On the field, Sandy Koufax wasn't just any baseball player. Off the field, he wasn't viewed that way either. The Hall of Fame pitcher isn't just remembered by baseball fans as "the man with the golden arm," but is revered by his Jewish admirers as "the left arm of God" for his talent as well as the public observance of his faith, most notably during the 1965 World Series.
A legendary left-handed pitcher who spent his entire career with the Dodgers, Koufax dominated batters like few ever have, atop mounds in Brooklyn and Los Angeles -- as well as just about every major league locale in between. His preternatural gifts -- notably that knee-buckling curve and relatively overlooked fastball -- earned him three Cy Young Awards and all-time great status in an injury-shortened career that lasted from 1955 through 1966. Five years after retiring at the age of 30, Koufax became the youngest player ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.
For many Jewish fans, he was something even more important than a plaque in Cooperstown. The lanky, reserved product of Lafayette High School in Brooklyn was a role model for young Jewish boys -- and girls -- who dreamt big league dreams while also bolstering the hopes of Jewish adults who hoped to find success or even simply acceptance in an America they may have felt viewed them as outsiders.
Koufax's roles as Jewish talisman and big league superstar intersected during the 1965 World Series. The opening game of series between Koufax's Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins was scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 6, the date of Yom Kippur. The holiest day of the year for Jews, Yom Kippur is the annual holy day of atonement that is set aside for fasting, religious service and repentance.
It is not a day for pitching in the World Series, even if you're the ace of the team representing the National League fresh off a historic Cy Young Award-winning season that included the eighth perfect game in MLB history. Koufax told Dodgers manager Walter Aston that he would not be available to pitch because it was a holy day.
"By refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience," wrote author Jane Leavy in her bestselling biography of the pitcher published in 2002. "He was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sandy. A moral exemplar, and single too! (Such a catch!)"
Reserved to the point of being considered reclusive, Koufax chose to speak little of his decision or his faith through the years. His few comments suggest the choice to remove himself from consideration for the start was not difficult to make.
“Respect,” Koufax responded before the 2014 season when asked by Jewish Week why he sat out the game.
He would also tell the publication that he felt "no pressure" from his teammates to start the game.
With Koufax unavailable, Alston gave the ball to Don Drysdale, a right-handed power pitcher who was named the 1962 Cy Young Award winner and earned his own spot in the Hall of Fame. Despite his own formidable talents, Drysdale struggled against the Twins in the series opener, surrendering seven runs over just 2.2 innings. When Alston came to the mound to remove him from the game, Drysdale quipped, "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too," according to ESPN.com. The Dodgers would lose Game 1, 8-2.
Back in uniform for the second game, Koufax was unable to even the series, giving up two runs over six innings as the Dodgers suffered a 5-1 loss. After the Dodgers won the next two games, Koufax twirled a complete-game, four-hit shutout in Game 5. The Twins would win Game 6 to force a winner-take-all Game 7. With Koufax on just two day's rest by virtue of having started the second and fifth games of the series rather than the first and fourth, Alston still gave him the ball.
He wouldn't regret it.
With the World Series hanging in the balance, Koufax pitched another complete-game shutout, allowing just three hits as the Dodgers won the decisive game 2-0. Tired and struggling with his curve as the game advanced, Koufax turned to his fastball in the later innings as Drysdale, with an extra day's rest, waited in case he was needed.
Koufax would be named the World Series MVP and later Sports Illustrated's Sportsman Of The Year for 1965. Plagued by an arthritic left arm, he would retire after just one more sterling season. But his legacy was assured. Not only was he the pitcher that every lefty would be measured against, but he had broadened the horizon for innumerable Jewish kids.
"There are three things any self-respecting Jewish boy should want to grow up to be: a doctor, a lawyer, or Sandy Koufax," Alan Siegel wrote for The Atlantic in 2010.