Although now shrouded by the mists of time, the decision of Sandy Koufax, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace southpaw, not to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur, is an example of the lasting influence one long-ago act can have. Although Koufax wasn’t observant in the least, he wrote in his autobiography that “There was never any decision to make 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.”

The message countless Jewish kids took away from his abstention was, as a leading sports magazine put it in naming Koufax its favorite athlete of the entire 20th century, that the soft-spoken star “always put team before self, modesty before fame, and G-d before the World Series.”

Nor did he lose in This-Worldly terms for what he did. The Dodgers did lose the first two games (and when his Game One replacement, fellow star pitcher Don Drysdale, got shellacked in the early innings and manager Walter Alston came out to the mound to pull him from the game, Drysdale muttered to him, “I know, Skip. You’re wishing I was a Jew.”). But they came back to win the World Series, and Koufax won the Most Valuable Player award after pitching a sparkling three-hit shutout in Game Seven.

His example also influenced other players, such as Steve Stone, the only Jewish pitcher besides Koufax to win a Cy Young award, who was inspired by his boyhood hero to take the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off every season, because “If you really believe in your team above all else, it’s a really shallow viewpoint on life. Teams come and go, I don’t believe your religious beliefs come and go.”

Indeed, to be inspired by Koufax one didn’t even have to be Jewish (not unlike the experience of eating Levy’s Rye Bread). Just recently, I profiled Judge Rick Haselton in these pages, a ger tzedek who grew up Catholic in rural Oregon. One of the early Judaism-related experiences that planted the seeds of his eventual conversion was Koufax sitting out Game One in ’65, about which Haselton told me, “I took note, and it kind of hooked me.”

Koufax actually wasn’t the first famous Jewish player to sit out Yom Kippur. Hank Greenberg, the famous slugging outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, did so in the 1930s, later writing in his autobiography, “I realize now more than I used to, how important a part I played in the lives of a generation of Jewish kids who grew up in the ’30s. I guess I was kind of a role model.”

Still, it’s Koufax whose name is forever associated with putting Judaism before World Series rings, and perhaps rightly so. Legend has it that when the Tigers made it to the World Series one year, Greenberg played in the game that fell on Rosh Hashanah, relying on a “heter” a never-identified Detroit rabbi had given him.          

But not Koufax. Rabbi Moshe Feller, the veteran Minnesota-based director of Upper Midwest Chabad who moved to Minneapolis as a newlywed in 1961, went to Koufax’s St. Paul hotel room the day after that Yom Kippur to thank him for sanctifying G-d’s Name, telling the young pitcher that “thousands of Jewish businessmen did not go to work on Yom Kippur because you wouldn’t pitch. Do you know how many Jewish kids didn’t go to school yesterday because you wouldn’t pitch on Yom Kippur?”

With that, Rabbi Feller presented him with a pair of tefillin (appropriately configured for a lefty, of course). Fortuitous indeed: It is said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov (see Eishel Avraham, Orach Chaim 624) that the Yiddish name for the day after Yom Kippur is “G-tt’s Nomen” (“G-d’s Name”), and the pasuk describes the wearing of tefillin as having “the Name of Hashem called upon you.”

And as Koufax escorted the rabbi out, he said, “Rabbi Feller, everyone makes a big fuss of my not pitching on Yom Kippur; I don’t pitch on Rosh Hashanah either!”

A column on baseball before Yom Kippur? No, a column about the ripple effects of a Jew’s one deed of kiddush Sheim Shamayim, a Jew who was raised without Yiddishkeit but still said there “was never any possibility” he would violate the Yom Hakadosh no matter the stakes, and who didn’t seem to think he was anything special for it.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 727. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com