Sandy Koufax and Yom Kippur, 50 Years Later

I gave this sermon at my synagogue on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sunday night, September 13th. But the ideas are relevant for our upcoming Yom Kippur holiday. Wishing everyone a meaningful day!

Fifty years ago, as American Jews gathered in synagogues for the High Holidays, it was clear that this year’s holidays would be different. That year, 1965, the beginning of the Jewish year coincided with the conclusion of the baseball season, and what’s more, the first game of the World Series would take place on Yom Kippur afternoon. Not only that, one of the participants would be the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose star pitcher, Sandy Koufax, was Jewish.

What happened next is partly based on fact, and partly the stuff of Midrash. It’s well-known that Koufax declined to pitch that first game, and that his replacement, Don Drysdale, pitched so badly that he asked his manager if he wished Drysdale were Jewish too. What isn’t so well-known is where Koufax was on that Yom Kippur day. Since the game took place in Minneapolis, the parishioners of synagogues across the Twin Cities eagerly awaited the possibility that the great pitcher would enter their sanctuary to worship with them. Not surprisingly, many urban legends emerged; depending on which account you read, Koufax appeared in multiple synagogues on the Day of Atonement. But according to biographer Jane Leavy, Sandy Koufax never showed his face. He stayed in his hotel room all day, alone and quiet, befitting his private personality.

Koufax’s decision to observe the High Holidays instead of pitching on baseball’s biggest stage remains one of the most celebrated declarations of Jewish pride in recent years. As a young sports fan, I shouldn’t have been surprised to receive three copies of the book “Great Jews in Sports” as Bar Mitzvah presents, a volume in which Koufax is prominently featured. But how can we put this moment in proper context, now that 50 years have passed?

As a student of synagogues and Jewish communities, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman wrote why actions like Koufax’s shouldn’t be that surprising. In his book ReThinking Synagogues, Hoffman wrote that one of the things that makes Judaism unique compared to other religions is its emphasis on returning, on going home. Whereas other faiths may speak of things like “being born again,” the Jewish perspective is that we never stray so far from our roots that it becomes impossible to return to them once again. We tend to translate a common word for this time of year, the Hebrew word teshuvah, as “repentance”. Indeed, repentance and living our lives more ethically are important aspects of the High Holidays. But a closer translation of the word is “to return.”

On that Yom Kippur 50 years ago, Sandy Koufax returned. Maybe not in the way his Jewish mother or grandmother would have wanted him to; perhaps they would have preferred for him to attend synagogue as well, and to stop pitching on Shabbat altogether, oh and by the way it wouldn’t have killed him to call once in a while. Still, Koufax realized that no matter where he was in life, his Jewish heritage, his home, wasn’t far away. All he had to do was wait until Game 2 of the World Series to pitch, instead of Game 1.

As we begin this year’s High Holidays, I hope we can be inspired by Sandy Koufax once again. I hope we can remember that a synagogue’s doors remain easy to open to all of us, no matter how foreboding they may seem at times, no matter how far we may have walked from them in them in the past. Whether you have been in this synagogue hundreds of times before or whether this is your first time here, know that this can be a home for you, a place to learn, a place to connect, a place to serve the greater good. Whatever your observance level has been in the past, this can be a place that will embrace you in the present and in the future. May our quest for teshuvah not be encumbered by regrets of the past but by a commitment to return and to be home once again.