No. 46: Sandy Koufax
I was working on a completely different essay about Koufax. But in light of events in Overland Park, where I used to live, I expanded on something I wrote about Sandy Koufax on October 13, 2005 in the Kansas City Star — forty years after the Yom Kippur game.
* * *
A rabbi was speeding through Arkansas in the 1960s. Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of a joke? Micah Greenstein was the rabbi and he was trying to get back home for services; it was the day before Yom Kippur. Rabbi Greenstein was pulled over in West Memphis.
“What’s the hurry?” the police office said.
“i’m a rabbi on my way to …”
“What’s a rabbi?” the officer said, not gently. Rabbi Greenstein was beginning to worry that this was going to become very complicated.
“Well,” he said, “a rabbi is a little bit like a priest for Jewish people.”
“Yeah? Well, we don’t know much about that here.” The officer began to walk back to his car to call back to the office and start writing tickets and …
“Please,” Rabbi Greenstein pleaded. “I am trying to get to my congregation before Yom Kippur.”
And, with that the police officer just stopped. He walked back to the car.
“Yom Kippur?” he asked. “You mean the day Sandy Koufax wouldn’t pitch in the World Series?”
“Yes!” Rabbi Greenstein shouted. “That’s the day!”
“Well,” the officer said, “that’s an important day.” And he let the rabbi go.
* * *
If you look through baseball history, you will find that many of the greatest players were granted historical advantages. These were often just quirks of the time or places where they played, but those advantages still existed. Ty Cobb played in a time where defense was pretty iffy and if you hit the ball with some authority you would get hits. Babe Ruth played only day games against no players of color in a ballpark built for him. Walter Johnson threw a dead ball often heavy with dirt and spit and sweat — in 1913, the year of his famous 1.14 ERA, he actually led the American League in home runs allowed. He allowed nine home runs in 350 or so innings.
Ted Williams could hit anywhere, but it didn’t hurt his batting average to play half his games in Fenway Park — he hit .361 at Fenway in his career, .328 on the road. Roger Maris set the home run record in an expansion year with a short porch perfect for his swing at Yankee Stadium. Mark McGwire broke the home run record in a desperate time for baseball, just after they had canceled a World Series, when the strike zone was tiny and the balls lively and nobody tested for steroids. Bob Gibson had his extraordinary 1.12 season in 1968, the year of the pitcher, when the strike zone was high and the batters were slappy and the LEAGUEWIDE ERA was 2.99.
Few players in baseball history were ever given as many historical advantages as Sandy Koufax was given from 1963 to 1966, those four extraordinary years when he became a legend. In 1962, the Dodgers moved into a beautiful new ballpark, Dodgers Stadium, and it would make pitchers happy for the next 50-plus years. In 1963 — and I suspect the baseball powers that be did not fully understand the ramifications — baseball redefined the strike zone as “the top of the batters shoulders and his knees when he assumes his natural stance.” Baseball, like most sports, has always had lousy rule writers and this rule was particularly vague and game-altering.
A strike officially had been “between the batter’s armpits and the top of his knees.” You will note that while the new ruled kind of sounded the same, it wasn’t the same at all. Armpits became top of the shoulder. Top of knees became simply knees, which included the lower part of the knee. With one strange rule, baseball had introduced the high AND low strike into the game. This was obviously going to help every pitcher. But it helped one pitcher most. Nobody in baseball had a more unhittable rising fastball than Los Angeles’ Sandy Koufax. Nobody in baseball had a more fearsome 12-to-6 dropping curveball either. High strike. Low strike.
The Dodgers also decided to help Koufax out a little bit. The rule in 1963 was that the mound was to be 15-inches high, which is REALLY high compared to the 10 inches of mounds today. But there also was no real policing of the rule, so the mound in Los Angeles became one of the great wonders of baseball. “That mound (in LA) must have been 36 inches high,” pitcher Roger Nelson said in 1969, after the mound was lowered. “It was great — like stepping off a mountain.”
