Pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Minnesota Twin in game 7 of the 1965 World Series, Oct. 14, 1965 at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis.
Focus On Sport / Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
September 22, 2015

He was the best pitcher in baseball, the only player in the game that Minnesota Twins manager Sam Mele said he’d “pay to see warm up.” Yet in the first game of the 1965 World Series pitting Koufax’s Los Angeles Dodgers against those Twins, he refused to take the mound. Due to what TIME then called “a quirk in the schedule,” the Oct. 6 game fell on Yom Kippur, considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. (This year it begins on the evening of Sept. 22.)

There’s reason to believe Koufax didn’t think the decision was particularly significant, as biographer Jane Leavy told Sports Illustrated in 2002. After all, Don Drysdale, the Dodgers pitcher who took Koufax’s place, was also a star.

But Koufax’s decision instantly transformed him into an icon for Jewish sports fans. Even now, a half-century later and despite the fact that he wasn’t actually too observant, Koufax remains one of the American athletes most closely associated with his faith.

It worked out well for the team, too. The Dodgers won the series and Koufax was named MVP. As TIME described in a profile following the Dodgers’ victory, the Brooklyn-born southpaw may not have had a taste for fame, but he earned it nonetheless:

Nobody, including Sandy Koufax, had any idea how good he was to become when, as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Cincinnati, he was spotted playing on a sandlot team. In 1954, Sandy signed a Dodger contract for $6,000 plus a $14,000 bonus. Scout Al Campanis wrote in his memo to Dodger Owner Walter O’Malley: “No. 1, he’s a Brooklyn boy. No. 2, he’s Jewish.” The Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles was still four years away. In the meantime, says General Manager Buzzie Bavasi, “there were many people of the Jewish faith in Brooklyn.” As it turned out, Koufax sold precious few tickets: over the next three seasons, his record was nine wins and ten losses.

Things improved a little after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles: Sandy won eleven games in 1958, and in 1959 he struck out 18 batters in one game to tie a record. But in 1960 Koufax took stock of himself and did not like what he saw. “Suddenly I looked up,” he said, “and I had a few grey hairs—and I finally realized that either I was going to be really successful or I was in the wrong profession. Maybe the problem was that I never had a burning ambition to be a baseball player. If I had, I might have realized sooner just how much work was involved.” In 1961 Sandy knuckled down. From Dodger Coach Joe Becker, he learned to keep his right shoulder “open”—away from the direction of the pitch, to rock forward with each pitch, to hide his left hand in his glove to avoid exposing the ball while he was winding up. That seemed to be all there was to it. Practically overnight, Koufax became the best pitcher in baseball.

Read more about Sandy Koufax from 1965, here in the TIME Vault: Mr. Cool & the Pros

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