Koufax exhibit opens at Jewish Sports Hall of Fame
The only person you can be assured will not attend Monday night's opening of the Sandy Koufax art exhibit in Commack is Sandy Koufax. Sure, you'll see plenty of paintings, sculptures and photos of him, but the reclusive Hall of Famer will reinforce why he is American sports' version of J.D. Salinger.
The Dodgers' star lefthander of the early '60s, who wore his red number 32 like a badge of honor, turns 75 on Dec. 30. This time he is the reluctant star of a new exhibit, "32 at 75," which opens at the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center. The run of the exhibit, which later moves upstairs to the second floor, was extended and will close Sunday, April 17.
The unveiling of the glass-enclosed showcase precedes a special screening Monday night of the film, "Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story," which includes a rare Koufax interview.
Alan Freedman, longtime director of the Long Island museum, says the idea of "32 at 75" came to him when he read about a Willie Mays exhibit, "24 at 75," with 24 artworks as the Giants' star hit 75. What Freedman did not expect was to keep getting calls from artists requesting to have their works on display, too.
Instead of the planned 32 pieces, Freedman now says 50 works by 40 artists from around the country will be in the entrance hall, including oils, watercolors, pen and ink, bronzes, papier-mâché. One tribute is done entirely in Lego pieces.
The tallest item is 5 feet while one piece, from Asia, is no more than 3 inches high. "We have a snuff bottle from China," he says. "It's a picture of Sandy Koufax on the inside of a bottle. It's one of a kind."
PAINTED BASEBALLS, TOO
And don't forget the three hand-painted baseballs. "It just boggles my mind somebody would have the patience to do that," Freedman says.
And this week a Californian is finishing his fantasy picture of Koufax pitching to the greatest Jewish hitter, Hank Greenberg.
"That gives me chills," says Alan Abraham Kay, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Emeth in Mount Sinai. "I feel very proud of what he accomplished as an athlete and certainly representing the Jewish community. He represents the best that is a sportsman - skill, talent and humility. He transcends any religious community."
That transcendence is confirmed by the exhibit's contributors, most of whom are not Jewish, Freedman says. "A lot were people who just respect Koufax and wanted to do something," he says. "They're very good artists, not just sports artists."
DRAWINGS, BASEBALL CARDS . . .
But sports cartoonists are represented, too, with drawings by the Daily News' Bruce Stark and Bill Gallo, plus five Sport and Sports Illustrated magazine covers.
"You don't have to be Jewish to love the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame," Ron Stark, Bruce's son and a contributor of one of the showcase's best paintings, once said.
Several minutes can be spent just peering at the framed set of more than two dozen Koufax baseball cards surrounding a 1963 Life magazine cover of the lefthander.
Several laminated, signed letters acknowledging the tribute surround the exhibit, including those from Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sens. Chuck Schumer, Al Franken and Barbara Boxer, former Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Carl Erskine, Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton and former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley. Also posted is a 2005 letter from Vin Scully, recalling broadcasting Koufax's then-record four no-hitters.
Franken notes in his letter that as a 14-year-old Minnesotan in 1965 how his beloved Twins' World Series loss to Koufax's Dodgers affected him. "It's a little bittersweet," he writes, "that the greatest Jewish athlete in our country's history caused me so much agita at an early age."
Freedman believes his hall is the perfect setting for the exhibit and film. "It is dedicated to honoring Jewish sports figures who have distinguished themselves in the field of sports," he says. "The objective is to foster Jewish identity through athletics."
A book picturing all the exhibit pieces is expected to be published within a month, says Freedman, who hopes the exhibit makes its way to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Koufax contributor Dick Perez, whose works range from game action to portraits, already has pieces there.
At 36, Koufax is the youngest Cooperstown inductee. Why? His last four seasons, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound ace averaged 26 wins, 8 losses and 22 complete games, giving up less than two runs a game. The strikeout artist also recorded 31 shutouts those four years before retiring in 1966 at age 30 because of an ailing elbow. In a 12-year career he won nearly two-thirds of his decisions.
"I've got a lot of years to live after baseball and I would like to live them with the complete use of my body," he said at the time.
So, yes, the unassuming Brooklyn native won't be there today. In his 1966 autobiography, he wrote, referring to his mother, "When I told her I was writing this book, she asked if I'd give her one of the first copies so she could find out something about me."
Rabbi Kay, who named his dog Koofoo after the pitcher, says, "People are in awe of him not because of his record but because he is a mensch. We all know his Yom Kippur story." Koufax, who has said he is not religious, refused to start Game One of the 1965 World Series on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Freedman didn't stop at artworks. Kids - and parents - can poke their heads into a nearly life-size cutout of Koufax for a photo op. Handouts include a list of the Jews who top the all-time major hitting and pitching categories.
Locker facsimiles of Jewish athletes - such as the Mets' Ike Davis and Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun - adorn the main corridor and museum and are on view year-round, as are the plaques of the more than 120 inductees since 1993. Koufax's placque is tucked in a quiet, far corner of the museum, just as he'd like it.
But no gloves or balls from the pitcher. "When we first started," Freedman says, "Koufax called me and said all his important things are on display in Cooperstown.
"There will be some surprises," Freedman says about Monday night. "And because it's a Jewish organization there will be food."
'32 at 75'
The exhibit runs through April 17, 6:30 a.m.-9:45 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 6:30 a.m.-10:15 p.m. Thursday , 6:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m.-9:15 p.m. Sunday (closed Saturdays).
INFO 631-462-9800, ext. 125, suffolkyjcc.org
They said it
Notable quotations from big-leaguers about Koufax in his prime, thanks to the online Baseball Almanac:
Richie Ashburn: "Either he throws the fastest ball I've ever seen, or I'm going blind."
Don Sutton: "A foul ball was a moral victory."
Gene Mauch: "He throws a 'radio ball,' a pitch you hear, but you don't see."
Willie Stargell: "Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork."
And, finally, from Koufax himself in Dan Schlossberg's book "Hammerin' Hank!" on his "limited" accomplishments: "I think it's incredible because there were guys like Mays and Mantle and Henry Aaron who were great players for 10 years. . . . I only had four or five good years."
WHEN | WHERE Sunday, Oct. 31, 11 a.m., Suffolk Y JCC
Simons, a history professor at SUNY Oneonta, specializes in baseball studies. Simons will explore the struggles of those three stars and how they reflect changes in society during baseball's "golden age" and today's diamond heroes.
19th annual NJSHOF induction ceremony
WHEN | WHERE March 27, Suffolk Y JCC
COST $10; children and seniors free.
This year's inductees are Harris Barton, football; Tal Brody, basketball; Jane Katz, swimming; Steve Mesler; Olympic bobsled; Abe Pollin, executive; Hal Richman, media; Alan Seiden, basketball; and Dick Steinberg, football executive.