February 18, 2020

Jewish Ballplayers Flashed Leather on Yom Kippur. How Can We Forgive Them?

Former Los Angeles Dodgers player Sandy Koufax throws out the ceremonial first pitch before game seven of the 2017 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Who doesn’t love the story? 

It’s the 10th of October in 1965, and the Dodgers are playing in Game 1 of the World Series. It also happens to be the 10th day of Tishrei (5726 if you’re keeping score at home), which is to say it’s Yom Kippur, so Sandy Koufax, who is not only the Dodgers’ ace but also the best pitcher in baseball, isn’t pitching. Instead, Don Drysdale gets the start but he’s pounded by the Minnesota Twins lineup, giving up seven runs (three earned). When Dodger Manager Walter Alston comes to the mound with an early hook, Drysdale — a future Hall of Famer — supplies the punch line. 

“Hey skip,” he says, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.”

All’s well that ends well. The Dodgers went on to win that World Series in seven games— an outcome that currently feels unfathomable to most fans my age or younger — and Koufax’s abstention on Judaism’s holiest day became a defining moment for American Jews. Koufax showed that Jews could publicly observe their faith even if they weren’t, strictly-speaking, observant. By sitting out, this blue-cap-wearing Jew taught us that you don’t have to be Black Hat to be proud of who you are or to sacrifice for your faith. And, of course, he highlighted a deep, inexorable truth that secular media is loathe to admit: Jewish people are irreplaceable!

The story of Jews starring on the baseball field doesn’t end with Koufax. There have been a bunch; I won’t bother to list them all here.  There’s a Wikipedia page, etc. (Shout out to Shawn Green, though.) Indeed, there was something of a Jewish renaissance on the diamond this season. The Dodgers’ Joc Pederson hit 36 homers, Atlanta Braves lefty Max Fried (a Harvard-Westlake grad) won 17 games, and the Houston Astros’ Alex Bregman is the odds-on favorite for Most Valuable Player of the American League. 

Now, I want you to take a deep breath before I tell you that this fall, all three played on the 10th of Tishrei, Oct. 8-9, which was Yom Kippur. (5780 if you’re scoring at home.)

The horror! Twitter users pointed out that the three non-fasters received their just desserts swiftly as Atlanta, Houston and L.A. were each inscribed in the loss column that day. We’d like to think that because a Jewish outfielder batted leadoff while many Jews were reading the story of Jonah, the Gates of Heaven slammed shut on the Dodgers’ title hopes a few hours later. S’char va’onesh, reward and punishment: Who doesn’t love that story?

It’s fair to feel let down by what feels like a missed opportunity for high-profile Jews to cover for the rest of us during the Yamim Noraim. It’s not like taking those days off still doesn’t pose challenges in the workplace. Earlier this month, New York Metropolitan Transit Authority officials reportedly asked an Orthodox Jewish train conductor to prove he would be observing Rosh Hashanah. Many of us, I’m sure, have hesitated even to ask for the day off. At my first job after graduating from college, project managing at a big corporation in Wisconsin, I ran into a spate of three-day chags in the early going. I took them off, and it felt like I never really recovered. (Flying home may have been overkill.)

The mere choice of whether to wear cleats on our Crocs-or-Converse Day is a luxury afforded today’s heroes by Koufax, whose sacrifice came during a more precarious moment for Jews in American life. Since 1965, we have become, for better or worse, mainstream. On the other hand, the national pastime is no longer the cultural hegemon it once was, competing in an ever-crowded entertainment landscape. Perhaps that sea change made these nice Jewish boys less inclined to stand out by sitting out — there’s certainly less heroism at stake — and maybe it’s part of the reason there are so many in the big leagues to begin with.

Their choice is their business, a matter of their faith, not ours. As we learned from Reb Koufax, Jews who work on holidays are Jews all the same; people can and do represent the Tribe whether they are wearing a blue cap, black hat or no hat at all. Anyway, we can all agree that it’s less what you do on the 10th of Tishrei than how you carry yourself the other 364 days of the year (353 if you’re keeping score at home).

We’re stuck with our sports stars, and to some extent, they’re stuck with us, too. (Let’s banish the phrase/acronym “Jews in name only” from our vocabulary, by the way. And while we’re at it, let’s break the unseemly habit of investigating whether people who identify as Jews really count.) Would that Fried, Pederson or Bregman had Koufaxed on Oct. 9 — one can dream of the holy spectacle created if all three sat at once. But if they had somehow made it easier for the rest of us, then our choices wouldn’t require much of a sacrifice, either. 

Next Sept. 28, if you decide to take that day off, you can thank our Hebrew hammers for reminding you what it’s worth. The only person keeping score at home is you.


Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter at @thislouis