By Bill Simons
In recent years, removal and defacement has targeted monuments to Americans once regarded as iconic heroes, including Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. The baseball pantheon is not immune. Notation of Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was stripped from Most Valuable Player awards. Amidst debunking and deconstruction, the recent erection of a massive statue in Los Angeles honoring Jewish baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax is notable.
Dedicated on June 18, the Sandy Koufax statue stands in Dodger Stadium’s Centerfield Plaza. At 19.5 tons, the bronze monument, highlighting the lefty pitcher’s muscularity, conveys an indelible image of resolve and mastery.
Depicting Koufax in windup – front leg thrust high in the air while pivoting off the backfoot – sculptor Branly Cadet melds mythic heroism and athletic realism. The baseball is clasped as confidently and surely as the rock placed in the sling by David as he faced Goliath. Cadet set out to capture Koufax’s “focus,” “integrity” and ferocious determination, and the sculptor succeeded.
The statue of Koufax at the centerfield entrance stands a short distance from that of Jackie Robinson. Unveiled in 2017, the Robinson monument was the first erected at Dodger Stadium. Fierce and graceful, Robinson in bronze is stealing home. Cadet, an African American artist, also sculpted the Robinson image. The Robinson quote engraved on his statue applies also to Koufax: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Robinson (Brooklyn, 1947-1956) and Koufax (Brooklyn, 1955-1957; Los Angeles, 1958-1966) spent their entire major league careers with the Dodgers, and the Hall of Famers were teammates. The final two seasons of the veteran Robinson’s major league career (1955-1956) coincided with the neophyte Koufax’s two initial campaigns, and friendship evolved.
Koufax had great admiration for Robinson, an MVP and six-time All-Star, who, amidst slashing spikes and death threats, pioneered the racial integration of MLB. The statues underline the connection between the African American Robinson and the Jewish Koufax, not only as great ballplayers, but as individuals of character and courage who served as standard bearers for American racial and ethnic diversity.
As Pete Rose and Barry Bonds remind us, an immensely talented, but morally hollow, ballplayer is not a hero. A true athletic hero possesses a greatness that transcends the playing field and inspires emulation in others. Koufax, like Robinson, was a hero and a great ballplayer, the pre-eminent pitcher of his generation and, at his absolute peak (1962-1966), in the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) discussion.
Six seasons diminished by the Bonus Baby Rule that impeded minor league development, a blazing fastball initially prey to wildness and talented teammate pitchers ready to take the mound for a contending team, as well as physical disabilities that ended Koufax’s career at age 30, circumscribed his impressive career statistics (165 wins-87 loses, 2.76 ERA). Matching Robinson, Koufax was an MVP and six-time All-Star. Moreover, he was the recipient of three Cy Young awards in an era when there was only a single designee for all MLB.
After Koufax’s 1961 transitional year, moving from potential to performance (18 wins, 13 losses, a then National League record 269 strikeouts), he led the circuit in ERA the next five consecutive seasons with figures so stellar that they look like typos. A perfect game, a then record four no hitters, and 18 strikeouts in a game twice, a mark unsurpassed at the time, burnished the Koufax aura.
With a blinding fastball, dropping “12-to-6 curveball” – so described by the legendary sportscaster Vin Scully – and acquired pinpoint control, Koufax was absolutely dominant in his three peak seasons – 1963 (25 wins-5 losses, 1.88 ERA, 306 strikeouts, 11 shutouts), 1965 (26 wins-8 losses, 2.04 ERA, upping the MLB record with 382 strikeouts, 27 complete games), and 1966 (27 wins-9 losses, 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts, 27 complete games).
Just as Robinson possesses special meaning for Black Americans, so, too, does Koufax for Jews. Although not particularly religious, Koufax, by abstaining from baseball on the High Holidays, embraced the role of Jewish standard bearer. On Yom Kippur, Koufax declined to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins, which the Dodgers lost.
Although Rabbi Bernard Raskas and others erroneously reported seeing Koufax during Yom Kippur services, Koufax did not go to the synagogue, but never corrected stories about his attendance.
St. Paul Pioneer Press sports columnist Dan Riley mocked Yom Kippur fasting and Koufax’s absence from the ballpark: “The Twins love matzoh balls on Thursdays” – Yom Kippur 1965 fell on a Thursday. Despite allowing only one earned run and notching nine strikeouts, Koufax, the victim of costly fielding errors and insufficient offensive support, lost game two. However, Koufax’ Yom Kippur observance morphed into legend when he came back to lead the Dodgers to World Series triumph.
In game five, Koufax shutout the Twins, surrendering just four hits and striking out 10. On only two days’ rest, Koufax dominated the Twins in game seven on October 14, again shutting them out and adding another 10 strikeouts, this time allowing but three hits. A generation late, author Ze’ev Chafets claimed, “I was told by hundreds of Jewish men across the United States that their most important Jewish memory was of Sandy sitting out [game one of] the Series.”
Koufax, like Robinson, was an exemplar of character and social justice. The collaborate 1966 salary holdout of Koufax and fellow Dodger pitching stalwart Don Drysdale provided impetus for player salary and contractual gains in the years ahead. During Koufax’s final seasons, loss of circulation in a raw index finger and an arthritic elbow that ballooned grotesquely meant summoning pitching prowess while battling pain.
There is a unique mystique to Koufax. At the statue dedication ceremony, Clayton Kershaw, Koufax’s only rival for Dodger GOAT pitcher, asserted that Sandy “was a great man who represented the Dodgers with humility, kindness, passion and class.” Then, the 86-year-old, 6’2” Koufax, appearing impossibly trim and fit, spoke briefly with modesty and appreciation – and disappeared again. Rabbi Lee Bycel attested, “They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but they didn’t talk about Sandy Koufax.”
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.