Koufax and Me: A Yom Kippur Fable

Yom Kippur is quite early this year – early enough to fall during baseball’s regular season. But 45 years ago, on Yom Kippur of 1965, something happened during the World Series that has been permanently etched in the minds of Jews across America. What happened 45 years ago on Yom Kippur actually happened right here in the Twin Cities. It’s the stuff of myth and lore. It’s why this story even exists. It was the day the best pitcher in baseball decided not to start Game 1 of the World Series.

This true story took place in 2005.

I grew up hearing about all of those old Yankees and Dodgers from the 50’s and 60’s with utter reverence. I know their names, their numbers, and their lifetime batting averages – but one day, in a Banana Republic Outlet store in upstate New York, none of those mattered. I knew that face.

After a long day of sales and coupons, my wife was still shopping when I took a place at the end of the slow-moving line. I’m not sure how long it took for me to notice, but a familiar looking man was right in front of me holding two pairs of khaki chinos. I looked at him up and down and from side to side – trying to place that face.

And then it came to me.

I left the line and ran over to my wife who wondered why I was sweating and why my heart was pounding through my chest. I told her that the guy with the chinos was none other than Sandy Koufax. She laughed.

I tried to compare the experience. How about the entire cast of Ocean’s 11 (you know, Clooney, Pitt, etc.) showing up at the Gap to buy jeans? She didn’t bite.

So I went back to the line and I gawked like I had never before gawked at another man. I strained my eyes to see the size of the chinos. He still had a 34-inch waste. I noticed his hands, his feet, his incredible posture. This man was 70 but looked no older than 50. He was in incredible shape and I was in awe. I stared at his left arm – the same arm that created such greatness and such incredible pain. The arm that made him into a Hall-of-Famer and that caused him to retire while still in his prime. Even after that debilitating injury, I had heard stories of a 60-year old Koufax throwing 80 mile per hour fastballs during spring training. The mystical story of Sandy Koufax begins and ends with that one limb.

At some point in every American-Jewish boy’s life, he hears about Yom Kippur in 1965. While Koufax has said repeatedly since that the decision was a personal one – one that he made with no grand idea of what it meant beyond Met Stadium – Jewish mothers across America ran with it.

I, like so many Jewish kids with rabid baseball fans as parents, heard about that day in 1965 as if it was an official Jewish holiday. To Jews, it’s up there with the day JFK was killed – those days everyone remembers, but that aren’t quite holidays. Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Where were you when Drysdale started instead of Koufax?

I would bet my left arm that on every Yom Kippur since 1965, some Jewish kid somewhere in this country has heard a variation of the following:

“If Sandy Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 of the World Series, then you don’t need to throw the ball around with your brother.” Koufax retired after the following season at the age of 30. His pitching arm caused him so much pain that he decided to quit while on top, rather than destroy what was left.

In the 45 years since, Koufax has become a virtual enigma – appearing and disappearing from public view so often that his name is far more familiar than his face. Some years he shows up unannounced during spring training for the Mets or Dodgers. Other years no one knows where to send his mail. He did show up at the ceremony honoring the 50 greatest players of the 20th century. Millions watched that ceremony and millions more read about it the next day. Imagine that – one of the 50 greatest players of the entire century walks into a crowded store and I’m the only one to notice.

We ended up at the register next door and the few doubts I had came to rest as soon as he signed his American Express receipt with that magical left hand. The teenager at the register had no clue who was buying those discounted chinos, nor had anyone else in that jam-packed store. I’m pretty sure Koufax wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Koufax left the store no more than a minute before we did. I deemed it appropriate to approach him outside, perhaps in the parking lot. He would have liked that better I thought. I shouldn’t have given him such a head start. In less than 60 seconds, he disappeared.

I blew it, but in a way, it went down exactly as it should have. He went to buy some pants at a very crowded store. The one person who recognized him decided against calling him out in public. He drove away unscathed. Perfect Koufax.

A few days later, I woke up with excruciating pain in my left shoulder – some of the worst pain I have ever experienced. The diagnosis: partial tear of the rotator cuff.

The doctor wondered with me why a 30-year old right-handed guy who hasn’t played competitive sports in years could develop such an injury. The doctor wasn’t Jewish, so I didn’t bother to tell him about my Koufax encounter.

Maybe the pain was intended for me so I could better understand how one of the greatest pitchers of all time could just give it all up. What would I do at 30 if the pain became unbearable?

The man who refuses all interview requests gave me the answer without ever saying a word.

Just in case you need some perspective on the legend that is Sandy Koufax: