50 years ago today, Sandy Koufax became a Jewish MVP

Left-hander pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers fires his fast ball, with one leg out front in his long stride, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif., on Oct. 11, 1965. The Los Angeles Dodgers of the National League face the the Minnesota Twins, the American League champions, in the fifth game of the World Series. The Dodgers went on to win the World Series. AP file

Fifty years ago today, Sandy Koufax — perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation — sat in the St. Paul Hotel while his team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, played game one of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins in Bloomington.

It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and Sandy Koufax is Jewish.

Koufax is 79 now and has refused all interviews on the anniversary of his observance.

“There was no hard decision for me,” Koufax told ESPN in 2000. “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.”

“Most people admired Koufax for putting his religion before his job,” longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully says. “I’m sure there were others who were furious, saying that he wasn’t that religious — and I don’t think he really was — but that didn’t make any difference. It was his decision, and everyone respected it. They understood.”

“It’s something that’s engraved on every Jew’s mind,” Rabbi Moshe Feller, who met with Koufax that day, tells Sports Illustrated. “More Jews know Sandy Koufax than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

SI says Koufax’s observance has created legend and myth in St. Paul’s Jewish community.

The morning of Yom Kippur, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Koufax “will attend services today.” The rumor spread that he would do so at Temple of Aaron, a conservative synagogue in St. Paul, which was the closest one to the Dodgers’ hotel.

Steve Shaller, who had just had his bar mitzvah in 1965, remembers waiting outside Temple of Aaron for Koufax to show up before the morning services. “I made my poor father stand out in the drizzle with me to see if he came,” says Shaller, now 63 and a real estate investor. “He didn’t.”

Rabbis throughout the Twin Cities reported that Koufax attended services at their synagogues. Yet none did so as persistently and convincingly as Rabbi Bernie Raskas, who presided at Temple of Aaron and insisted until his death in 2010 that Koufax had attended the morning services there. “He told me that he brought Koufax in through the side door and sat him in front where almost no one saw him,” says David Unowsky, 73, events manager of Subtext Books in St. Paul. “I think if Bernie said it was true, it was probably true. He was a an honorable man.”

Yet Jeremy Fine, associate rabbi at Temple of Aaron, admits that Rabbi Raskas may have fabricated the story to stir up interest in the synagogue or to inspire Jews about their religion. “I wouldn’t put it past him to have made it up,” Rabbi Fine says.

With Koufax out, the Dodgers still had a great pitcher to throw at the Twins. But Don Drysdale got hammered and when manager Walter Alston went to the mound to take him out, trailing 7-to-1, Drysdale is said to have quipped, “I bet you wish I was Jewish, too.”

The Twins won the first two games in Bloomington, lost the next three, won game six to force a deciding seventh game, in which Koufax threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout.

He was named the World Series MVP.

(h/t: Paul Tosto)