Commentary Magazine


Sandy Koufax by Jane Leavy

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy
by Jane Leavy
HarperCollins. 304 pp. $23.95

The problem is not to figure out why Sandy Koufax was a great pitcher. The problem is to figure out why he was Sandy Koufax—the stuff of myth, the Achilles of Dodger Stadium, the pitcher who from 1963 to 1966 redefined baseball, the Jewish Phenomenon, the most talked-about athlete of the 1960′s, and the man who is remembered by everyone who saw him pitch as the most exciting player ever to take the mound.

Even during his early years, Koufax always had something: some promise of things to come, some flash of brilliance that kept the Dodgers from unloading him as a failed prospect. The fans who remember his almost perfect final years tend to forget just how mediocre he was in the beginning of his career, and how long that beginning lasted. His combined record from 1955 to 1960 was 42 wins and 53 losses—on pennant-winning teams. The earned runs he allowed barely matched the league’s average, and his unearned runs were atrocious. He walked enormous numbers of batters and threw wild pitches. He hit so many batters in spring training that one Dodger complained, “Taking batting practice against him is like playing Russian roulette with five bullets.”

None of this is what a baseball team wants in a star pitcher. Signed to a big bonus—which, under the rules of the 1950′s, prohibited the Dodgers from sending him back to the minor leagues for seasoning—Koufax was promoted as baseball’s latest wunderkind, the teenaged lefthander, the golden-armed Jewish boy from Brooklyn who was going to make everyone forget Lefty Grove. But he was really little more than a one-dimensional player. He had a big, overhand curve he could not trust and a change-up that might go anywhere. He relied mainly on his lightning fastball, and he struck out a lot of people with it. But the National League in those days was filled with big hitters whose home-run totals masked the arrival of the pitching paradise the 1960′s would become—players like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, Ken Boyer, and Eddie Matthews. After striking out in their first two at-bats against Koufax in a game, they would adjust their timing and smash home runs off him in their third and fourth at-bats.

But even in those bad years Koufax had moments of mastery, especially when his curveball was working. In 1955, as a nineteen-year-old bonus baby, he managed to strike out fourteen Reds in one game. In 1959, when he would finish the season with an uninspiring 8-6 record, he started in June by striking out sixteen Phillies and ended in August by tying Bob Feller’s record of eighteen strikeouts in a game. And the best was yet to come.

By 1961—joining Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres, and Stan Williams in the Dodgers’ starting rotation—Koufax led the league in strikeouts, finding enough control to bring his curveball into play and enjoy what was basically a good journeyman’s year: 18-13, with a 3.52 earned-run average (ERA). In 1962, a finger injury led to circulatory problems that took him out of the lineup in mid-July and kept his record down to 14-7, but his ERA led the league. And from 1963 until his forced retirement with arthritis a mere four years later, he was the pitcher everyone remembers. In 1963:25-5. In 1964:19-5. In 1965: 26-8. And in 1966: 27-9. League-leading strikeouts in three of those years, and league-leading ERAs every year. Three unanimous Cy Young Awards (in the days when only one was given for both leagues). Most Valuable Player in 1963. Four no-hitters, one a perfect game.

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Even when he was not much good, Koufax had some quality that kept him at the center of attention. The common complaint about the 1950′s Dodgers he joined was that they were all hitting—the murderous lineup included Pee-Wee Reese, Junior Jim Gilliam, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, and Roy Campanella—and no pitching. This was not really true: long before they moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1959, the Dodgers were already becoming the pitchers’ team they would be known as through the 1960′s. But until Koufax came along, nobody really believed a Dodger could pitch.

That is no doubt why, in 1955, as the team was putting together the lineup that would finally win a World Series against the Yankees, the preseason press reports were all about the signing of a new teenaged phenom; and from then on, the fascination with Koufax never stopped. “Koufax, Unorthodox, Reads Books,” ran one early headline in the Herald Tribune.

By the time he was able to put his talents together, everything about him was news. His struggles with the arthritic pain in his swollen arm—the ice baths, the salves, the painkillers—produced a constant rain of commentary in the newspapers. And that was the least of it. Koufax built hi-fi’s in his spare time and owned an electronics shop! He declined to give endorsements! He and Don Drysdale were going to make a movie!

