Leviticus 16:30 (ESV)
For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.
Game 1 (October 6, 1965): Minnesota Twins 5, Los Angeles Dodgers 1
On October 6, 1965, most baseball fans assumed that superstar lefty Sandy Koufax would take the mound as the starting pitcher in Game 1 of the World Series. He had more than earned his right to lead the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Minnesota Twins. Koufax was the reigning Cy Young Award winner and had pitched a perfect game earlier that season.
But instead, Koufax told manager Walt Alston that he wouldn’t be available. Just like every year before, Koufax elected not to compete on Yom Kippur —a significant religious holiday that is commonly recognized as the holiest day for Jewish people.
On this “Day of Atonement” that lasts nearly 26 hours, Jews are to abstain from food and drink, as well as other common daily practices. Yom Kippur also includes five prayer services and concludes with a festive evening meal. The holiday finds its roots in the Torah and serves as an observance of Leviticus 16:30: “…on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.”
The specific command to abstain from work is found in Leviticus 23:32: “It is a day of sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your sabbath.”
Initially, Koufax’s decision was seen in a negative light considering that his replacement Don Drysdale struggled to slow down the Twins’ offense. The Dodgers lost that opening game, 8-2.
The team’s misfortune continued the next day as Koufax took the mound for Game 2 and likewise failed to slow down Minnesota’s bats. The Dodgers lost 5-1 and took a two-game deficit back to Los Angeles.
Unfazed, the Dodgers came back to win the next three games including a spectacular effort from Koufax in Game 5, which resulted in a 7-0 shutout of the Twins. Then, with the series tied 3-3, he returned to the mound for his third start in eight days and having only two days rest from his previous appearance. Back at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis where he had sat out to observe Yom Kippur, Koufax crafted a masterful three-hit complete game shutout in Game 7. The Dodgers won 2-0 and clinched the title.
For the second time in his career, Koufax’s performance earned him the World Series MVP award. But it was his inspiration to Jewish fans in Los Angeles and across the nation that has outlasted his on-the-field heroics. John Thorn, an official historian for Major League Baseball and son of two Holocaust survivors, told ESPN that Koufax’s decision to honor his faith sent an important message to the Jewish population.
“What struck me [about his decision], as an 18-year-old, was that America must be a very great place,” Thorn said. “That a Jew cannot only profess his faith openly but take a stance for his religion in opposition to the national religion – and baseball is America's national religion.”
But for Koufax, it wasn’t a big deal at the time nor was it anything he ever regretted.
“There was no hard decision for me," Koufax once said. “It was just a thing of respect. I wasn't trying to make a statement, and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.”
It may have seemed like a simple observance of one of the Torah’s most revered holidays, but for many people like Thorn and other Jewish baseball fans across the country, Koufax’s act of obedience was very significant and remains an endearing piece of the legendary athlete’s legacy.
Dear Lord, we pray that we would be obedient to the things of You. Help us to stand firm in our faith and honor You with our actions. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.