Sandy Koufax and the Lost Legacy of Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School

Lafayette HS. Photo: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

New York City real estate developers care little for preserving the City’s history and our memories. And educators are surprisingly reticent as well. I walked by Lafayette High School, where students had painted magnificent mural tributes to their fellow students who’d died. They updated them every year, utilizing the handball court walls as their canvasses. Shockingly, the School — now divided into several schools — has now painted them over with gray paint, gray after gray after gray.

Teachers and school administrators have staked claim to the area next to the handball courts, parking their cars on the large cement softball yard that had been the scene of so many great games 50 years ago. No one can use it today for softball, it’s filled with cars. The school has also re-fenced the holes we’d cut — how many decades ago was it? — to enable us to sneak through late at night and hang out with friends on the high school’s steps. A new sign says they’ve extended the lone grassy baseball diamond in Right Field to 389 feet from home plate, 80 feet deeper in Right than the infamous short porch in right at Yankee Stadium.

There was a time when youth throughout the Gravesend and Bensonhurst neighborhoods would meet there at midnight, before their families could afford private air-conditioning, the nights being hot and sticky. Teens would explode out of their parents’ apartments, gathering (and “making out”) at Lafayette after midnight, until the new air-conditioned and open-all-night Pathmark supermarket came to nearby Cropsey Avenue, its ice cream aisles becoming a favored and chilled gathering spot.

My friend, Math teacher Jack Shalom, subbed at Lafayette a few years ago and went exploring the unfamiliar high school. He discovered behind a tied door an obstructed plaque — to whom? Jack squeezed behind the door and looked closely at the plaque. It honored baseball pitching great Sandy Koufax, the school’s most famous alum! (And what of the great musician Howie Cohen? radical Red Balloon Collective troublemaker Doug Appel? former NY Mets owner Fred Wilpon? and notorious billionaire Jeffrey Epstein (!)? All attended Lafayette H.S. Wilpon was Koufax’s friend there long before purchasing the NY Mets; the others high-schooled there around the same time a decade later.)

Koufax, as every self-respecting Brooklynite in the late 50s knew, was our hometown hero — and was then whisked off with the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he blossomed into one of the all-time great pitchers, after adjusting his mechanics in 1961. Over the next few years he threw 4 no-hitters, one of them the very rare “perfect game”. The Black players on the Brooklyn Dodgers — Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe — protected the young Jewish Koufax from the persistent anti-semitism of their white teammates and management, as Newcombe reported years later.

Jack Shalom pointed out the hidden Koufax plaque he’d discovered behind the chained door to a security guard. “Who’s that,”? the guard asked as he stumbled over pronouncing Koufax’s name. Jack was too shook up to say, “Koufax was the greatest pitcher ever in baseball for six years in a row.” And he also didn’t say that Koufax was most famous, strangely, for the one game he refused to pitch in October 1965, during the World Series against Minnesota, because the game fell on the first day of Yom Kippur.

“Koufax’s decision to observe Yom Kippur in 1965 didn’t attract particular attention in the media at first,” writes Steve Lipman in a 2014 article for NY Jewish Telegraph Agency. “The New York Times and New York Post reported matter-of-factly that he would miss the start because that day was “the holiest Jewish holiday.” The Daily News was on strike that week. This newspaper’s predecessor, the Jewish Week & American Examiner, made no mention of the game.

“But, through word of mouth in Jewish circles, everyone knew. Over time, that game assumed mythic proportions. … Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna tells The Jewish Week. “In an era when lots of Jews thought it was best to keep their Judaism quiet,” Koufax’s act “gave some Jews courage to be outwardly Jewish in other ways ᆳ by wearing a Jewish symbol, demonstrating for Soviet Jews, or the like.”

Steven Schnur, an author and college instructor, says that by that one game not played, Koufax became “the universal symbol of a Jew who made a choice that we as a community admired. “It has nothing to do with an Orthodox lifestyle, or with a commitment to observance of halacha,” says Schnur.

Judaism today is unfortunately and wrongly equated with Zionism and the state of Israel. Lipman observes: “Koufax … was (and remains, as far as is known) devoutly secular, with little formal Jewish education and (according to all accounts) no bar mitzvah. He intermarried twice and divorced twice; he has no children.”

“A secular, non-practicing Jew,” Jane Leavy describes him in her book Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. A secular Jew who became a symbol for the entire Jewish community.

“When Sandy Koufax stated that he would not pitch on Yom Kippur, many Jews in America stood a little taller and had a better sense of self-worth and Jewish pride,” even though Hank Greenberg, playing for the Detroit Tigers 30 years earlier, had also refused to play on Yom Kippur. “That was as true in the Orthodox observant community as it was in the general Jewish community,” says Rabbi Berel Wein, an Orthodox scholar and historian who now lives in Jerusalem. “His refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur influenced that generation of American Jews to become more publicly assertive and to be less ashamed of their Jewishness. The decision of Koufax to do the Jewish thing so publicly and in such a quintessential American setting as the World Series pumped a new confidence into that generation of American Jews.”

Also during Koufax’s heyday, Pope John XXIII changed the liturgy so it was no longer pounded into Christian church-goers heads every Sunday in every church that “The Jews killed Jesus.” Vatican II didn’t save me from being chased and sometimes punched by the Italian Catholic Corraggio twins in Marlboro Projects, who lived in the next building. “You killed Jesus” they’d yell as they chased me through the Projects. Sadly, I never thought to shout back, “What about Vatican II?” Hey, I thought in some weird acceptance, “You wanna shout that “we” killed Jesus? Then let’s own it! There’s power in being able to kill their God, I decided — a means of self-protection and assertion. “The Jews killed Jesus” is a calumny that never really ended; it just receded and is now re-emerging due to Israel’s subjugation and mass-murder of the Palestinian people, in the name of Jews everywhere.

That’s another reason why Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now When? are so important today.

Koufax is still alive, and now lives in Florida. Still, a black Jaguar with “Koufax” plates today slips periodically through my Bensonhurst neighborhood, parking near Lafayette H.S. Is it Sandy? I sometimes wait to see who gets out of the car, but my stakeouts have been too frayed to find out.

Mitchel Cohen is Coordinator of the No Spray Coalition in New York City. He can be reached at: