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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

The Koufax Legend
Book Review by Mark E. Hayes

Jane Leavy. Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy. New York: HarperCollins, 2002, 273 pp., $23.95, cloth.

 

The great Dodger left-hander Sandy Koufax lives on in the popular imagination as the J. D. Salinger of baseball: a short span of brilliant work preceded by years of frustrating mediocrity; a fanatic following far beyond the realm of normal popularity; and a sudden exit from public life at the very peak of his powers.

The comparison, of course, doesn't do Koufax justice. Jerry Salinger spent as many years publishing dozens of good-but-unremarkable stories in the popular magazines of the late 1930s and 1940s, peaking in 1952 with the classic novel Catcher in the Rye, only to grow more cranky and bitter and isolated as the years passed. Ever track down that last, depressing novella by Salinger, "Hapworth 16, 1924," which appeared in the New Yorker? And do we have to tell you how Salinger retreated to a fortified house on the hill deep in squirrel-infested New Hampshire and kept a Do Not Disturb sign on the nearest birch tree for the past forty years? Need we say more?

Koufax is more of a legend, and he did it better than Salinger ever could.

Where Salinger is a crank, Koufax is merely private. Where Salinger is a loner, Koufax is merely independent. And where Salinger is a reclusive eccentric holed up in the Great Northern Forest, Koufax maintains an active life amid the anonymity of a Florida retirement. Koufax, now sixty-seven years old, is still cool.

Jane Leavy has attempted to unpack the mystery of the Dodger legend in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy. A former writer for the Washington Post and the author of the novel Squeeze Play, Leavy writes in her preface, "No other baseball immortal retired so young, so well, or so completely." The early exit is, in part, the secret of the power Koufax holds over the popular mind, but his strong appeal may also stem from his Jewish heritage. Like Hank Greenberg before him and Shawn Green after, there's something about Jewish baseball fans that lends a special aura to what their brethren do on the field—or at least the perception for some of what they do on the field.

What Koufax did on the field, of course, speaks for itself. In his canonical peak years, 19631966, Koufax was as dominant as any left-hander in the history of the game—including Lefty Grove from 1929 through 1931 and (yes) Randy Johnson in 2001 and 2002. In those final four years as a Dodger, Koufax had a record of 9727 and his ERA never rose above 2.04 in a season despite averaging 300 innings per year. He also averaged a strikeout an inning during that period.

While Koufax has never been exactly cooperative with the press, he did not interfere with the writing of this book (unlike Salinger, whose legal battles against would-be biographers are legendary). He reportedly provided biographical information where necessary, confirmed a great many details, and gave approval to his friends to be interviewed, if they wished, for the book. By arrangement, Leavy did not talk to Koufax's family and ex-wives. Koufax managed to give the project an endorsement of sorts, calling it, "an unauthorized biography by a neat lady."

"You don't need to know everything to write the truth," Leavy writes in the preface. "You just need to know enough."

A Lefty's Legacy is artfully written—a flaw perhaps for the hardcore sports fan, a definite strength for the more literary fans. Structurally, Leavy alternates brief dramatic chapters of Koufax's 1965 perfect game with longer narrative chapters of biography—an interesting technique, but one that readers might find confusing. And Leavy steers the story into more esoteric regions, too, with musings on the poem "The Night Game" by Robert Pinsky and comments from author Herb Cohen, who refers to Koufax as a luftmench, a quiet, perhaps slightly detached person "with the capability to see things that more accustomed eyes miss."

But for all her literary ambition, Leavy never indulges in overt sentimentality or sepia-toned nostalgia. For that we are grateful; finally, an author who can write about the Dodgers without Dodger Blue ink and Dodger Blue tears and Dodger Blue blood pumping through the veins. Furthermore, she does not indulge in psychological analysis of her subject, as mysterious as he may be. Leavy writes from the facts, from the statements of others, and from a great sense of balance, taste, and intelligence.

Leavy deals with Koufax's Judaism in the context of Hank Greenberg—that is, the Yom Kippur question: To play or not to play. She points out Koufax's sensitivity to racial matters on a team with the legacy of Jackie Robinson. She depicts Koufax as the victim of the shortsighted "bonus-baby" policy of the majors, although she is a little too kind, perhaps, to Dodger management, who misused Koufax from the start in the early years of his career. But she does point out how both Koufax and fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale are often forgotten as two players on the vanguard of players' rights with their "million-dollar holdout" in 1966.

Sometime shocking are the details of the physiological rigors Koufax put himself through to keep his arm working through those three-hundred-inning seasons: the scorching hot stuff—Capsolin—slathered on his skin to help him get loose; the Butazolidine pills and cortisone shots for his swelling elbow; the Empirin with codeine for the pain; the tubs and tubs of ice in which Koufax would soak his arm—a three-beer soak—after each pitching performance. Given the damage done to Koufax's arm, readers will clearly understand his reasons for retirement.

More fascinating are the before and after of Koufax's baseball career. We learn a considerable amount about the physical specimen he was as a youth: a phenomenally smooth, slam-dunking schoolboy basketball player who reportedly took the New York Knicks apart in a scrimmage one afternoon.

And although, in retirement, Koufax is seldom seen in public, he has a cult following of sorts in baseball circles as a clinician—a sort of pitching savant. Koufax has become to pitching mechanics what Ted Williams was to hitting. Especially enjoyable is an early chapter in which Leavy describes Koufax talking to a conference room full of doctors about pitching mechanics, illustrating his talk with odd little drawings. "His drawings are famous," Leavy wryly notes. "They circulate through baseball's underground, accompanied by the whispers that are usually reserved for great art."

At times, when discussing the Dodgers as a team, Leavy focuses too heavily on Koufax, as if he and his glorious arm were the only things propelling the club to victory. In fact, Don Drysdale matched Koufax start for start, year after year, and was baseball's best pitcher in 1962 when he led the majors in wins, innings pitched, and strikeouts (he also captured the Cy Young Award that year). And despite the Dodgers' perennial problems scoring runs, a lineup that included Tommy Davis, Maury Wills, Frank Howard, and Junior Gilliam gave Los Angeles enough offense to reach the World Series three times in the sixties, winning twice (in 1963 and 1965). Koufax didn't pitch every game, and unlike the hard-hitting Drysdale (who twice smacked seven homers in a season and once batted .300), posed little threat when taking his turn in the batter's box.

But such are the effects of legend: everything else quickly fades into the background, and eventually the unessential things are forgotten. Jane Leavy has given us as good a glimpse of Koufax as any writer before her. For many, the legend may be all they care to remember, incomplete as that story may be. As with a Koufax fastball coming in hard and ever higher and faster, you're not quite sure of everything you've seen until it's already past you—but you remember the speed and the sound of the stitches cutting through the air. For me, I wasn't there to see Koufax pitch, but in the best parts of Leavy's book, I can almost imagine that I was.

—EFQ

 

MARK E. HAYES, a former Little League catcher, teaches at the Palmer Trinity School in Miami, Florida. His reviews have appeared, among other places, in The St. Petersburg Times, Tampa's Weekly Planet, and The Miami Herald.

© 2003 Mark E. Hayes

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