During a week in which Yom Kippur and the baseball playoffs overlapped, every Jewish baseball fan could recite the great Sandy Koufax story: he refused to pitch on the 1965 Day of Atonement, no matter the World Series being played. But in her terrific book, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” (Harper Perennial), Jane Leavy offered another tale for the ages.
In the 1963 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, Koufax not only won but struck out a then-record 15 batters. When he whiffed the first time, a completely overwhelmed Mantle turned to Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro.
“Mantle looked at me,” said Roseboro, “and said, ‘How in the [bleep] are you supposed to hit that [bleep?]’
“There was nothing else to say,” Leavy writes.
“Except to pray for more Jewish holidays,” third baseman Clete Boyer said after the game.
“You mean like Yom Koufax?” Mantle replied.
The Dodgers won that World Series, and maybe Mantle was prescient. Yom Koufax, indeed. In 1965, when Koufax’s scheduled start overlapped with Yom Kippur, he famously waited an extra day, and once again pitched brilliantly as the Dodgers won another World Series.
(When he pitched in the 1966 World Series against the Orioles, Koufax was beaten by a young Jim Palmer. But Yom Kippur was two days later, so no heavenly assistance figured in the final score.)
But if Koufax’s gesture isn’t proof that God must be a baseball fan, then how’s this? As Tablet magazine’s website (tabletmag.com) pointed out on Thursday, Oct. 10, the previous day, Yom Kippur, was not a good one for those Jewish major leaguers who chose to play instead of pray.
All three of their teams lost.
Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried entered the decisive Game 5 against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning, with his club trailing, 4-0. By the time Fried left, an inning later, the score was 11-0.
Alex Bregman’s Houston Astros, heavy favorites to reach the World Series, lost to the Tampa Rays, leaving them a game away from elimination. Bregman, a genuine star, had a non-productive night.
And as Koufax’s old Dodgers team suffered a stunning 10-inning loss to the Washington Nationals, Joe Pederson’s long fly ball to left field, which looked like a home run, instead fell short – “thanks,” according to Tablet, to a “possible assist from some remnant of the ruach gedolah (great wind or spirit) from the book of Jonah.”
Heavenly punishment from an avenging God?
“Look,” writes Armin Rosen in Tablet,” “it’s a theological stretch to claim that there’s some kind of Koufax curse at work here whereby Hashem punishes teams whose star Jewish players don’t sit out on Yom Kippur. That would be an absurd and completely non-disprovable thing to assert.
“But consider this: Any one of these outcomes would have been an unlikely event. Two of them? Preposterous. Three of them? On Yom Kippur? What do you want to bet that it’s not the hand of an angry God?”
However, let’s look at the whole record. It’s a small sample size, owing to the dearth of Jewish major leaguers over the years, but there’s the story of the great Hank Greenberg, star of the 1934 Detroit Tigers. He sat out the World Series game that fell on Yom Kippur, but the Tigers still lost that year to St. Louis.
And then there’s Al Rosen, the star third baseman of the 1954 Cleveland Indians. He vowed to sit out the fifth game of the World Series that year because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, they lost to the old New York Giants – in four straight games – so Rosen never got to make the grand gesture.
Maybe God was a Giants’ fan.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).