Fifty years ago, the 1967 baseball season unfolded without Sandy Koufax. The great Jewish lefthander had shocked the baseball world by announcing his retirement after the 1966 World Series.
Koufax, just 30 at the time, was the best pitcher in the game. In what turned out to be his final season he posted a 27-9 record with an earned run average of 1.73. And he pitched 27 complete games – an amazing stat when one considers that nowadays a starter isn’t expected to go more than six or seven innings – on a good day!
But concerns over his arthritic arm forced Koufax to give up baseball. If the new medical techniques that came along a decade or so later had been available in the mid-1960s, Koufax could have pitched several more years and amassed even more records.
Most Jewish fans were following Mideast events 50 years ago. Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser threatened Israel and on May 23, 1967, Egyptian troops moved into Sharm el-Sheikh and ordered the Straits of Tiran closed to Israeli ships and Israel-bound cargo.
Events morphed into what became known as the Six-Day War. While the war lasted less than a week, millions of words were devoted to it in newspapers and magazines over the days and weeks that followed.
One of the more shocking stories that emerged was the news that during the 1948-1967 Jordanian occupation of eastern Jerusalem, 58 synagogues were destroyed and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives repeatedly vandalized. Tombstones were used to pave roads and build latrines in Jordanian army barracks.
As 1967 wore on, Boston Red Sox leftfielder Carl Yastrzemski caught our attention as it became clear he was on his way to a special season. Yaz was a rookie in 1961, the year after Boston’s legendary Ted Williams, also a leftfielder, had retired. Not only did Yaz star at the plate, he put on a show in the field with dazzling catches.
He cemented his great year by batting an amazing .523 with five home runs in his final 12 games. When the dust settled, Yaz won the American League Triple Crown, batting .326 with 44 home runs and 121 runs batted in. Yaz also led the league in hits (189) and deservedly was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
Yastrzemski led the Red Sox to the World Series, and fans were wondering if he would continue his amazing season against the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Yaz indeed continued to shine as he batted .400 in the Fall Classic and led both teams with three home runs. Each team won three of the first six games of the Series, and it all came down to game seven.
The teams’ aces, Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox and Bob Gibson of the Cardinals, had already each won two games in the Series and now they faced off in the deciding contest. Gibson dominated. Boston’s “Impossible Dream” season (the Red Sox had gone from last place in 1966 to the World Series a year later, a feat no other AL team had ever pulled off) was over.
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While there weren’t any Jewish superstars in 1967, there were several Jewish major leaguers. The Houston Astros had Norm Miller and pitchers Barry Latman and Larry Sherry. The Cincinnati Reds had Art Shamsky and the Chicago Cubs had pitcher Ken Holtzman.
In the American League, the Washington Senators had Mike Epstein, who’d batted .309 with 29 home runs and 102 runs batted in a year earlier for Baltimore’s top minor league club in Rochester, New York. After an end of season call-up, Epstein started the ’67 season with the Orioles. Informed that he was being sent back to the minors, Epstein refused to report and was traded to the Senators.
Because he drew a Star of David on his glove in the minor leagues, his manager, Rocky Bridges, nicknamed him “SuperJew,” and Epstein never discouraged the title, which followed him up the minor league ladder. Epstein was back in the big leagues when the Senators came to Yankee Stadium for a series in June. He paid a visit to his grandmother, who lived a few blocks from the ballpark. In his debut in a Washington uniform, Epstein singled and hit his first major league home run. It was the first day of the Six-Day War.
Epstein knocked in both Washington runs that day, leading to this headline in the New York Daily News: “Mick and Yanks 4, Epstein 2.” On June 27, Epstein hit two home runs in one game for the first time in his career.
Norm Miller of the Astros only hit one home run in 1967 and batted a lowly .205. His Houston teammate Barry Latman wrapped up his 11-year career that season with a lifetime mark of 59 wins and 68 losses and a 3.91 ERA. Houston’s other Jewish pitcher, Larry Sherry, obtained earlier in the season from the Detroit Tigers, appeared in 29 games, winning one and losing one.
Ken Holtzman reeled off five victories for the Cubs, and in May changed from a baseball uniform to a military one. He pitched on weekend passes from his base at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas and collected four more victories, giving him a 9-0 record for the season. In what would be his last season with Cincinnati before being traded to the Mets, Art Shamsky posted an embarrassing .197 average in only 147 at-bats. (Shamsky would, however, play a pivotal role two years later on the 1969 “Miracle Mets.”)
Other memorable baseball events in 1967:
Tom Seaver won a then-club record 16 games for the Mets and was named National League Rookie of the Year.
The All-Star Game was played in Anaheim and lasted 15 innings, the longest in All-Star Game history. Tony Perez of the Reds hit a home run to win it.
Mickey Mantle hit his 500th career home run and teammate Whitey Ford retired with an unreal .690 career winning percentage, the century’s highest.
Veteran slugging third baseman Eddie Mathews, playing for Houston, hit his 500th career home run.