High strikes. Low strikes. Mountain mounds. It was a glorious setup for the man born Sanford Braun, whose mother remarried Irvin Koufax when Sandy was just 9. He’d been more of a curiosity than a great pitcher his first seven or eight years. He was 54-53 with a 3.94 ERA before the team moved into Dodgers Stadium. He led the league in strikeouts in 1961 and wild pitches in 1957. That about summed him up.
Then, from 1963-1966, he went 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA. Yeah. Three times in four years, he pitched 300-plus innings and three times in four years he struck out 300-plus batters — in 1965 he struck out 382 batters, a record until Nolan Ryan beat it by one. He threw three no-hitters in those four years — one of them a perfect game — he had 46 games with 10 or more strikeouts and he had 29 shutouts, which is a dozen more than Pedro Martinez had in his entire career. And he was a World Series maestro. It was a glorious life packed into four years.
At Dodger Stadium, on that Everest of a mound, Koufax was both literally and figuratively on an even higher level.
— in 1963, at Dodger Stadium, he went 11-1 with a 1.38 ERA and batters hit .164 against him.
— In 1964, the one year he did not manage 300 innings, he went 12-2 with an 0.85 ERA at home.
— In 1965, the league hit .152 against Koufax in LA, and he went 14-3 with a 1.38 ERA. On the road that year, he was a much more human 12-5 with a 2.72 ERA.
— In 1966, he was was more or less the same dominant pitcher at home and on the road. His 1.52 ERA at home was not very different from his 1.96 ERA on the road.
So what do all these advantages mean for Koufax’s legacy? Well, I’m a numbers guy at heart but I have to say … it doesn’t mean much to me. Koufax, like all of us, was a man of his time and place. He was given a big strike zone and a high mound and, with the wind at his back, he became indelible, unforgettable, the greatest and most thrilling pitcher many would ever see in their lifetime. No, of course the numbers do not compare fairly with pitchers of other eras — you can’t say Koufax was better than Lefty Grove or Roger Clemens just because his ERA was lower — but those numbers offer a nice display of his dominance and, more, the way people looked at him. He still had a 1.86 ERA over four seasons. He still struck out 382 batters in a season.
Koufax had his disadvantages too — it’s easy to forget that. He played in an era without relief pitchers — he threw 60 and 70 more innings than any pitcher has thrown since 2000. He played on a team with a four-man rotation. He also played in an era where pitchers were used up and discarded. Nobody even bothered to count pitches then, and he was locked in so many pitchers duels (his Dodgers, for obvious reasons did not score many runs) that he was throwing so many of those pitches under duress. That undoubtedly contributed to his arm troubles and his retirement at age 30 when he was the best pitcher in the game.
Anyway, Koufax loomed larger than life. The Dodgers of the mid-1960s were something else — with Maury Wills stealing bases, with Vin Scully calling the games, with Hollywood stars watching in this jewel of a new ballpark, with Los Angeles growing at an unreasonable rate. And the starring attraction was Sandy Koufax, at the height of his power, in the perfect moment of time, pitching like no one ever had before and like no one ever has since.
And then, of course, there was Yom Kippur, 1965.
* * *
The 1965 World Series never gets enough credit for being awesome. This is probably because it featured the 1965 Minnesota Twins, who have been somewhat lost to baseball history. Can you name the manager of the 1965 Twins? That’s one of those baseball questions that will separate the casual from the intense. The answer is Sam Mele, a tough outfielder who grew up in New York, was pals with Ted Williams, once led the league in doubles and, later, was instrumental in the development of a young player from South Carolina named Jim Rice.
Anyway, that 1965 World Series had everything … great pitching, legendary performances, all sorts of drama. The Twins won the first two games to take a commanding lead. The Series shifted to Dodger Stadium where Los Angeles won three straight, two of them by shutout. In Game 6 a wonderful character named Mudcat Grant gave up just one run and hit a home run to force a Game 7. And that led, finally and inevitably, to Koufax.
