The Legend of Sister Sandy Koufax

Nobody threw a chalkboard eraser with greater velocity and movement than Sister Sandra, who would have impressed the greatest baseball pitchers of her day.

By Ed Attanasio, This Great Game—Posted May 10, 2013

Nuns playing baseballThe missile flies through the air, silently traveling at high speeds toward its destination. Thrown with utmost accuracy, it will hit within millimeters of its target almost every time. Am I talking about a Major League Baseball pitcher? A pro football quarterback? A javelin thrower? No, I’m referring to a nun. That’s right, a nun. And she’s not hurling a baseball, a football or a javelin. What she throws with uncanny skill is a chalkboard eraser. But let’s not get carried away. Let’s start at the beginning.

All the things I can most vividly remember from my childhood revolve around the great game of baseball. My initial memories of America’s Pastime include my first mitt, presented to me as a Christmas gift in 1968 at age 10. It was a Tommy Tresh special glove bound in rubber bands and slathered in saddle soap, aged and stored under my upper bunk bed mattress to work in the virgin leather. My dad helped me break in that first glove, and I imagine thousands of other fathers did the same and will continue to pass this particular knowledge onto their sons and daughters for decades to come.

Once the mitt was just right, I was ready to unveil it. But a pliable, comfortable glove doesn’t guarantee top performance. After a grand total of at least 50 muffs, with several errant throws that struck me in my arms, legs, and head, a solitary ball paused in midair and smiled at me for a moment in the blinding sun. I closed my eyes and reached to the heavens with little hope and zero confidence. But it was a good day, because the baseball gods decided to throw me a break, and the ball miraculously fell into my glove, where it sat until my father ran over and pried it from my clutched hands.

I will always fondly recall my first World Series in 1968—Detroit beat St. Louis. Watching Bob Gibson scowling and striking out Tigers hitters one after another, he reminded me of my fifth-grade physical education teacher, Mr. Palmer, a World War II veteran who smelled like liniment and believed the path to manhood included endless jumping jacks, medicine balls, and what they called “calisthenics” back then. He told me he didn’t fancy ”smart alecks” like me and intimated that he had no reservations about getting physical if my behavior warranted it. Mr. Palmer smiled rarely and certainly never said “good job,” and I quickly realized that he was a genuinely mean man. But he was good at his job—just like Bob Gibson—and you’ve got to respect that.

I’ll always remember my very first games in Little League. I donned a uniform consisting of a t-shirt that shrunk to half its size after its first washing and gradually got smaller with every subsequent trip through the laundry. My red cap was three sizes too large, which meant my mother had to baby-pin it tight in the back. It’s hard to focus when you look and feel like a poorly assembled scarecrow.

I started playing organized Little League in 1969, in my hometown of Old Greenwich, Connecticut, and later when we moved to Southern California. I was a prime example of “good glove, no bat,” and was frustrated playing the game most of my life. I was more than adept in the field, possessed a great arm, and made quite a few spectacular catches. But I was clueless at the plate. I would get up there, my legs would start shaking, and I’d either freeze and take three strikes or swing with little chance of hitting anything but air.

I’m still ashamed to admit that during the last year my father coached me in Little League (I think it must have been 1972), I failed to get even a single base hit all season. My nickname was changed forever during that depressing season—from “Steady Ed” to “Eddie Oh-fer.” To this day, I have nightmares in which I’m at bat, trying to get a hit, and the scoreboard keeps flashing .000 over and over as I strike out…yet again!

Baseball was fun for me to watch—even if I couldn’t hit—which was good, because I sat on the bench most of the time. Some of the kids I played with in Little League went on to become stars at the high school and college level, but none of them made it to the Big Show. It’s one of the toughest things an athlete can ever achieve. Most people don’t realize how extremely difficult it really is to play in even one game at the MLB level.

During those years in Connecticut, we were obviously Yankees fans, which was unfortunate, because in the late 1960s, the Bronx Bombers were more like Tiny Firecrackers. My heroes back then were an old, beat-up Mickey Mantle, Joe Pepitone with his bad toupee, and a young pitcher named Mel Stottlemyre. No one I knew rooted for the Mets, except for one strange little girl in my homeroom who came to school in a van. Being a Mets fan was like being a Jets fan. It just wasn’t done.

