April 17, 2008
Dodgers hit grand slam in history of Jewish players
Canter's Deli Joins Ballpark Lineup by Brad A. Greenberg
When the Dodgers celebrated their 50th anniversary in Los Angeles on March 29 with an exhibition game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it seemed almost fitting that a Jewish ballplayer, Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, would hit a pivotal home run that helped Boston win the game. During the Dodgers' final home game against the Chicago Cubs at the Coliseum in 1961, a young left-handed pitcher named Sandy Koufax won the ballgame for Los Angeles.|
The club had signed Koufax to a "bonus baby" contract in 1955 while in Brooklyn. A few years later, after legendary owner Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles, the team that broke the so-called color barrier when it signed Jackie Robinson in 1947 became a nexus of Jewish talent with
They were known by the nicknames of "Super Jew" (Koufax), "Rude Jew" (Larry Sherry, who sometimes threw at batters) and "Jolly Jew" (Norm Sherry).
From his home in San Diego, Norm Sherry, 76, said that when he was growing up in Los Angeles in the early to mid-1950s, he "knew nothing about major league players," not even Koufax, mostly because Los Angeles didn't have a major league team in those days. Instead, he rooted for the Pacific Coast League's Hollywood Stars, a minor league team that played at Gilmore Field, located by the present-day CBS Television City.
After a tryout at Gilmore, which was only blocks from Sherry's house, he signed a contract with Brooklyn, having no idea that within a few years the Dodgers would move to the Southland and that he and his brother, a relief pitcher, would be playing for their hometown team.
Unlike the Brooklyn club, the beloved Bums, who struggled for decades before finally winning a championship in 1955, the L.A. incarnation of the Dodgers won the World Series in 1959, only its second year in Southern California. Larry Sherry, who passed away in December 2006, was the most valuable player of that championship, the first pitcher to win or save every game of a World Series.
As they do now at Dodger Stadium, the team drew record attendance figures at the Coliseum, which served as home for the club for four years while Chavez Ravine was being reconfigured for the team's new location. In Brooklyn, the fans "lived and died with" the Dodgers, but the Los Angeles fans needed some persuading, said Norm Sherry, who praised Vin Scully, the famed broadcaster, for "selling the ballclub. The transistor radio came in in those days, and everybody was listening to him."
Norm Sherry would go on to manage future Dodger ace Don Sutton in the minors and to groom Gary Carter into a Hall of Fame catcher for the Montreal Expos, but he may be best remembered as the one who supposedly taught Koufax how to control his pitches.
Sherry refused to take such credit, but he did confirm an often-told story about a split-squad game during spring training in 1961.
Early in that game, Koufax walked the bases loaded and kept throwing the ball further and further out of the strike zone. Sherry approached him off the mound and pointed out that with "only about nine guys out here," they couldn't afford to go to the bullpen for a reserve. "'Why don't you take something off the ball and let him hit it,'" Sherry asked Koufax. "I think he struck out the next three guys. That was the beginning for him to realize that it's not about raring back."
Sherry compared it to "guys that hit a golf ball far, and they're not even swinging that hard. It's about a rhythm you can get, good timing and body strength."
Sherry roomed with Koufax in 1962 and remembered him not only as a tinkerer who'd "bring a little tool kit and fix the TV if it wasn't working," but also as "a real nice person who never put himself above anybody and who always looked out for the little guys on the team," the rookies and others who didn't play very often.
The Los Angeles community embraced the Jewish trio. After one baseball season, Sherry got a job selling advertising, not unlike many ballplayers who took winter jobs in the pre-free agency era, when baseball salaries were modest. "I was no salesman," he said, but when he told prospective customers that he was Norm Sherry, "they'd buy stuff from me."
To this day, a mural in the parking lot at Canter's deli displays a prominent sketch of Koufax, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has exhibited R.B. Kitaj's portrait of the pitching icon that shows his winning form and intense concentration as he hurls a baseball.
However, when Koufax first came up to the Dodgers, he struggled.
Despite the long-held myth that Koufax was a wild pitcher in his early years in the big leagues, author Jane Leavy in her book, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," broached the notion that manager Walter Alston misused the future Hall of Famer by not pitching him regularly, a charge uttered by, among
others, Jackie Robinson. For instance, in Koufax's second start of his career, he pitched a two-hit shutout and struck out 14 batters, the most in a game that year in the National League. Yet after that sublime outing, Alston scarcely used his rookie hurler for the rest of the season.
Some have speculated that Alston's handling of Koufax in those years reflected a subtle anti-Semitism. However, Norm Sherry defended Alston, saying not only that he wasn't anti-Semitic but that, as a manager frequently involved in a pennant race, Alston had to use pitchers who he thought were reliable.
