By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published October 29, 2015
Lawrence Peter Berra—you know him better as Yogi—died a month ago. Berra was a devout Catholic, who also happened to be a brilliant baseball player and one of America’s most lovable wits. We pray for the repose of his soul, but this column is not about Yogi Berra. Nor is it about the hapless Chicago Cubs, who for the 107th year in a row will have to once again “wait until next year.”
It is about baseball, which is on the mind of any sports fan in the country in October, the glorious month of the postseason and the World Series.
More importantly, it’s about ecumenical understanding, personal conviction and religious obligation.
I’m trying very hard to teach my boys about their Catholic faith, and I’m trying to share with them as well my love for baseball. This month it’s all coming together.
We’re preparing my older son for his first confession, and his first holy Communion. We’re teaching my younger son, Nicky, to play ball. This weekend, to make up for all the rainouts he’s had, he has three games in a row. We’re calling it a series, and one of the games is also under the lights, the first time he’s played at night. The final game falls on Sunday.
We go to Mass on Sunday.
We’ll make it all work out, of course. We’ll adjust our usual Mass time, and Nick will change into his uniform at the church, and we’ll be able to fulfill our religious obligation without missing the first pitch. If you have children involved in sports, and you’re a Catholic, you know the routine. It’s inconvenient, but not that big of a deal.
Fifty years ago this month, another ballplayer had to make a much more difficult choice about the conflict between his religion and his game. Except Sanford “Sandy” Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers wasn’t facing just any ball game; he was scheduled to pitch in game one of the 1965 World Series. That game just happened to fall on the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur, the sixth of October 1965, and just 22 days later, on October 28, Pope Paul VI issued the document “Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.”
When Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers’ owner and a Catholic, heard of Koufax’s declaration that he would not pitch on Yom Kippur, he said he would ask the pope to pray for a rainout of the game. In “Nostra Aetate,” he got a far greater answer to his prayer.
To conceive of a relationship between Sandy Koufax and “Nostra Aetate,” it is important to have an understanding of the context of baseball in the 1960s and American and Catholic attitudes toward the Jews.
By the mid-1960s, baseball was gradually beginning to lose ground to pro football; the sport still mattered deeply, but there was no doubt that football was booming. So it was that on September 9, 1965, less than a month before the opening of the World Series, only 29,000 showed up at Dodger Stadium to see Sandy Koufax pitch one of the greatest games in baseball history. That night, Koufax threw not just a no-hitter, his fourth, but also a perfect game. He recorded no walks, and he struck out 14 batters. In the ninth inning, he struck out all three batters, throwing harder than he had the entire game. The perfect game was made even more astounding by the fact that Koufax played in immense pain, as he played most of his career. The cliché is to lament that Koufax’s career was plagued by arthritis. The truth is that the suffering only made him better.
Few people in the United States would have argued against the claim that Koufax was the greatest pitcher in baseball. The early part of his career, which began in 1955 in Brooklyn before the Dodgers moved west, was unremarkable. But an adjustment to his pitching delivery revealed his full potential and in the 1960s he literally exploded into greatness. He won the Cy Young Award three times, and he led both major leagues in strikeouts for four years, including 1966, his final season in which he won an incredible 27 games, all of them pitched while he was in excruciating pain.
Koufax was faced with the double burden of having to be a public emblem for his people. He was a hero to the Jews; “Abraham, Moses, and Sandy,” went one familiar line. “Sandy is the greatest Jewish athlete since Samson,” quipped Milton Berle. Koufax was also deeply admired by American Catholics, who in spite of a rampant anti-Semitism in the country, tended to empathize with the Jews because of a shared sense of marginality.
When Koufax made the decision not to pitch on the holiest day of his religious year, he immediately became a legend, not just for the Jewish people, but for all Americans of religious faith. Koufax himself downplayed the act: “There was never any decision to make because there was never any possibility that I would pitch. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows I don’t work that day. I had taken Yom Kippur off for 10 years. It was just something I’d always done with respect.”
The public saw it differently. Instantly he became a hero not only in the sports world, but in the world of faith. In an America that often vilified the Jewish people, Koufax’s act gave Jews a renewed sense of pride in both their religion and their cultural contributions.
Further, his refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur resonated with Christians in an increasingly secularized America. Koufax represented conviction, courage, humility and conscience. Here was a man who had everything, who could do anything, who with a quiet confidence elevated God above himself. If American Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, had once only seen Koufax as a Jewish athlete who dominated the pitcher’s mound, they now saw him as a role model who validated their own sense of belief. Koufax might have gotten more people to go back to church than Billy Graham.
It is a wonderful synchronicity that just a few weeks later, the Vatican released “Nostra Aetate.” Though the document references the major non-Christian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, its primary focus is upon the Jews.
“Nostra Aetate” is a beautiful acknowledgment that the human race is “one community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth.” The document affirms, moreover, that “the Church remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.”
“Nostra Aetate” clarifies our shared beginning of faith in the Patriarchs of the Hebrew people; it acknowledges our debt to the revelation of the Old Testament; it characterizes the Jews as God’s chosen people through whom came the fulfillment of our salvation in Jesus Christ, and it echoes the assertion of St. Paul, that “theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ.”
This underscoring of Apostolic Tradition prefaces an admonition against intolerance or anti-Semitism of any kind and concludes that “The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.”
Just a few weeks before Sandy Koufax pitched his perfect game in 1965, the Watts section of Los Angeles had been enflamed by the worst race riots in American history. That same summer, Koufax had watched in anguish as Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants hit John Roseboro of the Dodgers over the head with a bat in the middle of a game. Troop levels, and casualties, were growing in Vietnam. As the exuberance of Beatlemania began to wane, baseball, and the country, were also losing their innocence.
From time to time there are moments in history when events in different places, and of differing significance, connect in one harmonious accord.
Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, and his noble observance of Yom Kippur, might not have anything to do with the Catholic Church’s great ecumenical document “Nostra Aetate.” Then again, they have everything to do with each other. Each demonstrates the larger forces at work in the culture and the Church. In the culture we refer to it as zeitgeist; in the Church we speak of the Holy Spirit. Either way, something was responding to the Kairos—a moment of profound importance—that was growing in the 1960s.
1965 represented Sandy Koufax at his best. 1965 is also a reflection of the Church at her best.
I marvel at the achievement and conviction of Koufax, how in one autumn 50 years ago he gave us memories that now belong to legend.
Reading “Nostra Aetate” again, I am even more proud to be a Catholic, a member of the universal Church that upholds the dignity of all human beings, whoever they may be.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.