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