Role Models & Heroes: Sandy Koufax (2013)

By September 23, 2013 November 15th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Heroes & Role Models

 The following essay on Sandy Koufax was written by Alex Botwin, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this can be seen below. The process  improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

Alex Botwin
September 21, 2013

A hero is someone you admire, but don’t necessarily want to be like. A role model is someone you respect and want to emulate. I chose Sandy Koufax as my hero and role model because I admire and respect him. I also wanted to find someone who was an athlete who also had values that I could relate to. After researching Sandy Koufax, I realized we had similar backgrounds. We are both athletes and we are both baseball pitchers. Koufax also was very good at basketball, and I’m playing basketball for my school team this year. Koufax and I were both raised in Brooklyn and we are both Jewish. I also discovered that we have similar values; we stand up for what we believe in and we both believe in the fair treatment of others. Sandy Koufax never forgot someone’s kindness and if you were his friend you were his friend for life. Koufax never let his fame define him. He was a Jewish boy from Brooklyn when he started becoming famous, and he was that same Jewish boy when he was done.

So after all that, you may be saying to yourself, “Who is Sandy Koufax?” Well, Sandy Koufax was one of the greatest left handed pitchers to ever play the game of baseball. From 1961-1966, while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was unhittable. Willy Stargel, a great home run hitter for the Pittsburg Pirates at that time, said that trying to hit a Koufax fastball was like trying to drink coffee with a fork. Koufax wasn’t always a great pitcher, and in fact, when he first came up in the major leagues, he was awful. The funniest part of all of this is that he wasn’t even supposed to play baseball.

Let’s go back and start from the beginning. Sandy Koufax was a Jewish kid who grew up in Brooklyn, with his mother, Evelyn, and stepfather, Irving Koufax, who thought Sandy would be a doctor or a lawyer one day. They were not a very religious family and would only go to services on the High Holidays, but never on Friday nights. They observed Judaism more as a cultural practice than as a religion – sound familiar? As one of his high school classmates explained it, “You’re Jewish but you don’t hold it up. … You were Jewish because you were born Jewish. … Because you were from Brooklyn. … You were Jewish by osmosis. You grew up in a shtetl.” This non-observant stance made what he did later even that much more impressive.

Koufax was a great all-around athlete. He played basketball, as well as baseball, for Lafayette High School in Brooklyn; he even made the papers when his high school basketball team played the New York Knicks. The players on the Knicks had to knock him down in order to stop him from scoring, but there were rumors around that this Jewish kid from Brooklyn could also really throw a baseball. Koufax played baseball in the Brooklyn sandlot league. He originally played second base because he couldn’t hit very well, but later played pitcher when they needed someone to pitch. He never showed off or bragged about his talent; he just went out and did his best.

Major League Baseball scouts came to Dyker Field in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to watch Koufax pitch to his friends in some sandlot games. One day Al Campanis, a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, invited Koufax to Ebbets Field for a tryout with the team. After batting just one time against him, Campanis asked Koufax to join the Dodgers. The 19-year-old said yes and became a Brooklyn Dodger. His stepfather, Irving Koufax, really supported his desire to play professional baseball, and he was there when Koufax signed his Dodger contract. In his autobiography he mentioned his relationship to his stepfather and said, “When I speak of my father, I speak of Irving Koufax, for he has been to me everything a father could be.”

For the majority of his rookie season, Koufax spent most of his time on the bench. It was 1955, and the Dodgers had a shot to win the National League Pennant. Koufax was too unpredictable as a pitcher to play much. He couldn’t throw strikes and walked many players. He was over-throwing and had no control. Besides having trouble pitching, Koufax also kept to himself and didn’t have a lot of friends on the team. Many of his teammates made fun of him behind his back because he was Jewish. In the 1950s, just like today, there were very few Jews in baseball. This was one of the reasons why Koufax became close to the black players on his team like Jackie Robinson, Joe Black and Roy Campanella. He saw himself as a minority just as they were.

