2016-06-30
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Jane Leavy's new biography of Sandy Koufax chronicles the pitcher's career from his rookie year in 1955 through the 1965 World Series and Koufax's 1966 retirement from a prematurely arthritic arm. In this excerpt, Koufax has just sat out the first game of the 1965 Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Reprinted from "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Choosing not to work on Yom Kippur was not a difficult decision. It's what Jews do. His roommate, Tracewski, doesn't remember him agonizing over it. "It was a given with him." So, you pitch a day late. Big schmeer. And, as Osteen said, "It wasn't a real bad choice having Drysdale."

Drysdale started in his place and got hammered. The score was 7-1 when Alston came to the mound to relieve him. "Hey, skip, bet you wish I was Jewish today, too," Drysdale said. For Jews, the loss was a win. If Big D could joke about being one of the Chosen People, that was already something, a tacit acknowledgment of their acceptance into the mainstream. Shtetl, farewell.

Koufax started and lost game two. The flight back to Los Angeles was difficult, especially for Osteen, who was scheduled to start game three. He sat on the aisle and every coach and player walking by made sure to touch his left shoulder. With each reassuring pat and each pat rejoinder--"You'll get 'em!'"--his shoulder got tighter. Koufax and Drysdale loosened everyone up with humor. "Don looks at Sandy and goes, 'Well, we sure got ourselves in a hell of a mess, didn't we?"' Jim Lefebvre said. "And they started laughing."

The Dodgers won three straight in Los Angeles--Osteen, Drysdale, and Koufax outdid themselves and each other. In the final home game of the series, Koufax shut out the Twins, 7-0. After the game, Koufax cheerfully told Scully, "I feel like I'm a hundred years old."

The Dodgers needed only one more win but they needed to go back to Minnesota to get it. They were confident. Lou Johnson packed enough clothes for a one-day business trip. The Dodgers checked out of the team hotel the morning before game six was played. Osteen lost, forcing management to scramble for rooms and Alston to make a difficult decision. Parker, the first baseman, went into the bathroom and cried. Alston summoned his coaches-Preston Gomez, Danny Ozark, Lefty Phillips--to a gloomy tribunal. Drysdale was the logical choice to pitch game seven. It was his turn in the rotation. He would be pitching on a full three days' rest; Koufax on two.

The players were showering; no one had popped a beer. All three coaches put their heads between their knees when Alston broached the question. Ozark recalled the scene. "'Jeez,' Lefty Phillips says, 'Koufax does real well against them, maybe he can go.' Alston says, 'Who's gonna ask him?' Everyone got laryngitis. Me, the big dumb Polack says, 'I'll do it.' I find out later on that there were differences between him and Alston. They may have been going back to '57. I don't think he could overlook what happened. It was his career. They held him back."

His teammates knew how he felt. "He felt he always had something to prove with Walter Alston," Ron Perranoski said. "He wasn't used when he was young and when he was used he wasn't trusted. He always had this thing in the back of his mind about the way he was treated, that he didn't get a chance. He knew what he was made of, what he was capable of."

Those feelings endured. In 1985, thirty years after his rookie season, twenty years after his world series triumph, there was a celebration in Vero Beach. "Buzzie was there and they were telling stories and Buzzie's laughing," Tom Villante recalled. "And then Sandy starts with Buzzie about why the hell didn't Alston pitch me. Buzzie was giving him some double talk but Sandy was getting mad all over again. I'll never forget it. Sandy was transformed into this nineteen-year-old kid again, puzzled why the hell Alston didn't pitch him."

When Ozark approached him at his locker at Metropolitan Stadium on the eve of the seventh game of the 1965 World Series, Koufax told him, "I'm okay for tomorrow." It would be his third start in eight days. "He didn't want to be known as a person who couldn't have the strength and the ability to take the ball on two days' rest," Wilpon said. He did so eight times in his career, winning six; three were complete-game wins with a combined total of thirty-five strikeouts. He never lasted less than seven innings. How much, if at all, this represented for him a refutation of stereotype is unknowable. How much it represented a retort to early doubters is easier to guess. But it spoke volumes to the Jewish community.

* * * * *

Having held himself to a higher standard, Koufax was then impaled upon it. To wit: The Minnesota rabbi, who still insists that Koufax was in his synagogue, said nothing at the time because he wasn't too thrilled with Koufax's lack of piety. "That's why I couldn't build him up," Raskas said. "He's not such a good Jew because he didn't marry a Jewish girl. So I don't get too excited about it."

The significance of Koufax's decision has been debated ever since in synagogues and at dinner tables, by Talmudic scholars and baseball players. How much did he change the way Jews are perceived? How much did he change the way Jews perceive themselves? "He gave little Jewish boys some hope," said pitcher Steve Stone, who was one of them. "The series went seven games instead of four," said general manager Buzzie Bavasi. "I always told him, 'You made Walter O'Malley a million dollars."'

Four decades after the fact, two best-selling Jewish authors, Scott Turow and Mitch Albom, engaged in a heated polemic about the significance of a ham sandwich Koufax allegedly was seen eating in the hotel elevator in Minnesota that week. Albom's friend, a rabbi's son still a young man in 1965, was apparently still devastated at having seen pork touch Koufax's pitching hand. Turow responded indignantly: "Who's to say what is Jewish enough? Who's to say what a Jew is?" Except that Jew himself.

Peter Levine, author of "Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sports and the American Jewish Experience," argues that Koufax's symbolic potency was attenuated by world events. Who needs Koufax when you have Henry Kissinger playing realpolitik? "However tough and strong a pitcher Koufax was," Levine wrote, "he clearly was no match for Moishe Dayan, and his legions of commandos when it came time to search for heroes' and deeds symbolic of the contemporary Jewish experience-far more relevant than anything Koufax offered."

Rabbi Lustig, who as a boy wired a transistor radio to his seven-year Old person and took the world series into the synagogue, understands why Koufax is hardwired into the psyche of the American Jewish community and his congregation-why grown men are transformed by putting on Koufax's jersey. The decision not to pitch was a transforming event, providing the catalyst for an unknown number of lawyers and Little Leaguers to acknowledge and honor their religion in like kind. Koufax made them brave. By refusing to pitch, he both reinforced Jewish pride and enhanced the sense of belonging--a feat as prodigious as any he accomplished on the field.

"The Six-Day War was important to Zionism," Lustig said. "It changed the image of the Jew in the world. He could be a true soldier. The world series was important to the whole community. What could be so American? We had finally made it. We had earned the right to be as interested in baseball as in our Jewish identity."

The discussion and debate proceeds without any comment from him. Some have attributed his silence to modesty; others to the realization that nothing he could say would improve upon what he did. But this too is true. It's embarrassing being a religious icon, especially an inadvertent one. Later, friends say, he would become a reader of Holocaust literature and quit driving German cars. He came to appreciate the significance his decision had for others. After the old lady at Herbie Scharfman's funeral finally let go of Koufax's right arm, Tom Villante said to him, "You know, Sandy, in my lifetime there's three guys I've known who have transcended their sports and become a symbol for their race or nationality: Jackie with the blacks, Joe D. with the Italians, and you with the Jews."

"He said, 'I know it.' And he said it as if he knew it and accepted it. This is something he carries around with him. And he is very proud of it."

Koufax refused to be a Jew's Jew or a gentile's Jew. He may have been different but he refused to be anything other than himself. In the Talmud, it is written that some attain eternal life with a single act. On Yom Kippur, 5726, a baseball immortal became a Jewish icon.

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