RICHARD SANDOMIR | NEW YORK TIMES | OCTOBER 31, 2010
You could make a documentary about Jewish ballplayers without interviewingÂ Sandy Koufax.
But why would you? That was a question facing Peter Miller, the director and a producer ofÂ â€œJews and Baseball: An American Love Story,â€ which will open in theaters in New York on Friday.
The problem facing Miller was that Koufax rarely agrees to be interviewed at length. For Jane Leavyâ€™s 2002 biography,Â â€œSandy Koufax: A Leftyâ€™s Legacy,â€ Koufax verified facts and told friends they could speak to her, but there was no interview.
â€œHis voice wasnâ€™t absent,â€ she said. â€œI saw him on a golf course and at spring training with other people, and he didnâ€™t impose any limitations.â€ More recently, Koufax also declined to speak to Leavy aboutÂ Mickey Mantle, the subject of her new biography.
Miller recognized that getting Koufax to speak would be a coup â€” he knew through archival footage dating toÂ the pitcherâ€™s days as a Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger that he â€œhad a great wit and there was always a little twinkle in his eye.â€ Unlike the other towering figure in Jewish baseball history, Hank Greenberg, Miller said, â€œSandyâ€™s around and articulate and beautiful to look at.â€
Koufax consented to participate after receiving a letter from Ira Berkow, a former New York Times sports columnist, who wrote the script for the film. â€œI wanted to emphasize to him that it would be an important documentary,â€ said Berkow, who had interviewed Koufax in the past. A couple of weeks later, Berkow said: â€œI got a call. He said, â€˜Hi, itâ€™s Sandy.â€™Â â€
According to Berkow, their conversation concluded when Koufax said, â€œIt doesnâ€™t make sense if itâ€™s â€˜Jews and Baseball,â€™ and Iâ€™m not in it.â€ Berkow added, â€œI said, â€˜I canâ€™t disagree with you.â€™Â â€
Koufax gave two interviews to Miller, each at the directorâ€™s apartment in Manhattan.
â€œHe didnâ€™t speak for long in the first one and was pretty reserved,â€ Miller said. â€œWe rode down in the elevator, we chatted about a number of things, and he said: â€˜I donâ€™t think that went so well. Iâ€™ll give you a call,â€™ and a few days later, he phoned back. He said, â€˜Hi, itâ€™s Sandy, we should do it again.â€™Â â€
In a dark jacket, shirt and tie, the silver-haired Koufax spoke with charm, wit and a bit of candor about his career and his decisionÂ never to pitch on Yom Kippur, most notably in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series. Not playing on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana was â€œjust something Iâ€™d always done out of respect,â€ Koufax told Miller, â€œbut I could always do something about it; there was always a game the day before, so Iâ€™d move up and pitch on two daysâ€™ rest so I wouldnâ€™t miss a start at the end of the season.â€
But, Koufax continued, â€œthere was no game the day beforeâ€ Game 1, which theÂ Dodgers lost, 8-2.
When the starter Don Drysdale was knocked out of the game in the third inning, he told Dodgers Manager Walter Alston a version of this wisecrack: â€œI bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.â€
Koufax and Drysdaleâ€™sÂ joint holdout before the 1966 season was viewed by Marvin Miller, the new leader of the players union, as an important early step in strengthening laborâ€™s hand. Koufax said in the film, â€œSince there was no such thing as free agency, you went in and you talked to the general manager and you tried to negotiate, which meant they threw you a crumb and you went home.â€
Peter Miller said that Koufax, who was accompanied by his wife, Jane, at each interview session, â€œseemed to be saying, â€˜I need to tell the story,â€™ and he was giving and willing to do it.â€
The last time Koufax spoke to a national network was in 1999, when he gave an hourlong interview toÂ ESPN for the â€œSportsCenturyâ€ series chapter on him. ButÂ HBO, which specializes in sports documentaries, has been turned down by Koufax several times over the past 30 years.
â€œJews and Baseballâ€ focuses on more than Koufax and Greenberg. It goes back to Barney Pelty, called the Yiddish Curver; Mose Solomon, the so-called Rabbi of Swat; and other Jewish players like Moe Berg, Al Rosen, Buddy Myer, Marv Rotblatt and Kevin Youkilis. But the 90-minute film will probably be best remembered for the extended star turn by Koufax, 44 years after his last pitch.