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Handsome Sandy

By Frank Gruber

One aspect of having a child turning thirteen is that I'm starting to read books he recommends to me.

Last week I read Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, a new biography of the Dodgers' enigmatic icon (or iconic enigma?) by Jane Leavy, which my wife bought for our son. When he finished reading it, and pronounced it "good," his highest praise, I snapped it up.

I was fourteen when Koufax won 27 games in 1966 and then retired, and even though I lived in Philadelphia, the name Koufax occupies an enduring place in an almost unconscious pantheon of my sixties childhood, somewhere in life when baseball was certainly more important than politics, and even more important than sex.

A few years took care of those priorities, but the fact that Koufax retired at just the moment when all hell was breaking loose must mean something.

Although then as now I lived and died with the Philadelphia Phillies, my "second favorite team" was, as I imagine was the case with a lot of Jewish kids, the Dodgers. My association with them was not only based on Koufax's being Jewish, but also because my grandmother and a favorite aunt lived in L.A.

We visited in 1961 and I remember getting a pack of Dodgers photos, probably at a Union 76 station. I remember how my older sister developed a crush on "Handsome Sandy," which is how Koufax was described on the back of his photo.

Part of the Koufax legend is that he is one of the few major league players who never played in the minor leagues. A fact that I learned from Leavy's new book is that Koufax never pitched in the minors not because he was especially good, although everyone recognized that at eighteen he had tremendous potential, but because the club owners had imposed a rule on themselves that required clubs that paid "bonus babies" signing bonuses of more than $4,000 to keep them on the major league roster for two years.

Koufax signed with his then hometown Brooklyn Dodgers for $15,000.

The purpose of the rule was to penalize any club that broke ranks with the other clubs and paid extravagant (!) bonuses to players whose only chance to negotiate in a free market was their first contract -- after that, they were bound to whatever club "owned" their contract.

If you consider how counter-productive it is to keep a good prospect on a major league bench when he should be getting experience in the minors, and if you reflect on the awkward space the bonus babies occupied on the bench, having taken a job from a veteran, you might start to understand why even today, when mediocre baseball players make millions, players are so suspicious of any efforts by club owners to restrict market in salaries and bonuses.

Koufax played another important role as a baseball labor activist. Before the 1966 season he and Don Drysdale held out together, and by forming their "union of two" were able to break the $100,000 salary barrier for pitchers.

While their action broke no legal ground to emancipate the players from their perpetual contracts, the fact that Koufax and Drysdale challenged Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, the behind-the scenes ruler of baseball, encouraged the players' militancy and happened to coincide with the players' hiring of Marvin Miller to turn their players' association into a real union.

Needless to say, to this day the club owners declare that the demands of the players will drive them into bankruptcy, destroy the game, and end America as we know it. Meanwhile, the game has become much more popular and lucrative than it was prior to free agency, and the valuation of some clubs approaches a billion dollars. (Ted Turner paid about $10 million for the Atlanta Braves in the early seventies and everyone thought he'd been suckered.)

I expect that many of Santa Monica's hotel owners and managers are baseball fans, and I hope that they read this new biography of Koufax. They, like the baseball club owners, often say that they have the best interests of their workers at heart in resisting unionization. No doubt some of them are cynical, but others, like some of the old club owners, genuinely believe they know what's best for their workers.

There is a peculiar kind of self-flattery, mixed with self-justification, involved when people in charge believe they know what's best for those whose lives or livelihoods are within their control. The Walter O'Malley's of the world didn't lose money when the players organized, they made it, but they lost control, and that's what they regret.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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