But before all of that, there’s the Yom Kippur story. Koufax was not a particularly observant Jew. There are Easter Christians, who attend church once a year, and Yom Kippur Jews, who don’t really do much of anything Jewish except take off Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. Many Jews fast on Yom Kippur in order to show their devotion to God and atonement for their sins. Koufax did not fast. Like I say, he was not particularly observant. But he understood the symbolism of what he was doing.
There was a history of Jewish baseball players making a public stand and taking off Yom Kippur. You might remember from No. 74 on the list that Hank Greenberg once made national news by sitting out on Yom Kippur with his Detroit Tigers in a pennant race. It captured America’s attention in a time when there was a strong anti-semitic strain in the American life. But Greenberg’s choice came in September — the Jewish calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar so Jewish holidays will bounce around pretty dramatically.
Greenberg’s Yom Kippur was September 19, 1933.
Koufax’s Yom Kippur was October 6, 1965.
There’s reason to believe that while Koufax did understand the significance of sitting out, he didn’t think it was really that big a deal. After all, he was only pushing his start back one day. And it’s not like he was the only Hall of Fame pitcher on that Dodgers team. “They had Don Drysdale!” Mudcat Grant would say. “And he was awfully good.”
Still, Koufax felt like he needed to honor his faith and, even more, honor the Jewish fans who looked to him. To Jewish people all over America, Koufax sitting out Game 1 of the World Series would become legend, a lesson at every Jewish school in America.
“Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” Walter Sobchak tells the Dude in “The Big Lebowski. “You’re goddamn right I’m living in the (bleepin’) past.”
That much is easy to understand. But what was particularly special was how Koufax’s sacrifice was viewed in non-Jewish circles. Baseball, of course, has had its dark moments, its painful secrets and more than its share of scandals. But every now and again, baseball has shown the way. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier — as Buck O’Neil used to say — that was before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, before Brown vs. Board of Education, before Martin Luther King had even graduated college. When Sandy Koufax rested on Yom Kippur in 1965, a young baseball fan in a small Kansas town took note.
“I didn’t know any Jewish people,” Bill James said. “The ins and outs of the Jewish religion were something of a mystery to me. … My only awareness that Yom Kippur existed came from seeing it on calendars. We used to have those farm seed calendars that highlighted every holiday with a little picture. The picture for Yom Kippur, I believe, was a candelabra.
“This is all I knew about the occasion until 1965. … Then, there were questions. Was it something every Jewish person would do? Or was Koufax very religious? And what was the exact significance of Yom Kippur?”
There are many great stories that go along with Koufax’s decision — my favorite being that Don Drysdale got knocked around that day and when Dodgers manager Walter Alston came to take him out, Drysdale said: “Hey skip, bet you wish I was Jewish today too.”
But perhaps the most telling part is how it all ended. Because the Koufax legend did not build because he would not pitch on Yom Kippur. It came from what followed. Koufax did not pitch memorably in Game 2 — he only went six innings — but he came back for Game 5 and threw a four-hit shutout. After Mudcat Grant’s heroics, Koufax came out to pitch Game 7 on two-days rest. Here’s the thing was most special about it: Game 7 was NOT at Dodger Stadium. It was not off the the high mounds. That game was at Metropolitan Stadium on a chilly, overcast day in front of more than 50,000 wild Twins fans.
When you look at the greatest postseason performances ever, you will think of Jack Morris’ Game 8 in 1991 — that was at home. Don Larsen’s perfect game: Home. Bob Gibson’s 17-strikeout game against the Tigers: Home. Randy Johnson’s absurd three-hit shutout against the Yankees in 2001: Home.
Koufax though went on the road, on two days rest, and he threw perhaps his greatest World Series game, a three-hit, 10-strikeout shutout where he did not allow a single runner to reach third and struck out the last two batters.
So, yes, he missed Game 1 for Yom Kippur, but he still pitched three times in that World Series, threw two shutouts, and was at his best in the biggest moment. That’s what made it legendary. If he had given up nine runs in Game 7, well, Jewish fans might still look fondly on Koufax’s decision to sit out for his religion. But the rest of the Dodgers fan base probably would not.