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A Brief, Brilliant Career

Why we can’t forget Sandy Koufax.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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And yet, Koufax’s contribution to baseball that season cannot be measured by statistics alone. Less than a month after the perfect game, Koufax achieved, as Jane Leavy put it, “another kind of perfection by refusing to pitch the opening game of the World Series because it fell on the holiest day of the Jewish year,” Yom Kippur. By refusing to pitch, “Koufax defined himself as a man of principle who placed faith above craft.” Like Hank Greenberg’s similar decision 31 years earlier, this became a defining moment for a new generation of American Jews, and a source of inspiration for Jewish baseball fans. Bruce Lustig, the senior rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., and a fan since childhood, has pointed to Koufax’s decision not to pitch “as a transforming event, providing the catalyst” for many Jews “to acknowledge and honor their religion.” Koufax’s action “both reinforced Jewish pride and enhanced the sense of belonging—a feat as prodigious as any he had accomplished on the baseball field.” 

So, too, his successful joint salary holdout with his teammate Don Drysdale, in their 1966 preseason contract negotiations with the Dodgers, as several baseball historians have pointed out, was a “transforming event” that paved the way for Marvin Miller’s challenge to the reserve clause and the beginning of free agency. In hiring an attorney to bargain for them and in demanding contracts of more than $100,000 annually—a salary ceiling no player had ever exceeded—Koufax believed they were fighting for a basic principle: “That ballplayers aren’t slaves, that we have a right to negotiate.” 

The Dodgers gave in to Koufax’s contract demands, and in 1966 he earned $135,000, the highest salary ever paid a baseball player. That was his last season, and he won 27 games, with a phenomenal 1.73 ERA, and received his third unanimous Cy Young Award, despite the fact that the chronic arthritic condition in his pitching arm that had afflicted him through much of his pitching career had worsened. At season’s end, in constant pain and warned by physicians that if he continued pitching he might lose the use of his left arm, Koufax shocked the baseball world with his announcement that he was retiring at the age of 30.

Today, 45 years after his retirement at the top of his career, Sandy Koufax should be remembered as the last of the greatest pitchers of baseball’s golden age. Now 75, Koufax should also be admired for his refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur and his role in winning the right of a baseball player to negotiate over salary—achievements off the field that have done much to shape his enduring legacy.

David G. Dalin, a rabbi and a professor at Ave Maria University in Florida, is the coauthor (with Jonathan D. Sarna) of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience.

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