Sandy Koufax: a Brief Encounter

            April/May 2012    
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Sandy Koufax: So Far, Yet So Near

By Walter D. Levy

Our seats might have just as well been on an incoming plane landing at nearby LaGuardia. All around us were people who said they had known him. Some said they knew his family. Others said they had attended the same high school. Still others claimed they had played basketball with him at the Jewish Community Center. Everyone had a story.

It was late-August, 1966. I had recently accepted a teaching position at Long Island's Manhasset Jr.-Sr. High School. Over the summer, I had received a letter requesting that I attend teacher-orientation meetings. As I was about to leave Boston for Long Island, my younger brother Larry approached me. "Walter, would you mind if I tagged along? I heard Koufax's pitching against the Mets on Tuesday," he added. "I was wondering if we could get tickets," he concluded. I said, "Sure Larry, I'll be happy to take you with me, and I'll try to get us tickets, but there won't be much for you to do while I'm attending meetings." "That's all right," my brother replied, "as long as we get to see Sandy."

As I think back, my brother and I had long been Koufax fans. After all, not only was he a great pitcher, but --- he was Jewish! Our admiration and respect for Koufax were further enhanced when he chose not to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series (he was later named the Series MVP.) because the game was to be played on Yom Kippur (Koufax observed Judaism's holiest day by praying in a Minneapolis synagogue.).

Well, that Monday, my brother and I drove down to Long Island. I recall we stayed at a motel on Northern Blvd. That next afternoon, after my meetings, I picked up my brother. We then headed for the home of the New York Mets, Shea Stadium. When we arrived, the ticket office was mobbed. In the end, the best seats I could get were near the rear of Shea Stadium's right-field upper deck. Yet, as we entered Shea that evening, I could feel the excitement building. After all, we were about to see one of the greatest pitchers to ever throw a baseball.

As the Dodgers took the field that evening, I looked toward the mound where Koufax was warming up (we were so far away from the playing field we could have used binoculars.). Yet, at that moment, I wasn't thinking about the game. I was recalling the day I first met Sandy Koufax. It was two and a-half years earlier. My father, Jack Levy, then the New England director of B'nai B'rith Youth (BBYO), had taken my brother and me to the B'nai B'rith Sports Lodge dinner at Boston's Sheraton Plaza (My father used to say: "If you take away the first two letters in Plaza, "P" and "L", you're left with AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph).").

When I think back over forty-five years, I recall very little of that banquet, save for the fact that there were many sports dignitaries, particularly hockey players, in attendance. Oh, and that we were seated upstairs in the rear section of the balcony. In hindsight, my brother and I could have cared less about our seating arrangement. We were where we wanted to be. We were in the presence of the athlete we admired most: Sandy Koufax.

Well, that evening, during a break in the festivities, there was time to go up to the head table to request autographs. Everyone was most obliging. But the one signature my brother and I wanted most was Koufax's. I recall I was beaming as he signed my program (he also signed my brother's). As we left the banquet that night, we were all smiles.

Now, on a late-summer evening over two years later, my brother and I were once again watching Koufax as the Los Angeles Dodgers were playing the Mets. I recall that the Dodgers had jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead on a Wes Parker two-run homer off a young Mets hurler named "Tug" McGraw. And when Koufax set down the Mets in order in the bottom half of the first, everything seemed rosy. But the Mets would chip away. They would score one run in their half of the second, and then five more in the third. Koufax was struggling. He would be relieved after pitching just two innings! I remember that when the Dodgers' manager, Walter Alston, took Koufax out of the game it was as if someone had let all the air out of the Shea Stadium. Oh, the Mets would go on to win by the score of 10-4.

As my brother and I left Shea Stadium that evening, we were both glum. We had hoped for a different outcome. Unlike the joy we had felt after that B'nai B'rith sports dinner in Boston, we now felt sad that Koufax just didn't have it that night.

Soon, there would be more bad news. Koufax was diagnosed with a traumatic arthritic condition in his left elbow. Koufax's elbow condition had become so pronounced that he was becoming concerned that he wouldn't be able to perform typical day-to-day activities - let alone throw a baseball. At the end of that 1966 season, Koufax decided - at the ago of 30 - to retire from baseball. He would later become - at the age of 36 - the youngest player to ever be elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame.

Yet, as I think back, I fondly recall those two times that I saw Sandy Koufax in person, one, at Boston's Sheraton Plaza, the other, at New York's Shea Stadium. Even though, I was, on both occasions, quite distant from him (except when I walked downstairs to get his autograph), it seems like only yesterday that I both watched him sign my B'nai B'rith program and then pitch against the New York Mets. Yes, I hold those memories dear; the thrill of seeing and meeting one of the greatest baseball pitchers who ever lived: Sandy Koufax.


from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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