Although Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers' star in the 1930s and '40s, heard epithets in his playing days, Sherry said he never confronted prejudice as a player. It is possible that Sherry is not simply being polite. There is no doubt that anti-Semitism had declined by the mid to late 1950s, after Jews had fought in World War II and Korea.
Still, in Leavy's book, Hank Aaron, the onetime home-run king, recounted the envy and the patronizing -- if not bigoted -- attitude of some of the players of that era toward the young Koufax, who was making more money than many of them: "Sandy Koufax, being a little Jewish boy, didn't know anything about baseball.... Everybody thought, 'Hey, he needs to be somewhere off in school, counting money or doing whatever they do.'"
What Koufax did was develop into arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history.
In the 1960s, he won three Cy Young Awards, pitched four no-hitters, including a perfect game in 1965 at Dodger Stadium, and was named World Series MVP in 1963 and 1965. In 1965, during the series, he famously refused to pitch on Yom Kippur. After losing his first start, he came back to twirl two shutouts, the final one on two days rest, as the Dodgers beat the Minnesota Twins in seven games.
That made Jews the MVPs of the first three World Series titles won by the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
For decades, the Dodgers failed to land another Jewish star. They had some near misses, scouting Mike Epstein, a slugger from the Fairfax area, who played for several teams but never Los Angeles. Pitchers Bill Singer and Scott Radinsky were hailed by some as Jews even though they are not.
Then, on the eve of the new millennium, the ballclub signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract with Shawn Green, an All-Star outfielder who had grown up in Tustin. Green, like Koufax before him, became the most eligible bachelor in Los Angeles and had local synagogues eagerly pursuing him as a member.
The best Jewish power hitter since Cleveland's Al Rosen in the 1950s, Green enjoyed a fine five-year stint with the Dodgers, marked by his 49-home run season in 2001, a team record, and his 42-homer campaign in 2002, in which he broke the major league record for most total bases in a game (19) and tied the record for most home runs in a game (four).
Although his power dipped in his final two seasons in Los Angeles due to a shoulder injury, he still hit a good number of home runs those years. Green never told anyone about the torn labrum until catcher Paul Lo Duca, his friend, found out about it late in the 2003 season.
Highly respected for his baseball skills and stoic nature, Green also lived up to the standards of Koufax and Greenberg by sitting out one game on Yom Kippur during the 2004 pennant drive. However, he played during Kol Nidre and hit a critical home run to help the Dodgers win after sundown.
"I wanted to do what was most consistent with my personal beliefs (not anyone else's)." Green told The Journal by e-mail.
Although Norm Sherry did not recall discussing the idea of being a Jewish role model with Koufax, the southpaw apparently consulted a rabbi in 1965. In her book, Leavy quoted Rabbi Hillel Silverman as saying that Koufax once told him, "'I'm Jewish. I'm a role model. I want them to understand they have to have pride.'"
Green, who called Koufax "a great man" and "a hero," did not seek out Koufax or a rabbi when he decided not to play on Yom Kippur. But early in Green's career with the Dodgers, he and Koufax did talk about issues surrounding being a Jewish ballplayer. At that time, Koufax told him "to do only what I wanted to do and what I felt was right when it came to playing or not playing on the High Holidays," Green recounted.
Like Koufax, Greenberg and Larry Sherry, Green elevated his game in the postseason, hitting three home runs for the Dodgers in the 2004 playoffs. That included two in game three at Dodger Stadium, when the Dodgers won their first and only playoff game since 1988. In 2006, as a member of the New York Mets, Green returned to Dodger Stadium for the playoffs and in the clinching game went three for five with two RBIs to eliminate his former team.
Green, who recently retired after two years with the Mets, also played for the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks, but he said, "I will always think of myself as a Dodger.... The fans treated me well right from the start as a local guy as well as a Jewish ballplayer."
Another recent retiree, Mike Lieberthal, whose father is Jewish, was an All-Star catcher with the Philadelphia Phillies before playing last year for the Dodgers. The Westlake Village resident grew up without any religion. He called Green's decision not to play on Yom Kippur "a tough one," since it could be "tough on your teammates. I can't imagine any player putting himself through that kind of pressure."
Lieberthal never confronted such a dilemma other than on the HBO show, "Arli$$," when Robert Wuhl tries to convince the catcher to take off the Jewish holidays. Nonetheless, in his 14-year career, he said that "I felt in a way I was representing the Jewish community because of my name. The Jewish community is just so proud. I was kind of honored."