His Jewishness in particular became the stuff of legend. Back in Brooklyn, the Dodgers, knowing their fans, had actually encouraged their few Jewish players to be absent on religious holidays. In 1934, in the middle of a tight pennant race, the Tigers’ Hank Greenberg had declined to play on Yom Kippur. But, somehow, when Koufax passed up his World Series start against the Twins on October 6, 1965, it was as though no one had ever heard of such a thing before, and his name was inscribed forever in the Book of Life. Rabbis took to the radio to praise him, and rumors in several synagogues on the great day itself held that Koufax was present incognito. (Actually, he spent the day in his Minneapolis hotel room.) The pitcher Ken Holtzman recalls that his mother could not bring herself to pray for him to beat Koufax when he pitched against him the next year; the most she could pray was that he be like Koufax.

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The National League in the 1960′s was filled with great pitchers: the aging Warren Spahn churning out twenty-win seasons for the Braves, Drysdale pitching 58 consecutive scoreless innings for the Dodgers, Bob Gibson producing a 1.12 ERA for the Cardinals, Juan Marichal having for the Giants what was probably the most valuable decade of them all. At his peak, Koufax was better, but not miles better. And yet, just as in 1962 the only thing Dodgers fans wanted to talk about was how Koufax’s injured finger cost them the pennant, so in 2002 nobody is writing biographies of Juan Marichal. But here is Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, a new life by the Washington Post‘s Jane Leavy.

The book is not a baseball classic like Roger Kahn’s adoration of the Dodgers in The Boys of Summer, but Leavy does a good job of moving rapidly through Koufax’s early life to concentrate on his career. Interweaving chapters on Koufax’s slow development in the majors with chapters giving a pitch-by-pitch account of his perfect game on September 9, 1965, Leavy offers a solid, if unoriginal, explanation for his transformation from unfulfilled promise to success.

A lesson from the catcher Norm Sherry, who taught him not to press too hard during the 1961 preseason, was important in this transformation. But the main element was a small change in his pitching motion, made after a scout noticed that he was obscuring his vision with his hands midway through ‘ Wally Moon, newly traded to the Dodgers, told Koufax that opposing teams had figured out what pitch he was going to throw by the way he held his glove. Other elements included the expanded strike zone in 1963, which turned another 5 percent of his pitches into strikes, and his forming, with John Roseboro, one of those mystical, extrasensory pitcher-catcher relations that win ball games.

What Leavy cannot quite explain is why the sun always seemed to center its rays on him. Somewhere along the line, she seems to have met and been overawed by the poet Robert Pinksy, and to her detriment she cannot shake free from his sentimental take on Koufax’s importance to America. Nor can she stop herself from interjecting distracting observations about the social history of the 1960′s. By the time the reader has finished this book, the smoke of the Watts riots seems a permanent feature of the sky over Dodger Stadium.

A deeper problem with Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy is that Leavy proves unable to penetrate what Ed Linn (who helped produce Koufax’s 1966 autobiography) called the pitcher’s “wall of amiability.” She is hardly alone. After interviewing hundreds of Koufax’s friends and acquaintances, Linn came to the conclusion that none of them knew him at all. Even the people closest to him on the Dodgers team—like Maury Wills and John Roseboro—spoke of his aloofness, his distance, his aura of impenetrability. Like others before her, Leavy cites Koufax’s friendship with black players to claim some unity of feeling among minorities, but this is not convincing: he was also friends with the Dodger coach Al Campanis, widely denounced as a racist. He was friendly, and only friendly, with almost everyone.

People always described Koufax as handsome, but he was not, really, and especially not while he was pitching. He and Drysdale formed the superstition of not shaving before pitching starts, which put a black circle of whiskers around his mouth on game day. The cut of the Dodgers’ uniforms made all the players look as though their necks were too long, and no one could appear entirely graceful throwing the way Koufax did: from straight above the shoulder with a huge windup and a follow-through so pronounced that his back would be completely turned to the batter by the time his foot came off the rubber. Koufax always looked strained, the cords on his neck standing out and his entire body delivering the pitch. He did not frighten batters the way the enormous and mean-tempered Drysdale did; he just threw past them, as though only he and the ball had any real existence.

People may have called him handsome because they lacked any other word to describe what they saw in him. The reason Koufax seemed so distant was the same reason fans and players alike were so fascinated by him: he felt, and they could see him feel, the burden of something given to very few human beings—the chance to be great at what he was good at.

Writers love baseball, in part because it lets them talk about things, like greatness, that they are embarrassed to mention in any other context, and in part because it lets them see the human struggle in miniature: small Iliads and tiny Odysseys played out on a diamond. In this, though, writers are like everyone else, pulled to the realm of the mythic whose force they cannot explain. From the very beginning, when he was not particularly useful, Sandy Koufax was an Achilles figure—and, like every Achilles, he finished too young and missed the far end of his arc. Even in the little world of baseball we cannot keep our eyes off such men. How could it be otherwise? The sun shines on them, and for a moment in their lives greatness shimmers into view.

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