Koufax’s Roundball Once Trumped His Fastball - a NYT feature on Sandy Koufax’s roots in Brooklyn—as a basketball player:
Sandy Koufax’s sports odyssey took him from a muscular, leaping center for the Lafayette High School basketball team in Brooklyn to left-handed bonus baby for the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Hall of Fame as one of the most dynamic pitchers in baseball history.
His path from basketball to baseball was the reverse of Brooklyn’s better known but tortured major league history: losing the Dodgers in 1957 and now gaining the Nets, whose first season in the borough is to start Nov. 1.
For more than five decades, Koufax has been a symbol of Brooklyn’s lost sports history. It turns out he was something more — a heck of a basketball player whose exploits way back when take on new meaning with the Nets’ arrival.
When the 6-foot 2-inch Koufax graduated from Lafayette High School in 1953, his yearbook declared that he “has been scouted and will most likely be a professional basketball player.” The N.B.A. was a backwater in the mid-1950s, but Koufax’s friend, the talk-show host Larry King, class of ’51 and team manager from an earlier Lafayette class, said that Koufax aspired to play for the Knicks.
Yes, Koufax also played baseball at the time, manning first base for the school team, but he was not much of a hitter. And no one had any premonition that he would become the pitcher that he did.
Instead, it was mostly basketball. In a Lafayette team photograph, Koufax, No. 16, his biceps rippling, stands smiling beside his pal Fred Wilpon, No. 5, the future owner of the Mets and star pitcher on the baseball team. The Frenchies at the time were nearly all Jewish: Abramowitz, Weiss, Levine, Stolzenberg, Horwitz, Lichtman, Lichtenstein. And Koufax..
The article mentions Lafayette High School is in Bath Beach, which is sort of in between Coney Island and Bensonhurst (GMAP). Besides Larry King, Fred Wilpon, and Sandy Koufax, also among the notable alumni is Maurice Sendak.
The bit about Wilpon reminded me of a fantastic profile of the real estate mogul & Mets owner by Jeffrey Toobin that appeared in the New Yorker last year—”Madoff’s Curveball: Bernie Madoff, Fred Wilpon, and the Mets”.
Before focusing on Wilpon’s entanglement with Bernie Madoff, it all starts in Brooklyn:
The Wilpons lived in Bensonhurst, and Fred grew up on the baseball fields at the Parade Grounds and in Dyker Park. He pitched for Lafayette High School and for sandlot teams, and quickly drew notice as a professional prospect. Wilpon was so well regarded that he was invited to pitch batting practice to the major leaguers. When he threw at Ebbets, he would get an extra ticket to the games, and he often brought along a friend from high school, Sandy Koufax. “Sandy was one of the best basketball players in Brooklyn,” Wilpon said. “The only reason he joined the baseball team was so we could hang around together. Sandy played first base.”
“I really didn’t play much baseball at all,” Koufax told me. “I didn’t go out for the baseball team until my senior year, when basketball was over and I didn’t have anything better to do. Fred was the baseball player.” Koufax won a basketball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. There he took up baseball more seriously and stopped playing the infield.
The Dodgers tried to sign Wilpon in high school, but his parents insisted that he go to college. The University of Michigan had a good team, and offered Wilpon a partial scholarship, which he accepted. Before his sophomore year, though, he blew out his arm and was unable to pitch again.