles and beat them up. And then to lose that type of momentum just because we went back to Minnesota? We had lost three straight in Minnesota. I didn't think Drysdale could shut them down. I think they would have beaten Drysdale.''

Scully recalls both Koufax and Drysdale warming up in the bullpen before Game 7 while Alston pondered whom to start.

"[Alston] opted for Koufax only because if Drysdale started and he got in trouble, Koufax took a long time to warm up,'' Scully says. "So he decided to go with Koufax. If needed, Drysdale would warm up in a hurry. That was the big decision of the whole series.''

"What Madison Bumgarner did in last year's World Series [a shutout in Game 5 and five scoreless innings of relief in Game 7] was certainly terrific and unusual in today's game. But think about Sandy pitching a shutout in Game 5 and another shutout in Game 7 [of the 1965 World Series] on two days' rest -- both complete games." Twins starter Jim Kaat, Koufax's opponent in both games

Kaat was likewise starting on two days' rest. "I just knew that if I gave up a run, there was a pretty good chance we weren't going to win,'' he says. "And I gave up two runs on three consecutive pitches.''

That was in the fourth inning, when Dodgers outfielder Lou Johnson hooked a home run around the left-field foul pole. Right fielder Ron Fairly followed up with a double, and Parker added a run-scoring single. The Dodgers led 2-0, and Koufax ensured it held up.

"After the first or second inning, he got better and better and better,'' Oliva says. "He couldn't be touched.''

Koufax did so even though he didn't have his curveball working at all and barely threw it after the first couple of innings. The Twins had their final scoring chance in the fifth inning, when Frank Quilici doubled with one out and Rich Rollins walked to put runners at first and second.

That brought up Versalles, the league MVP, who drilled a shot down the third-base line. Third baseman Junior Gilliam was able to backhand the ball behind the bag, then step on third to force out Quilici. Koufax then retired Joe Nossek on a grounder, and the Twins never threatened again, reaching base only once in the final four innings. Koufax struck out Bob Allison to end the game.

Not surprisingly, Koufax was named series MVP.

"What Bumgarner did in last year's World Series [a shutout in Game 5 and five scoreless innings of relief in Game 7] was certainly terrific and unusual in today's game,'' Kaat says, "but think about Sandy pitching a shutout in Game 5 and another shutout in Game 7 on two days' rest -- both complete games.''

"Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax."
-- Walter Sobchak, talking about his Jewish faith, in "The Big Lebowski"

This summer, Koufax was voted -- along with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Johnny Bench -- one of MLB's "Franchise Four" Greatest Living Players. Koufax received a thundering ovation when introduced at the All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

"Koufax is still absolutely revered,'' Thorn says. "And not merely by Jews.''

Koufax wasn't the first prominent Jewish player to decline to play on Yom Kippur. In 1934, Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg chose to sit out a game near the end of the pennant race. Both Thorn and Strom say Greenberg's decision was more historically important because of the era in which it was made. Hitler had taken in power in Germany, and the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws would be introduced the next year.

"I remember my dad telling me about Greenberg,'' Strom says. "He was the player for the Tigers, and they were in a pennant race and he had chosen to play on Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year] but not on Yom Kippur. In some ways, that was an even bigger deal because the atmosphere in the mid-1930s was a whole lot more negative toward Jewish Americans than it was by the mid '60s.

"But it wasn't the World Series. [Koufax] was missing the World Series.''

That's what made his decision not to pitch so significant, as well as the most remembered part of that World Series. In her bestselling 2002 biography of Koufax, author Jane Leavy wrote that, decades later, she decided she would not work on the high holidays because of what Koufax did in 1965. "By refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience," Leavy wrote. "He was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sandy. A moral exemplar, and single too! (Such a catch!)"

And Thorn says Koufax became -- and remains -- a hero to millions.

"When Sandy took his stance,'' Thorn says, "it made me proud to be Jewish, proud to be an American and proud to be a baseball fan.''