But much to everyone’s surprise, the Mets won it all in 1969. We had moved to the Los Angeles area that summer and watched the Amazin’s from NYC shock the Baltimore Orioles on our new color TV with a 16-inch screen—which at that time was considered enormous.

The five-game dismantling of the Mighty Birds of the American League by the upstart Mets was fun to watch in color, although I still don’t believe it happened. Baltimore took Game One easily, beating Tom Seaver, the Mets’ ace. Jerry Koosman shut down the big Baltimore bats in Game Two, and I thought, “Well, at least it won’t be a sweep.” I never imagined that the ragtag crew from Shea would win their next three games. Mets’ pitchers Gary Gentry and a very young, baby-faced Nolan Ryan combined for a 5-0 shutout in Game Three, Seaver pitched a complete game in Game Four, and Koosman went all the way to capture the series, winning 5-3 after trailing 3-0 early in the game.

Previously unknown guys with names like Swoboda, Agee, Weis, and Clendenon beat the dominators of the American League, handcuffing the greatest hitters of their time—household names like Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and Paul Blair. Brooks Robinson made spectacular plays routinely at third, and the pitching staff of Palmer, Cuellar, and McNally pitched spectacularly all season. But the end result was that the Orioles lost to a better team during a week and a half in October 1969.

When it was all over, I learned a valuable lesson about baseball and life. There is no such thing as a sure thing. It’s a classic example of why they play the games. I realized then the most talent doesn’t always prevail. The Orioles tried too hard, pressed too much, and gave the Mets a chance to walk through the door. The Jets with “Broadway Joe” Namath had already illustrated that fact on a different field earlier in the year, when the AFL embarrassed another sports powerhouse of that time, the Baltimore Colts, in the Super Bowl.

I don’t know if it was a full moon, or if Mercury was in retrograde, but those have to be two of the biggest upsets in professional sports, both played by two teams from the same city—with Baltimore playing the heavy favorite only to screw the pooch both times. The best team doesn’t necessarily win every game, I surmised, which means you have to work harder than the other guy, even if you’re better than he is.

By late 1970, we were comfortable in our Los Angeles lifestyles. We were now Dodgers fans. But like with the Yankees in 1968 and 1969, the Dodgers were still far away from getting anywhere near the Fall Classic. The transplanted Bums had performed well after moving from Ebbets Field to Chavez Ravine, winning the whole thing in 1959, 1963, and 1965, but hadn’t done much since.

Life in L.A. was good for a rambunctious 12-year-old—but things were about to change. A person who would radically alter the way I thought about a lot of things was poised to enter my life. She was a nun. A tough nun. And her name was Sister Sandy Koufax. Little did I know that the you-know-what was poised to hit the fan.

Because I primarily attended parochial schools throughout my pre-college educational career, I absorbed more than my share of physical abuse from my instructors, mainly priests and nuns, who never seemed to fully appreciate or tolerate my quick wit and incredible comic insight.

My parents realized early on that public school was not going to be the solution to my varied range of behavioral problems. I needed the discipline of the Catholic school system, in their opinion. In public school, hooliganism was rampant—while in parochial school, it was just as bad, but Catholic kids had learned to hide it better over the years. It wasn’t like my parents were practicing Catholics. My folks sent me to parochial schools for the discipline and nothing else. Those nuns and priests, who made my life a living hell for many years, didn’t know it, but they were hired by my parents for their disciplinary muscle, and that’s all. Prison guards in habits and stiff white collars, basically.

It was an age of terror and violence that would shadow me throughout my schooling. The basic lesson was stressed again and again—open your mouth and get whacked upside the head. It was a simple process of association, a sick experiment not unlike the things Pavlov did to his poor dogs. At least the mutts got fed every now and then. All I got was pummeled. I was hearing bells, all right, but I wasn’t salivating. The ringing in my ears came from quick lefts and powerful roundhouse rights thrown by the nuns and priests at St. Basil’s.

It’s amusing to think that of all the things that happened to me in Catholic school, both good and bad, the only times I can clearly remember are the numerous instances where I got whacked around for some silly prank I pulled or some smartass remark I made. Like a punchy old boxer long retired from the ring, the countless beatings I took—those fleeting instances of extreme discomfort and humiliation—appear in my mind just like they happened only yesterday. They play themselves out in slow motion sometimes, blow by blow, blood and pieces of flesh flying everywhere, just like those great fight scenes in Raging Bull.

