Sandy Koufax responded to a higher calling on Yom Kippur in 1965
Drysdale, a 23-game winner during the 1965 season, could not make it through the third inning of Game 1, as the Twins batted around in a six-run outburst. With an early 7-1 lead, Minnesota coasted on Grant’s pitching to an 8-2 victory in the 1965 Series lid-lifter.
Attempting his version of gallows humor, Drysdale is reported to have asked Dodgers manager Walter Alston if he wished “I was Jewish today, too,” so that Drysdale also would not have pitched on Yom Kippur.
Koufax’s decision to not play on Yom Kippur was not without precedent, even though this time the holiday fell during the World Series. Detroit Tigers star Hank Greenberg won the hearts of Detroiters by playing – and hitting two home runs – on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in 1934. Doing so helped lift the Tigers to the American League pennant, and with that out of the way and still in the regular season, Greenberg opted to take the day off on Yom Kippur. Game 6 of the 1935 World Series fell on Yom Kippur, and Greenberg did not play, though that was largely due to a wrist injury suffered in Game 2.
Edgar Guest wrote a poem regarding Greenberg’s 1934 decision, which appeared in newspapers across the country. Titled “Speaking of Greenberg,” the final lines read: “Said Murphy to Mulrooney ‘We shall lose the game today!/ We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat,/ But he’s true to his religion – and I honor him for that!’”
In 1954, Al Rosen of the Indians said he would not play in Game 5 of the World Series, which fell on Yom Kippur. However, a Giants sweep of the Indians made it a moot point.
Though he was true to his religion and certainly missed by Dodgers fans, the extra day off in 1965 did not help Koufax much. Despite nine strikeouts, he lasted only six innings in Game 2, being pulled for a pinch hitter with the Dodgers trailing, 2-0. Minnesota tacked on three more runs against the Los Angeles bullpen for a 5-1 win.
With the World Series shifting to southern California, Koufax and Drysdale remained confident in their abilities, laughing when Drysdale said, “Well, we sure got ourselves in a hell of a mess, didn’t we?” Claude Osteen got things back on track for the Dodgers with a five-hit shutout in Game 3. Drysdale and Koufax picked up complete-game wins in Games 4 and 5, respectively, but Grant stymied Los Angeles in what would prove to be the penultimate game.
Each pitching on two days’ rest, Koufax and the Twins’ Jim Kaat went head-to-head in Game 7. Two runs in the third inning on a Lou Johnson solo home run and an RBI single by Wes Parker knocked Kaat out and provided all the offense Koufax would need in going the distance. Koufax earned his second World Series MVP Award and his fourth ring. (Though he did not play in the 1955 World Series, Koufax was on the Dodgers’ roster.)
Jewish major league personnel still face the personal decision about whether to play during the high holidays. Some, like Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green, who in the midst of a heated divisional race sat out on Yom Kippur in 2001, believed it was the right thing to do. Others, like the Brewers’ Jesse Levis, a backup catcher who was inserted as a pinch hitter against Baltimore on Yom Kippur in 1996, sought understanding from a higher power for his having played.
“It’s not like I’m Sandy Koufax,” he said. “I don’t have that kind of leverage. I hope God forgives me.”
Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum