“..shall renew their strength.” Isaiah, Chapter 40, verse 31 (JPSV)
Baseball has a long history of being connected to religion. I don’t mean all the fans at home and in the stands with their palms together going “please, Lord, let him get a hit.” I’m talking about on the field. It goes back at least to Billy Sunday in the 1880s and probably longer. Today you see and hear it with frequency. So far I’ve noted no “Tebowing” but watch for the player stepping into the batter’s box who crosses himself, watch for the guy who crosses home and points a finger to the sky (sometimes in memory of a parent or sibling, but frequently in acknowledgement of his faith). How many times have you heard an interview begin with the phrase, “I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior”? I suppose that the most famous moment of religion in baseball occurred almost 50 years ago in October 1965.
In 1965, the Los Angeles Dodgers won their second National League pennant in three years. Their unquestioned star was left-handed starter Sandy Koufax. On his way to a second Cy Young Award and second place in the MVP voting, he won the pitching triple crown with 26 wins, an all-time record 382 strike outs and and ERA of 2.04. That, of course, meant that everyone knew who was going to start game one of the World Series against the American League champion Minnesota Twins.
Except that there was a problem. The sixth of October 1965 was Yom Kippur, one of the most important days in the Jewish religious tradition and Koufax was Jewish. He announced, quietly, to his team he would not pitch on such a holy day. The press got wind of the story and it took off. It made the front page of newspapers (including the local paper in the town where I lived) and created something of an uproar. First, probably 80% of baseball fans had no idea Koufax was Jewish (he’d never made a point of it) and even less knew what Yom Kippur was all about. He had not been averse to pitching Friday night or Saturday afternoon games, but this was different and a lot of people didn’t understand how. In some places he was vilified, in others praised. But he maintained his stance, refused to comment publicly on the issue and went about his business preparing to pitch game two.
Well, Don Drysdale pitched game one and was shelled. Then Koufax took the mound for game two. He gave up one earned run (and one unearned) and the bullpen collapsed leading to a 5-1 Twins victory and 2-0 Twins lead in games. They could only win one more. Claude Osteen pitched a masterful game three, Drydale came back in game four, and Koufax won both game five and seven (the latter a three hit shutout) and picked up the Series MVP award.
He pitched one more year then retired. The religious stand became a major part of his legacy to both Jews and non-Jews alike. Many saw it as a stand for principle, something ball players aren’t known for as a rule.