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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Philip Roth's Koufax card

by Philip Martin | April 27, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

In early 2019, I got an email from "Connecticut's Premier Estate Auction House," Litchfield County Auctions, with an invitation to peruse an online catalog of items from the estate of Philip Roth, who had died the previous May.

Whatever algorithm Litchfield used to identify me was spot on. I admire Roth's art and for a few years wrote a column about how we define ourselves by possessions. I didn't expect to find anything in my price range, but I did want to look.

One of the items up for bid was a Sandy Koufax baseball card from Topps' 1963 line "in a plastic sleeve with an underlined 15 in black, possibly its resale price." The catalog noted: "Roth, a baseball and Dodgers fan, was a lefty like Koufax to whom some felt Roth bore a resemblance."

Fair enough; both were Jewish-Americans from the Northeast who in their own ways grappled with obligations and assumptions of their Otherness. Both did their jobs extraordinarily well.

I was delighted to learn Roth had a Koufax card in his possession. I don't collect, but keep a 1968 Curt Flood card and a 1966 Matty Alou card in sleeves on my desk at home. The starting bid for Roth's Koufax card was $50--the auction house estimated it would sell for between $100 and $150. On impulse, I placed a bid for $75.

It eventually sold for $950.

Even absent a connection to Roth, the 1963 card is an interesting artifact; when the cards were produced after the 1962 season, Koufax was not yet an established star.

You can tell this because the card was assigned the number 210 in the series. Up until 2013 Topps honored the best players in the game by putting them on cards with numbers ending in two zeros. So in the 1963 cards, Mickey Mantle was No. 200, Willie Mays 300, Frank Robinson 400 and Harmon Killebrew 500. (For some reason, the perfectly fine Chicago White Sox first baseman Joe Cunningham--who hit .295 with 8 home runs and 70 RBIs and finished 18th in the American League MVP balloting in 1962--was awarded No. 100. )

The next tier was identified by numbers ending in a single zero, like 50, 150 or 450. Koufax, after an injury shortened the 1962 season that saw him go 14-7 and lead the National League in ERA, was a single zero guy, but he didn't rate a five- zero card. His teammate Johnny Podres (150), Stan Musial (250), Bob Friend (450) and Duke Snider (550) did. Reds' pitcher Bob Purkey, who went 23-5 in 1962, was No. 350.

Koufax would enjoy his first great season in 1963, going 25-5 and again leading the league with a 1.88 ERA. (His 1964 Topps card was No. 200.) Maybe Roth enjoyed owning a Koufax card that depicted him poised on the cusp of league domination. Maybe owning a 1963 Koufax card signaled a kind of prescience on the part of its owner. Anyone could have identified Koufax as the great Jewish-American hope after the 1963 season; the 1963 card is the last Koufax card to depict a mortal.

Roth was in the stands at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 2, 1963, when Koufax struck out 15 Yankees. (Mantle struck out twice, but more impressively, Koufax struck out Bobby Richardson, who had struck out only 22 times in 630 at-bats that year, three times.)

I don't know if Roth ever met Koufax, but I suspect I would have heard about it if he had.

There was a time in the '60s, when it was fashionable to think of Koufax as a cerebral man, an intellectual in flannels. That he had things on his mind bigger than baseball was made apparent when he refused to play on the Jewish High Holy Days Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But Koufax always pushed back against this notion.

Were he a Midwestern Christian rather than a Brooklyn Jew, his biographer Jane Leavy argued, Koufax's taciturn nature and avoidance would have been taken as a sign of character. He would have been taken as a strong, silent Gary Cooper type rather than the brooding "anti-athlete" for which some took him.

In her 2002 book "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," Leavy laid out a convincing case that Koufax was not an aloof anti-social recluse but a mensch who simply didn't want to court celebrity. He didn't even agree to be interviewed by Leavy, who conducted more than 500 other interviews for the book.

On the other hand, Roth hand-picked Blake Bailey to write his biography, and cooperated with Bailey to such a degree that some have characterized the resultant book, "Philip Roth: The Biography," as Roth's final literary project.

The book came out on April 6. Last week, New Orleans' Times-Picayune ran a couple of stories in which former students of Bailey's accused him of sexually grooming them while they were eighth-graders at New Orleans' Lusher Magnet School in the '90s and initiating sex with them after they turned 17, which is the age of consent in Louisiana. One of these women describes her encounter with Bailey as a rape, alleging that he held her down while she repeatedly tried to push him away, and only stopped after she told him she wasn't on the pill.

In short order, Bailey was dropped by his literary agency, and his publisher W.W. Norton said it would cease promoting the book and print no more copies of it. In an email to one of the students, Bailey reportedly wrote that his "behavior was deplorable," but he "did nothing illegal."

Before the controversy it had received good reviews, the exception being a perceptive piece in The New Republic by Laura Marsh, which argues it is essentially a 900-page apologia for Roth's pattern of misogynistic behavior.

"In Bailey, Roth found a biographer who is exceptionally attuned to his grievances and rarely challenges his moral accounting," Marsh writes. (Credit my former colleague Gordon Young--who gave me my Alou card--for pointing me to her essay.)

Not every hero is Donald Harington; most of them will disappoint you almost as much as you disappoint them. I have read and thought a lot about Roth's "misogyny" over the years; my policy has always been to accept as fiction what is presented as fiction and not to conflate a character's attitudes and actions with those of its creator.

I've got a copy of Bailey's book that slipped through the cracks. The book will--and should--get out. But this context is more than helpful, it is necessary.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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