In 1957, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, but Koufax still struggled. In 1958 he threw more wild pitches than any other pitcher in baseball. He was also second in the number of walked batters in the National League. Koufax was frustrated by his lack of success but he kept trying. Finally in 1960, Koufax went to the Dodgers’ general manager, “Buzzie” Bavasi, and asked either to be traded or to be allowed to pitch every day. Buzzie put Koufax into the regular starting rotation with Don Drysdale and Don Newcombe, the aces of the LA Dodgers pitching staff. Buzzie hoped that they could show Koufax how to relax. It didn’t help, and at end of the 1960 season Koufax ended up with 8 wins and 13 loses. After the last game he threw his jersey away and considered quitting. During the offseason, Sandy Koufax decided to give baseball another chance. He worked out and refocused on becoming a better pitcher. Many years later he was asked why he came back for the 1961 season and he said, “I wanted to give it one more chance, I was determined to be the pitcher I knew I could be.”

At spring training 1961, Koufax showed up to play, but his performance was still the same, and by the end of spring training nobody knew what to do to help him. Then, in one preseason game against the Twins, when Koufax walked three batters in a row and loaded the bases, the catcher Norm Sherry walked to the mound and yelled at Koufax. He said, “Kid, just put it over the plate. Let ’im hit it. We got 9 guys on this team who can field.” Koufax must have heard those words 1,000 times, but for some reason this time it was different. He took those words to heart. He then struck out the next three batters with the fastest pitches he had ever thrown, and for the rest of the day Koufax pitched like an ace. He struck out 8 batters and threw his first no hitter. By the end of 1961, Koufax had broken the National League record of 269 strikeouts in a season. For the next 6 years, Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball, but after each game he had to ice his arm because it would swell up to the size of a grapefruit. Koufax had arthritis in his left elbow, which caused it to swell after each game. The arthritis got so bad that he was not even able to hold things in his left hand. He had numbness in his fingers, but he never missed a start in his entire career.

In 1965, the Dodgers went to the World Series. The first game fell on Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day for Jews, and Koufax was supposed to pitch. He decided that because he was Jewish, and Jews were not supposed to work on High Holy Days, he would not pitch in that game. He had not pitched on Yom Kippur in previous years but this time it fell on game 1 of the World Series. It wasn’t an act of defiance, it was his way of saying to the world that he was Jewish and this was what Jews do on Yom Kippur. He was not an observant Jew, and for the record, he didn’t even go to services that day — he just stayed in his hotel. He was not the first Jewish player not to play on Yom Kippur — in 1934, Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers did not play — but Koufax was the starting star pitcher for the Dodgers in the World Series, and he stuck to his principles. It made him a hero in the Jewish community by showing the world that it was okay to be Jewish and stand up for his beliefs. They talked about him at every temple that day. Rabbis now had a role model that they could hold up to their congregations and say, ” Look at Sandy Koufax, he is a successful baseball player and a good Jew!” It showed him as a man of character, because he stood up to the anti-Semitism of the time by doing what he believed was the right thing to do as a Jew. He once confided in a rabbi he knew and said,” I’m Jewish. I’m a role model. I want them to understand they have to have pride.”

At the end of the 1966 season, with a league-leading record of 27 wins, 9 losses, 317 strikeouts, 5 shutouts, 27 complete games and an ERA of 1.7, Koufax decided to retire. He had a choice to continue playing and possibly lose the use of his left arm or retire and keep it. So at the height of his career he retired. Soon after, he signed a ten-year contract with NBC to be an announcer for the Saturday baseball game of the week. He quit that job before the 1973 season. He spent many spring trainings in Dodger Town in Florida giving advice to young pitchers on how to throw the perfect fastball. Since the Dodgers moved their spring training facility to Arizona, Koufax spends time now with the Mets at Port St. Lucie. His high school friend Fred Wilpon is the owner of the Mets. He will still do occasional fundraisers for friends and former teammates but he never wanted to have his fame exploited.

I chose Sandy Koufax as my hero because he is a person of his word. He never compromised his beliefs, even if it meant making other people upset with him. He is a great friend to all that truly know him. Nobody has ever had a bad thing to say about him. I admire him because he didn’t play in the most important game of his career because Yom Kipper was on the same day. He started out as someone who was just a regular human being but became one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He never forgot where he came from and never forgot who his friends were. This is why Sandy Koufax is my hero.