Initially, during my pre-confirmation years, the nuns were the ones who took on the arduous chore of administering to me the discipline I was evidently so much in need of. Over time, as they were increasingly frustrated by my antics, their forms of torture evolved and became more sophisticated.

The first form was the proven standby—the old wooden-ruler-over-the-knuckles routine. This hurt considerably and could have been a marvelous deterrent if it wasn’t so logistically impractical. For example, you couldn’t perform it on an unwilling victim without dragging them kicking and screaming. Good luck trying to subdue someone long enough to crack ’em a good one! Anyone who was dumb enough to stand there while they got whacked with a piece of wood containing a metal rod in the middle, like the newer rulers had, was deserving of such a punishment anyway.

The simple truth was that this once-reliable behavior modifier may have worked in the past when kids were more in awe of authority, but by the 1970s, it was passé. It was a noble gesture, like trying to get the country to switch over to the metric system. They gave it a solid effort, but in the end, it was unsuccessful. The priests and nuns at St. Basil’s eventually abandoned the ruler method of punishment and began to look elsewhere in pursuit of the perfect deterrent for smartasses like myself.

I soon learned that this missile made of cloth and wood, about the size of a small brick, flew across the classroom with amazing speed and accuracy when thrown by a seasoned professional. And upon reaching its destination—which, in my case, consisted of my large, crew-cut head and enormous, fan-like, Alfred E. Neuman earlobes—consistently inflicted extreme pain.

Eventually, I was made aware of the fact that the blackboard eraser was the sisterhood’s primary weapon of choice at St. Basil’s. Each and every nun threw it well, like it was something they taught in the convent right along with classes in chastity and the scriptures.

There wasn’t a slouch in the bunch—all of them, from Sister Astor to Sister Gertrude (though she was a little older and nursed a bad case of bursitis) could throw the eraser fast and true.

To this day, I still hold one particular nun, Sister Sandy Koufax, in total awe. Her real name was Sister Sandra, but the Koufax was added many years before I came to St. Basil’s. And it was certainly well-deserved.

Sister Sandy had all the qualities of a truly great eraser thrower, with natural abilities you can’t teach, like dead-on aim and the kind of velocity they can only gauge with a speed gun. But the most amazing thing about Sister Sandy was her incredible stamina. She finished stronger than the great Cy Young, never wavering or showing a hint of fatigue. 

Heat, cold, rain, wind, sleet, hail—old reliable Sister Sandy was rock-solid and undeterred day after day, from the moment the morning bell sounded all the way through after-school sports. She seemed to get stronger rather than tire after lunch. I always felt that she relished the competition I provided, and I was prepared to test her at every turn.

Sometimes, in another nun’s classroom, students would take control late in the afternoon when it was hot and humid with a young, rookie nun whose arm was tired and with her concentration beginning to wane. Chaos reigned supreme during those rare sweet moments of childish revolt. A handful of limp, errant throws of the eraser told the unruly mob that this particular nun could be had.

In rare moments such as these, the air was filled with freedom and a sea of flying spitballs thick with locusts and sticking to anything and everything, including the crucifix above the door and the traditional picture of the Last Supper hanging on the back wall—making it appear for a moment as though Christ and the twelve disciples were dining on wet clumps of notebook paper instead of bread and wine.

On occasion, as an extreme measure, Sister Sandy would be called upon to clean up after a novice priest or a nun-in-training had lost control of a classroom. She’d waltz in to stop the barrage of unruliness that always took place when some poor nun or priest couldn’t throw strikes anymore.

Just her presence in a room stopped all such foolhardiness. No one ever dared with Koufax. She was a closer, a workhouse, and because we knew she’d be sharp every day, she was always unquestionably in charge. Just when you thought you’d gotten one over on her, she’d fool you. Sister Sandy had a sneaky curve just like her namesake, a vicious falling-off- the-table pitch that looked like it was going to hit someone two rows of desks over, when suddenly, it veered sharply in your direction, and whap! You got it!

