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The Chosen One
Jane Leavy
September 09, 2002
Sandy Koufax overcame bigotry and constant, searing pain to become the greatest pitcher of his time, but his finest moment came on the day he refused to take the mound in the World Series
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September 09, 2002

The Chosen One

Sandy Koufax overcame bigotry and constant, searing pain to become the greatest pitcher of his time, but his finest moment came on the day he refused to take the mound in the World Series

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Nineteen fifty-five would prove seminal for both the United States and the Brooklyn Dodgers. A black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. An oral polio vaccine was developed. The Kramdens of Bensonhurst got a half-hour network TV slot. Everyone liked Ike.� The Dodgers were desperate to change their luck in '55. Vanquished by Joe DiMaggio's Yankees in '41, '47 and '49; slain by Bobby Thomson's "shot heard round the world" in '51; humbled by the Yankees again in '52 and '53, the Boys of Summer were growing old waiting till next year.

Sandy Koufax reported to his first spring training a week early. He joined Joe Black and Roy Campanella in Miami, where they were working out on their own. Miami was still very much a segregated city, so Black and Campanella had to stay at the Lord Calvert, a blacks-only hotel. Irving Rudd, the Dodgers' director of promotions, got Koufax a room at a whites-only hotel, but he hung out with his new teammates by the pool at the Lord Calvert. "Admiring the view," Black said. "Sandy be saying, 'Man, look at that girl over there.' Sandy was right at home."

That was partly the legacy of a grandfather with a social conscience, and partly the democratizing influence of long hours spent under the boards on the basketball courts of Brooklyn. "And maybe," says Koufax's childhood friend Fred Wilpon, now the owner of the New York Mets, "part of it was sort of a substitution for his own minority standing." At that time, just 10 years after the liberation of the concentration camps in Germany, blacks and Jews could still identify with each other as persecuted minorities.

On March 1, 42 players, including 21 pitchers, reported to Vero Beach for the official opening of spring training. Dodger-town is baseball's most famous spring address, but it bears little resemblance to the abandoned naval air station Branch Rickey leased from the government in 1949. There were no televisions, no radios, no telephones. Players dined off metal trays left behind by the Navy and lived in the sailors' wooden barracks. The tar paper roofs leaked. The rooms were hot when it was hot and cold when it was cold. Electric heaters and blankets were brought in; fuses blew. Guys fought over bath mats to use as extra blankets.

Koufax was as raw as the exposed two-by-fours in the barracks; he was the only bonus baby on the team and the only Jew. He didn't hide his background, nor did he trumpet it. "It wasn't as though Sandy had a Star of David on his sleeve," says Tom Villante, the team's broadcast coordinator. "Some people thought he was French."

His guaranteed money—and his guaranteed spot on the major league roster—ensured a cool reception from some teammates, but some of the black players, including Black, Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson, took him under their wing. Finding Koufax lost one day after infield practice, Black told him, "Just follow me." It was the Dodger way: Hadn't Pee Wee Reese walked across the infield in Cincinnati in 1947 to put his arm around Robinson in the face of racial invective?

"Some of the players did not like him because he was a Jew," Newcombe says. "I couldn't understand the narrow-mindedness of these players when they would come to us and talk about Sandy as 'this kike' and 'this Jew bastard' or 'Jew sonofabitch that's gonna take my job.' Players used to complain he threw the ball too hard. But the way they used to complain—'The wild Jew sonofabitch, I'm not gonna hit against that...'—and they'd use the f word—'...that kike, as wild as he is.' And these were star Dodgers players, some of them. You think of crackers as being from the South, but a lot of those crackers, they were from California and other places."

Such prejudice wasn't confined to the Dodgers. It was the mindset of the era. " Sandy Koufax, being a little Jewish boy, didn't know anything about baseball," Hank Aaron says, describing the prevailing attitude. "Everybody thought, Hey, he needs to be somewhere off in school, counting money or doing whatever they do."

Koufax defused potential embarrassments with humor. Like the time there was a pig roast in Duke Snider's backyard and Snider's wife worried about what Koufax would eat. "I'll have some of that turkey," he reassured her, pointing to the roast.

Carl Erskine, a stalwart of the Dodgers' pitching staff, remembers one particularly sweaty ride through Miami. "We were on the way back to the hotel on a bus. And it was hot. No air-conditioning. And Miami's got all these train tracks.... So we got stopped by a train. And I mean it was hot.... Billy Herman was one of our coaches.... After a while he yells out, real loud, 'You can give this damn town back to the Jews.' And Sandy's sitting right across the aisle, you know? After a few minutes of silence, Sandy, in a real soft voice, says, 'Now, Billy, you know we've already got it.' "

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