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Friday, October 14, 2005

When faith trumped baseball

Star Tribune

10/13/05

Using good-old fashioned chutzpah, a young Minnesota rabbi walked up to the desk clerk at the grand St. Paul Hotel and asked to see Sandy Koufax.

The Dodger lefty was baseball's best pitcher and just hours away from taking the mound at Met Stadium for Game 2 of the 1965 World Series against the Twins. He was limbering up in his hotel room after declining to pitch Game 1 the day before because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most sacred of Jewish holidays.

That ultimate athletic expression of faith 40 years ago has become - and remains today - a hallmark source of Jewish pride, making the not-so-religious Koufax a reluctant hero. But his act of faith forever identified the '65 Series as the one where faith and principle transcended the national pastime.

Rabbi Moshe Feller, director of Chabad Lubavitch of the Upper Midwest at age 28, felt divinely inspired to try to see Koufax that Thursday in October 1965 so he could personally thank him for what he had done the day before.

"I figured I'm going to go down there - I said a little prayer - and I'm going to ask to see him," the rabbi remembered with clarity 40 years later.

The desk clerk "probably figured I'm his rabbi. He gave me his number, so I called him up."

Feller - who has told this story with relish numerous times to friends, audiences and Jewish media but never beyond that circle - introduced himself over the phone. "I told him that more Jews knew when Yom Kippur is because you announced you weren't going to pitch on October 6th than knew from the Jewish calendar."

Feller also said he wanted to present Koufax with a pair of tefillin, sacred leather boxes containing scripture worn on the head and arm by Jewish men during weekday prayers.

In Feller's memory, the conversation went like this: "Where would you like to make this presentation?" Koufax asked. "Anywhere you want," Feller responded.

"Would you like to come up to my room?" the pitcher asked. "Sure," the rabbi replied without hesitation.

Feller, wearing a black hat and business suit, took the elevator to the eighth floor (he thinks), and Koufax opened the door, swinging his arms forward and backward as if winding up. "We talked a little baseball, about the World Series. I was there about 10 minutes."

Feller remembers Koufax, who was dressed casually, as handsome, kind and respectful.

"He didn't say, 'I'm busy today, I've got things to do.' He accepted my invitation very graciously."

Did he or didn't he?

The day before, as the Dodgers' other future Hall of Fame pitcher, Don Drysdale, prepared to fill in for Koufax in Game 1, Twin Cities Jewish lore has Koufax attending services at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul. It was the closest synagogue to the ballpark.

Ron Rabinovitz, a Dodgers fan from Edina, says he has heard that Koufax was in any number of synagogues that day. "I've heard people say, 'He was at my synagogue.' 'No, he was at my synagogue.' "

But author Jane Leavy, who wrote the widely acclaimed 2002 biography "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," calls the synagogue sightings "apocryphal." Leavy, who received limited cooperation from Koufax in researching her book, said, "Friends say he chose to stay alone in his hotel room."

Rabbi Bernard Raskas, who presided over the services at Temple of Aaron, has a different story. He has no doubt Koufax was in his synagogue. "In my mind's eye, I can still see him. I know where he sat, exactly where he sat."

But Raskas, now 82 and retired, said nothing about it from the pulpit. "My job was to protect his privacy; besides, there would have been a mob scene."

No decision

Koufax, 69, who now lives in Vero Beach, Fla., closely guards his privacy, declining nearly all interview requests, including one for this story. A fan would be hard-pressed to write him. He has no mail box and has asked the Dodgers not to forward mail.

But he did address his refusal to pitch in his 1966 autobiography, "Koufax."There was never any decision to make, though, because there was never any possibility that I would pitch. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows that I don't work that day."

He added: "I knew I wouldn't be hurting the club one bit by not pitching," because Drysdale, who had won 23 games that season, was his replacement.

Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, the Twins' top slugger, heartily agreed. "It was like going from the frying pan into the fire," Killebrew, comparing Koufax and Drysdale, said recently from his Arizona home.

But Killebrew always admired Koufax for his courage. "We all respected what he did. It had to be a tough decision for him."

As it turned out, Drysdale got pounded early. And when manager Walter Alston walked to the mound to pull him, the right-hander said: "I know, Skip. You're wishing I was a Jew."

Koufax lost the second game, and the somber Dodgers returned to Los Angeles down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. While they eventually won the Series, four games to three, winning the seventh game in Bloomington with Koufax pitching a brilliant three-hit shutout on two days' rest, the dominant legacy of the Series is clear.

"That was the World Series that Sandy Koufax didn't pitch because of Yom Kippur," said Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant to Al Franken on Franken's national radio show in August.

Franken, a Jew who grew up in St. Louis Park, was telling Oliphant about recently attending ceremonies at the Metrodome to honor the '65 Twins.

Franken, who was a 14-year-old Twins fan in '65, said in an interview that it wasn't until much later that he realized the importance of Koufax's act. Back then, he was just hoping the Twins could beat the Dodgers and their incredible pitchers.

Koufax not playing "was a big deal," said Franken, who listened to the Series during classes at the old Westwood Junior High School in St. Louis Park. "When you think of great Jewish athletes, it's a pretty small list, but Koufax would have to stand out as the greatest."

And there is simply no way to overstate what his singular act in 1965 has meant to Jews.

Leavy, who is Jewish, wrote: "The Dodgers lost [Game 1], but Koufax won. In that moment, he became known as much for what he refused to do as for what he did on the mound. By refusing to pitch, Koufax defined himself as a man of principle who placed faith above craft. ... In Jewish households, he was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sandee."

And it touched Leavy personally. She recalled working as a sports reporter during Yom Kippur one year in the early 1980s. "Deadlines were tight. I remember feeling pressured and something else, a discomfort in my own skin. I remember thinking, 'Sandy Koufax didn't pitch on Yom Kippur.' I have not worked on the High Holidays since. Sandy Koufax had made himself at home in my soul."

Rabbi Hillel Silverman, who has served congregations in Connecticut and California, said: "There's not a Jew who goes to services on Yom Kippur who doesn't recall that Sandy Koufax wouldn't pitch on the holiest day of the year."

Silverman said he once asked Koufax about his decision. "He said to me, 'I'm not really religious, but I feel I have a responsibility; I'm a role model, especially for children.' "

And Jewish parents frequently use that role model for a teachable moment. Mickey Goldstein, a Minneapolis dentist who lives in St. Louis Park, said he told his son, now grown: "Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher of our time, and he didn't play in a World Series game; you can miss your Little League game."

Back in that St. Paul Hotel room in '65, Koufax seemed genuinely moved, Feller said, and told the rabbi he knew how to wear the tefillin. "He kept touching the tefillin, and I hoped that he would put them on after I left."

As the rabbi got ready to leave, Koufax stopped him and said, "You know, Rabbi Feller, they make a big fuss that I don't pitch on Yom Kippur. I don't pitch on Rosh Hashanah, either."

Pamela Huey • 612-673-7044

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