Her accuracy was uncanny—she reminded me a lot of Jim “Catfish” Hunter that way. Her strike zone went from the base of the neck to the top of the cranium. But her favorite target was right in the middle of the forehead, which left a white, chalky circle that looked kind of like the ash spot they gave you in the same location every Ash Wednesday.

That was her signature spot. And when she nailed you there, you’d leave that mark on your skull as long as you could. The good kids would look down on you, while the goof-offs and cutups thought it was neat—like a tattoo that said Bad to the Bone or something. You wouldn’t wipe it off as a show of respect to Sandy, as if to say begrudgingly, “I got nailed by the very best.” Because when Sister Sandy hit you with a blackboard eraser, it was like striking out against Bob Feller or Early Wynn—there was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Sister Sandy was a pleasure to watch when she threw the chalkboard eraser, especially when she pulled one of her patented secret weapons out of her habit. She’d hide Vaseline under her nun’s hat and sneak some onto the eraser, causing it to dip and hop just like Gaylord Perry’s legendary spitball. She’d stare you down with that petrifying scowl, like Don Drysdale used to do in the 1960s.

You see, Sister Sandy was an avid baseball fan and borrowed many the idiosyncrasies of her favorite pitchers. She fidgeted and stalked around the podium at the front of the classroom and talked to herself the same way Mark “The Bird” Fidrych used to act out on the mound. She borrowed the best moves from all her pitching heroes—from Juan Marichal’s high kick to “Sudden Sam” McDowell’s unusually calm pitching style all the way to even incorporating some of Satchel Paige’s tongue-in-cheek words of advice. And with Whitey Ford’s fastball, Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckler, and Warren Spahn’s scroogie— she even had a split-finger pitch before it was popular. Sister Sandy was a worthy opponent, a relentless competitor, and a pleasure to watch.

During her windup, she would turn her back to the class and briefly face the blackboard, her bare, unshaven, varicose vein-riddled leg emerging from under her habit and hanging suspended in midair for a split-second. Then suddenly, she’d spin around and throw heat, just like Luis Tiant.

Sometimes, late in the afternoon, when the shadows grew long on the walls and floor of the classroom, it was virtually impossible to pick up the flight of a pitched eraser, especially as it emerged at Mach One from a background of black-and-white robes and flailing rosaries. You kept your mouth shut in those instances, knowing full well from experience that Sandy was at her most dangerous late in the day.

She was so good at firing erasers that most of the time you overlooked how very hard Sister Sandy was on the eyes. She was blessed with a great arm and was a more-than-adequate history teacher, but she looked like Ernest Borgnine in a dress, and I’m being kind. It didn’t matter. To me, she was something really special, and I honestly believe that if she had been born a man, Sandy would have made it all the way to The Show, most likely as a middle reliever.

As I progressed through St. Basil’s, I got used to being bombarded by blackboard erasers, and it lost its effectiveness after a while. A puff of chalk dust, some nervous laughter from your classmates, a moment of mild embarrassment, and it was over. The nuns quickly had to devise a more potent form of punishment if they ever hoped to break me. For about two weeks, I was actually convinced I had them on the ropes, but they were simply regrouping quietly behind the chapel, methodically reassembling their troops secretly in the rectory while bringing in a couple of specialists from the Vatican.

Those crafty penguins were not fazed by my behavior for one second. Almost instantly, they began the process of muzzling and breaking me once again. Eventually, I found out there were many more drastic forms of control within these nuns’ repertoires of discipline and pain, such as caning and long stretches in after-school detention.

I look back now and realize I never had a chance. After all, these wonderful ladies weren’t too concerned about my brand of high jinks considering they spent their days engaged in an unending struggle against Beelzebub, Satan and the Ultimate Evil. Do you really think they felt even mildly threatened by a sixth grader whose entire arsenal consisted of the fake-fart-under-the-armpit gag, a few dirty limericks, and an old routine of bad knock-knock jokes?

Well, I made it out of St. Basil’s alive, and the damage those chalkboard erasers ultimately did to me is debatable. I heard many years later that Sister Sandy died in 1999, after living a good long life. I’m told she could still throw those erasers better than any nun who ever lived right up until the day she passed on to the big classroom in the sky. And you know what? I believe it!