Baseball of all major sports is tinged with the mythic. Maybe because of its long history, characterized by obsessive record keeping and colourful characters like the Babe, Joe D, and Jackie Robinson etc. it holds a special place in Americana. In a country where official distraction has become high art, the summer game endures as a metaphor for our field of dreams.
Jane Leavy tapped into this in her marvellous sociocultural biography of Sandy Koufax(HarperCollins 2003).I was reminded of this as we approached the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar this year.
First, for the uninitiated, Sandy Koufax was a phenomenon who streaked across the baseball skies for five brief years and quickly disappeared. Eschewing celebrity, he lived in anonymity while remaining true to his many friends. As time passed and egocentricity became a national pastime, Koufax remained mysterious, a conundrum to the sporting community especially to Jews who had elevated him to iconic status based largely on his refusal to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series since it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
From 1955 through 1961 the lefthander had a mediocre record (36-36). The following six years Koufax became the most dominating pitcher in baseball history, leading the National League in earned run average every year (the only pitcher ever to achieve this); four times he led the league in strike outs; three times he won at least 25 games. And then at the age of 30 he was gone at the peak of his career, his arm permanently damaged by a dull manager who never took him out of a game or rested him.
As for his refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur, Koufax spent his time in a hotel room, yet his gesture ascribed to him a religiosity which he never claimed.Dodgers merely substituted another great pitcher Don Drysdale for Koufax who pitched the second game. No matter; Koufax became a Jewish hero anyway just before the Six Day War solidified Jewish identity in America.
Years later in 1986 as the New York Mets headed for the National League Championship,the clash bewteen religion and culture was raised once again.Mets execs tried to head the conflict off by requesting a change but the commissioner Peter Ueberroth nixed their request.The reason? Television schedules.Jewsih fans were furious.
I thought Nathan Perlmutter, at that time head of the Anti-defamation League of B’Nai Brith framed it nicely:
“Part of the cost of being Jewish is that you sacrifice some worldly indulgences and you don’t impose on the rest of the world to adopt your ways and your beliefs.For those whose faith is the Mets they ought to go to Temple shea.For those whose faith is Judaism,they will know what to do.”
Koufax was no religious ikon, simply an ordinary guy, one who never mounted any chargers for any great causes but whose basic decency and his fundamental right to privacy make him an anomaly, but hardly a hero.