While Koufax Is Rightly Lauded, Yom Kippur Example Was Set by Hank Greenberg (Video)

On October 6th (10th of Tishrei) 1965, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the World Series because of Yom Kippur.

Sandy Koufax (HOF)

Instead, Koufax went to Yom Kippur Services and fasted like Jewish people around the world. The World Series went to the seventh and final game and Koufax played an amazing game to win the Dodgers the World Series.

Koufax won the most valuable player award and is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

Although he had so many achievements on the field,  deciding to sit out of the World Series game on Yom Kippur is one of the things for which he is most remembered. Koufax’s Jewish identity and choices have instilled Jewish pride in millions of Americans.

In 2001 Dodgers player Shawn Green ended his 416 consecutive games in order to observe Yom Kippur. He said that his motivation to do so was based on Sandy koufax’s historic decision

“It’s something I feel is an important thing to do,” Green said at the time, “partly as a representative of the Jewish community and as far as my being a role model in sports for Jewish kids, to basically say that baseball, or anything, isn’t bigger than your religion and your roots.

Shawn Green (MLB)

Long before Green, and even before Koufax, in 1934, Hank Greenberg, “the Jewish Babe Ruth”, anguished over whether or not to play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holy Days.

“I wasn’t the first (Jewish star to sit out a Yom Kippur game). Hank Greenberg did it,” Koufax said in an interview years later with Steve Greenberg, Hank Greenberg’s son.

Koufax told Greenberg that he hadn’t really followed Hank’s caree, but he was well aware of his indelible mark on the high holiday.

Obama, Koufax celebrate Jewish Heritage Month. (NJJN)

Guarded and reserved, Koufax likely would have preferred honoring Yom Kippur with distinguished anonymity. But given the unavoidable limelight, he did the next best thing: He said little. For the then-5.7 million Jews in the USA, it was an opportunity to proudly rejoice and observe.

Micofilm of a sports page from the the Oct. 6, 1965 Pioneer Press.

“The team was fighting for first place,” wrote Greenberg in his autobiography, “and I was probably the only batter in the lineup who was not in a slump. But in the Jewish religion, it is traditional that one observe the holiday solemnly, with prayer…. I wasn’t sure what to do.”

Greenberg skipped batting practice that day, thought some more, and finally chose to take the field. He hit two home runs to lead the Tigers to a 2-1 victory.

Hank Greenberg (Left) with Babe Ruth.

The next day, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline, in Hebrew, that read “Happy New Year, Hank,” Also in the Free Press, an Edgar Guest poem celebrated Greenberg’s decision:

Came Yom Kippur — holy fast day world wide over to the Jew,
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, ‘We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat
But he’s true to his religion — and I honor him for that!

Just days later, Greenberg chose not to play on Yom Kippur. When Greenberg arrived at synagogue that day, the service stopped, and the congregants gave him a rousing round of applause.

“The only way I would even think that I might have been a hero in those days was the day I walked in Shaarey Zedek  and got a standing ovation because I showed up on Yom Kippur,” Greenberg said in 1984.

Baseball Hall of Fame

“The poor rabbi standing on the podium ‘davening,’ praying, and suddenly I walk in and everybody in the congregation gets up and applauds. The poor rabbi looks around; he doesn’t know what is happening. And I’m embarrassed as can be, because it was all totally unexpected.”

Greenberg’s decision not to play — and the positive reaction it elicited both in the media and among fans had impact on the decisions of some Jewish ballplayers in the following years.






Sports Illustrated & Wikipedia contributed to this story.