Thank you, Sandy Koufax
OpinionGuest Columnist

Thank you, Sandy Koufax

Jewish ballplayer did more than entertain on the field

Ray Werner 
Photo by Annie O'Neill
Ray Werner Photo by Annie O'Neill

It was a few years after Mazeroski destroyed the Yankee dream for the ages, made Mickey Mantle cry like a baby, and created a million seats in Forbes Field, if you believe everyone who says they were there for the seventh game. Make that a million plus one. I was there. The ’60 World Series. Yeah, I love baseball.

But this was 1963. I was going to Duquesne University, working in a funeral parlor for a free room, dating my future wife who lived next door, studying at Carnegie Library in Oakland across from Forbes Field, and grabbing as many Pirate baseball games as I could. Believe this? They opened the outfield gates in the seventh inning and you could just walk in. True. Get lucky, it would go to extra innings.

Sundays, for a buck you could buy a seat in the bleachers and see a doubleheader. Right on the third base line. And If you had another dollar, you could have a couple beers and a hotdog. I liked to get there early for batting practice. Must have seen a couple dozen games that summer.

We were playing the Dodgers, the ones from Los Angeles, late of Brooklyn. I was hankering to see Sandy Koufax, maybe the greatest left-hander ever, then or now.

He had 25 wins and five losses in ’63. Yogi Berra said, “I can understand how he won 25. I can’t understand how he lost five.” Willie Stargell said, “Trying to hit Koufax is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.” One of the greatest days in his career, Stargell said, was the day Koufax retired. What a season he had in ’63. Had an ERA of 1.88, struck out 308 with 11 shutouts. In back-to-back games, he struck out 31, a record that will hang forever. Won the Cy Young and MVP. Yeah, the Dodgers also won the World Series.

I was in the bleachers, hoping to see the Man. The Dodgers infield were shagging balls, the coach hitting them down the line to Maury Wills and other infielders. There was just a handful of us in the bleachers, several fans a few rows behind me and one old guy about a dozen rows in front of me, all by his lonesome.

And there he was, the great Sandy Koufax, about 30 yards up the line, just standing there, chatting with another Dodger. I was close enough, if I had the nerve, to have gone down and quietly, respectfully, asked for his autograph. But I didn’t have the nerve. Still, it was a sunny day that just got a little sunnier.

Out of nowhere, a ball came down the line like a shot and Koufax had to skip out of the way to avoid it. No big deal. No doubt happened a lot.

Right away, this old guy several rows in front of me jumped up and cupped his hands and yelled at the top of his booming voice.

“Hit that Jew on the head and kill ’im.”And he sat down quickly like he never said it.

Sandy Koufax and the other player looked over at the bleachers. They heard it. Did I just see Koufax smile? They quickly turned back to their conversation, like it never happened. It happened, all right. I turned around to look at the few other fans near me. We were incredulous. But we just shrugged it off. Went back to watching infield practice. So did the old guy in front of us.

Koufax never flinched. Never retaliated. Never came over to ask who yelled such a vicious slur. And I wondered how many times over 162 games this happened to him. Had to be plenty. His esteem with me skyrocketed.

Fast forward to 2018 and the horrific hate crime at the Tree of Life building. We live a 10-minute walk from there. Like all of Pittsburgh, we were devastated. Before mass the next day at neighboring St. Bede, where I’m in the choir, we wondered what hymns to sing. What would be appropriate? One we selected was the gorgeous “We Have Only One Life to Live.” A young lady in our choir burst into tears. One of the victims, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, was her personal physician.

Our pastor, Fr. Tom Burke, who also is chaplin for the Pittsburgh Police, said our mass would of course be offered for the victims. And after mass, “Let’s make a procession up to the synagogue and pay our respects.” There were flowers in the vestibule to take with us.

Even our feeble parishioners with walkers made the two-block hike up Wilkins Avenue. The crime scene was packed with camera crews from everywhere. One of our choir members started to sing the St. Francis classic, “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” We joined in and so did most everyone else, including the cameraman beside me. A chill went up our spines. That hymn was never sung more beautifully, ever.

A few weeks later, doing a little yard work, the Tree of Life still on my mind, I stopped and stared at our flower boxes. And I’m back in the bleachers at Forbes Field. That liner nearly hits Sandy Koufax. That old man cups his hands and expels his hatred. Koufax looks over at me and smiles.

And I see something else. Something more. A resilience that is “Stronger Than Hate.” Compelling. Penetrating. Promising.
I see the pride, the courage, the love of my Jewish neighbors, of all of Pittsburgh. We will never let this happen again. Not in this city.

Thanks for the smile, Sandy. pjc

Ray Werner is a playwright and former advertising executive and lives in Point Breeze.

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