All but the most sociopathic among us have been sickened by the tale of Bernie Madoff’s alleged massive Ponzi scheme since the first headlines appeared.
Some, however, felt more ill than most. That’s because, in large measure, Madoff’s boondoggle was affinity fraud. He didn’t just target people, he targeted those with whom he shared the most in common, those who were the most likely to trust him. Bernie Madoff made his money by taking advantage of those who shared his faith.
Ronald Cass of the Wall Street Journal wrote a great article explaining affinity scams, why they work, and why the Jewish population might be uniquely vulnerable to them. Discussing such malfeasance in a general sense, he writes:
The sense of common heritage, of community, also makes it less seemly to ask hard questions. Pressing a fellow parishioner or club member for hard information is like demanding receipts from your aunt — it just doesn’t feel right. Hucksters know that, they play on it, and they count on our trust to make their confidence games work.
I think that most of us felt that Madoff’s crime was, in some way, worse because of the affinity angle. Those of us who aren’t Jewish, however, probably didn’t feel the same sting as those Jews who saw Madoff as both a twisted scoundrel and one who was all too happy to “eat his own”.
The release of Madoff’s “customer list” or, if you prefer, “victim list”, might help at least a few of us understand a little better. That’s because one of the over 13,000 names on the list is Sandy Koufax.
Sandy Koufax is Jewish, but his legend exceeds his faith. His fan base includes virtually every American who’s ever taken an interest in our national pastime, baseball. Koufax, a baseball Hall-of-Famer, is generally regarded as one of the best pitchers to ever take the mound. He pitched for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles, striking out befuddled batters en masse on both coasts and everywhere in between.
Bernie Madoff screwed Sandy Koufax and that fact hammers home just how despicable his string of unarmed robberies really was.
You could argue that the other famous names on that list, and there are many, would make that point even if Koufax wasn’t on the list. You might be right. There’s something special about Sandy, though, that really underlines the nastiness of the whole affair.
That’s because the name Sandy Koufax has a special meaning for Jews while being a hero to so many who’ve never stepped into a synagogue. He is legend, he is baseball, he is talent and he is principle. Whether the man lives up to the reputation is immaterial. Sandy Koufax is mythology and stealing cash from a symbol of all that’s good about America is never a good idea.
Willie “Pops” Stargell could hit. The big Pittsburgh slugger, however, was in awe of Koufax. He compared trying to get a hit off of Sandy to trying to drink coffee with a fork. Bob Costas said that Koufax “doesn’t defy anything, except the norm.”
He was that good.
And if you don’t believe Pops and Bob, you can ask anyone else who’s ever watched or followed the game. People marvel at Koufax more than forty years after he experienced his greatest baseball successes.
And, you could say, he was just as Jewish as he was talented. When his turn to pitch in the World Series fell on Yom Kippur, Koufax famously honored his faith over his profession. He wouldn’t pitch on the holiday. That wasn’t just an act of Judaism, it was an act of principle. It resonated. If there’s one thing Americans like more than a great high and tight fastball, it’s someone who’s willing to stand on principle.
Koufax has been immortalized in poetry. An excerpt from “Sandy Koufax, Baseball’s Jewish Star” hints at his significance:
We scoured the sporting pages for the vagrant Jewish name
that would assuage our sorrow, and we found our twinkling star.
He was young, wild, unfettered, and he once attended the same
Jewish community center in Brooklyn where our own children
would spend sparkling summers during his years of gloved glory.
Jews related to Koufax, a man who rose to glory in the very secular world of professional sports while retaining his identity. It’s an idea that was echoed in “The Night Game” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky:
I devised a left-hander
Even more gifted
Than Whitey Ford: a Dodger
People were amazed by him.
Once, when he was
He refused to pitch on Yom Kippur.
In 2001, Israel’s new professional baseball league held its inaugural draft. The first player chosen? Sandy Koufax. The league honored him with that ceremonial selection, reminding the senior citizen who left the game early due to arm injuries of just how important he was to the game and to Jews.
And today, we see his name again. It’s not on a lineup card or a Hall of Fame bust, though. It’s on a list with 13,000+ other names. People robbed by Bernard Madoff. He shares space with other celebrities, but for some reason knowing that Kevin Bacon or Steven Spielberg are victims doesn’t deliver the same gut punch. Sandy Koufax has been different for decades. He’s special to Jew and Goy alike.
A recent piece at Real Clear Politics defined this type of crime: ”An ‘affinity fraud’ targets members of a specific group. The group can be ethnic, religious or social.”
Madoff may have targeted Jews, but the collateral damage of his attack has reached the social group of baseball fans.
And maybe, just maybe, that fact will help to extend a sense of the ugly burn accompanying affinity scams to the rest of us.
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