By Saul Axelrod
The High Holidays are here; invariably, the discussion gets around to the time when pitching great Sandy Koufax (1935-) refused to pitch in the first game of the 1965 World Series because it coincided with Yom Kippur.
What is less well known is that, throughout his career, during both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and sometimes Passover, Koufax did not play. Also, Hank Greenberg, the only other Jewish American in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, did not play in a game during the 1934 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
What is it about Sandy Koufax that sucks the air out of the room when pitching greatness is discussed? How did Koufax become a metaphor for pitching perfection? Why do callers to sports talk shows still say,” I am not claiming that this guy is the next Sandy Koufax, but I am saying he is a great prospect.” Why is it that my grandchildren, born four decades after Koufax retired, are familiar with the name Sandy Koufax? (Okay, Saba Saul has something to do with that.)
Here is the argument against regarding Koufax as the greatest all-time pitcher: Koufax played 12 years in the major leagues, drafted out of college. Koufax’s first six seasons were mediocre. He isn’t even the winningest Jewish left-handed pitcher! (Ken Holtzman is.) Does this sound like pitching greatness? Read on.
The argument for his unmatched greatness is that during the next six years Koufax pitched better than any other human has ever pitched. He was so good that major leaguers regarded him as a visitor from a higher league unfairly pitching against mere major leaguers.
When iconic Yankee manager Casey Stengel was asked to name the greatest pitcher, he replied, “that Jewish kid.” Koufax was so good that the Phillies once called off a game ostensibly because of a few sprinkles to avoid playing against him. (I know. I had tickets.)
Atlanta Braves superstar Hank Aaron claimed that the best thing about Koufax’s retirement was that he no longer had to face him. After striking out against Koufax in the World Series, a bewildered Mickey Mantle asked the umpire, “Am I supposed to hit that?”
Here are just a few statistics. Phillies’ great Cliff Lee pitched six shutouts during his career. Koufax hurled 11 shutouts in one year, 1963, and 40 in a career that ended when he was 30. In 2021, no major league pitcher completed more than three games, and all MLB pitchers combined for 21 complete games. Koufax threw 27 complete games in both 1965 and 1966 – and 137 in his career.
How great was Sandy Koufax? In his last season with the Dodgers, he won 27 games as the team captured the National League pennant. The year after he retired, the Dodgers were in seventh place – more than 20 games out of first place. Nicknamed “the left arm of God,” he did all this with a severely arthritic, remarkably painful left elbow!
Koufax was admired not only as a pitcher but also as a person. At the end of the 20th century, Sports Illustrated chose Koufax as the greatest left-handed pitcher of the 20th century. (Greenberg was chosen as the greatest first baseman). But Sports Illustrated also chose Koufax as its Favorite Athlete of the 20th Century, an honor achieved for his character and the personal model he was he was for other athletes.
At Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, there is a statue of Sandy Koufax flanking a statue of Jackie Robinson. Robinson was subjected to humiliating taunts from opposing players and fans as the first African-American person to play in the major leagues.
Greenberg was a constant source of support for Robinson, whom Robinson described as the finest human being he had played against. It is easy to imagine Koufax playing a similar role had he pitched a generation earlier.
Koufax’s unmatched greatness can be compared to Beethoven and the nine symphonies he composed. Haydn wrote more than 100 symphonies, many of them classics. Yet, no serious musicologist would argue that Beethoven was not the greatest symphonist. Any Google search of the greatest symphonies will reveal the dominance of Beethoven. Brahms was intimidated by Beethoven’s symphonies; it took him almost two decades to compose his First Symphony.
When Koufax retired, a local reporter wrote that you must go back to Babe Ruth to find a sports star of his magnitude. As for a model for the kids? Judah the Maccabee?
There was a mystique to Koufax that increased his appeal. He was blessed with dark handsome looks but with shyness and humility that increased his aura. He was mobbed at autograph shows to the relative exclusion of other superstars. When Koufax appeared at an event, the fans did not cheer; they screamed.
Yet he shunned the spotlight and rarely gave interviews. One minor exception occurred when a member of the Jewish press asked him why he did not pitch on Yom Kippur. His one-word response was, “respect.” He gave it, and he got it.
Can someone who pitched well for only six years be considered the greatest of all time? I will leave the answer to that childish question to others while I relax and listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Saul Axelrod of Elkins Park is a professor emeritus of education at Temple University.