By: David Krell
If you ask Brooklynites of a certain age about Sandy Koufax, they won’t just beam with pride. They’ll glow.
Perhaps they’ll tell you that they also graduated from Lafayette High School, so they share some link with the famous southpaw despite a disparity in age.
Maybe they’ll praise his basketball skills as NBA-worthy. That may be a stretch, but he was a blue-chip player in Brooklyn’s high-school roundball competitions.
It’s possible they’ll remind you that Koufax began his professional baseball career as a Brooklyn Dodger, which gets overshadowed by his phenomenal seasons after the team moved to Los Angeles (four no-hitters, four-time MLB single-season strikeout leader, three-time MLB single-season wins leader).
When I wrote my 2015 book Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, I had the opportunity to interview fans who called Ebbets Field their second home. All of the above happened in my conversations involving the southpaw. But Jewish natives and residents in the Borough of Churches will likely begin conversations about Koufax and the 1965 World Series. What happened that day resonates decades later in Passover dinners, Bar Mitzvah speeches, and Yom Kippur sermons. Or, rather, what didn’t happen. On that date, Koufax refused to play in the first game because it coincided with Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is a sober day, where we ask God to forgive our sins and we wish our fellow congregants for their names to be inscribed in the book of life. We daven, atone, and rise every time the ark is opened. Work is forbidden, even for those who make their living by playing a game. Koufax was the natural choice for Dodgers skipper Walter Alston; he led the major leagues in wins, win-loss percentage, ERA, and complete games in 1965. Despite the marquee value of the event, though, Koufax felt a religious obligation to stay out of the game. His decision resonated for American Jews from Coney Island to Catalina Island.
“I tried to deflect questions about my intentions through the last couple of weeks of the season by saying that I was praying for rain,” wrote the left-hander in his 1966 autobiography Koufax with Ed Linn. “There was never any decision to make, though, 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. When Yom Kippur falls during the season, as it usually does, it has always been a simple matter of pitching a day earlier, with two days’ rest, when my turn happened to be coming up.”
Instead, Don Drysdale started the game for the Dodgers. “Most all of them are high-ball hitters, so I’ll naturally try to keep the ball down on them. I don’t want to give them a chance to get the ball up in the air,” said Drysdale in a Los Angeles Times article by Charles Maher. The righthanded fireballer encountered a vicious but rare pummeling—Alston pulled Drysdale in the third inning, after the Twins tallied six runs, in addition to their one run in the second inning.
The story goes that Drysdale, indicating a self-effacing manner, told Alston, “I bet you wish I was Jewish, too.”
Final score: Twins 8, Dodgers 2. (Writer’s note: In my October 16th article “Jews & Brews,” there’s a typographical error stating that the Dodgers won the game.)
Times sportswriter Paul Zimmerman wrote that Drysdale showed “surprising complacency” in explaining what happened. “It simply was a case of bad command,” said Drysdale. “I couldn’t get the ball anywhere near where I wanted it and when you can’t do that you don’t deserve to win.”
The tally does not reflect the Dodgers’ offensive effort; both teams ended the game with 10 hits. The Dodgers won the World Series in seven games.
There is no empirical evidence to suggest that Koufax’ decision influenced the perception, depiction, and understanding of Judaism in popular culture. But it seems that Hollywood brought Jewish themes to TV and film in a more thoughtful way after the 1965 World Series. In an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, wisecracking comedy writer Buddy Sorrell puts aside his jibes and jokes to focus on his Bar Mitzvah; he never had one when he was a kid. Molly Picon guest starred on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. as a Jewish mother whose maternal instincts kick into overdrive with the title character because she wants to feel useful. Her cooking would likely surpass the pies and other offerings created by Aunt Bee in Gomer’s hometown of Mayberry, North Carolina.
For the Vulcan salute in Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy uses an ancient hand gesture from the Kohanim for the priestly blessing that makes one’s hands into a “V”.
In the movie No Way to Treat a Lady, George Segal plays an NYPD detective named Morris Brummel in a relationship with Kate Palmer, played by Lee Remick. Eileen Heckart portrays a comedic version of a domineering Jewish mother who is disappointed that Morris is a detective and not a doctor. Plus, she looks at Kate’s shiksa status askance. But Kate mirrors her future mother-in-law’s demeanor towards Morris, though lovingly so, and vows to convert. Her actions please Mrs. Brummel.
When the 1970s arrived, there was an increase in storylines on antisemitism. All in the Family had an episode where Archie Bunker gets a swastika painted on his door because the culprits thought he was an outspoken Jew who actually lives down the block. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a car accident leads to a friendship between Mary Richards and the other driver. Blinded by the good time she’s having with her new pal Joanna, Mary finally realizes Joanna’s antisemitism after a condescending remark about Mary’s best friend and neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern.
Sandy Koufax’ Yom Kippur observance helped Americans understand the Jewish experience a bit better and opened the door for more dignified portrayals of Jews and Judaism in popular culture. May this approach live long and prosper!