Baseball and music: professions for some, recreation for others,; enjoyment for most.
The names Sandy Koufax and Herb Alpert evoke memories and emotions that give me pause to this day. These two icons were embedded in my youthful mind and forever will be a part of any of us who remember them from back in their heyday. My most cherished thoughts of these two greats: class and respect.
I clearly remember hearing Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass from my parent’s Magnavox console when I was growing up, the long-playing records sounding out with the group’s distinctive horns and instrumentals. The album I most recall was “Whipped Cream and Other Delights,” with those one-word, food-related song titles. His songs always remind me of my Spanish family background.
And when I started collecting baseball cards, I cannot be sure I had a Sandy Koufax. But even then I knew his name, and I remember the awe that took hold of me when I heard it.
Later on, I bought my own Herb Alpert records and a Sandy Koufax card. These brought me back to my youth but added another dimension — an understanding and appreciation of their backgrounds and stories.
Herb and Sandy both were born in 1935, Herb in Los Angeles and Sandy in Brooklyn, both from Jewish families. Herb stayed in and around L.A. and Sandy played for the Dodgers, who moved to L.A. from Brooklyn in the late 1950s. To me those two always have been linked: world-class men of achievement who made their mark and exhibited a culture during the counterculture.
We know of Sandy’s accomplishments on the baseball field — Hall of Fame all the way, World Series achievements, pitching domination. But I learned so much more about him: the pain he played through and the treatments and injections he endured to keep at his craft. His proud determination not to play in the opener of the 1965 World Series because it coincided with Yom Kippur. His fight to be compensated adequately. And his early retirement at the age of only 30. All of these actions took courage. And he did it all with grace and class.
Even at the press conference announcing his retirement, he answered questions with patience and resolution. When asked why he was retiring now, Sandy reasoned away the issue of loss of income and said: “I don’t want to have to take the cortisone shots and pills…. I don’t regret the last 12 years [of playing ball] but I would regret one year too many.”
Sandy was the only athlete mentioned in a book called “The 100 Most Influential Jews of All Time.”
Herb came from a musical family and took up the trumpet at an early age. He formed A&M records and later signed many other artists, including the South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela. His success with the Tijuana Brass was immense and global. He too encountered adversity when he disbanded the TJB as he was going through a period of soul-searching. He then overcame his troubles and flourished again, getting back to music and recording. He also started a foundation, giving to the UCLA School of Music and CalArts, as well as to the Harlem School of the Arts. He also started the Louis and Tillie Alpert Music Center in Jersusalem.
Both men later received awards at the White House. Sandy was honored as a prominent Jewish American to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month, and Herb won the National Medal of Arts award.
Sandy and Herb are still around. We don’t see nearly enough of them, but they deserve their space. Herb still performs with his wife, and Sandy occasionally attends special baseball events and is involved with an organization that helps struggling former ballplayers.
I have always admired their quiet dignity.
When I think of these greats now, I am still in awe. I call them “gray ghosts”— at their advanced age, when they make an appearance, I can imagine a stunned silence. When I hear their names now, I am whipsawed back to my younger days, then immediately pushed forward to the present day. I know that they won’t be around forever. Perhaps we all feel a bit this way: Who wouldn’t want to play the horn like Herb and touch the world? Who wouldn’t want to be like Sandy, choosing to be in the background but knowing you are so greatly admired?
Today I still feel the same way about them as I did all those years ago. Maybe more so.
John Prieto lives in Ridgewood and is on the board of directors of the Canal Society of New Jersey. He writes about local history for the Canal Society and the Newark History Society.