- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2002

Of the several hundred baseball books I've ingested over too many decades, very few can match "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" by Jane Leavy ($23.95, HarperCollins, 304 pages, illus.) for insight and brilliance. In fact, there might be only one, Roger Kahn's classic, "The Boys of Summer," circa 1972. Is it just a coincidence that both deal with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers?
Sports "biographies," auto or otherwise, tend to have about the same depth as television interviews of the "I saw the ball real good we're real happy to win" variety. It's a given that most jocks (and perhaps even a few media types?) are not the most literate souls on the face of the "oith," as they used to say in Flatbush.
Leavy, a former sportswriter for The Washington Post, has broken heck, shattered the mold with a penetrating study of baseball's most dominating pitcher of the 1960s and one of its most private persons so private, in fact, that he never subjected himself to interviews with Leavy, though he "permitted" friends and teammates to speak freely.
The book is set within the framework of Koufax's perfect game (and fourth no-hitter) against the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 9, 1965. Working with a tape of Vin Scully's radio description and grainy, black-and-white film shot by the team's trainer, Leavy thrillingly details this masterpiece, right down to Scully's superb call as Koufax fans Harvey Kuenn for the final out: "On the scoreboard, it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California "
Alternating with chapters on each inning of the game are others describing Koufax's strange career: signed for a $4,000 bonus by the Dodgers after he had pitched only four college games, seven mediocre seasons in his hometown Brooklyn and Los Angeles during which he was generally ignored by dim bulb manager Walt Alston, then seven seasons as one of the best pitchers in baseball history (record: 129-47, with a 1.95 ERA) before an arthritic and worsening left elbow ended his tenure in a largely unwelcome spotlight.
Koufax's story would have been arresting under any ethnic circumstances. It became even more so because he is a Jew, one who engendered great admiration and respect for refusing to pitch the opener of the 1965 World Series in Minnesota because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement to those of his faith.
Ironically, Leavy tells us in a chapter unfortunately titled "King of the Jews" that Koufax is not particularly devout. For years, stories abounded of his being spotted in synagogues around the Twins Cities, but Leavy says he did not attend services at all that day. Friends say he remained in his hotel room; it is not known whether he prayed.
Of course, faith often goes down better leavened with a touch of humor. Blond and blue-eyed Don Drysdale, Koufax's replacement, was hammered in that Series opener. When Alston trudged out to the mound to get him, Drysdale chirped, "Hey, skip, bet you wish I was Jewish, too."
We may assume that the dour Alston did not laugh.
A recurring theme is that Koufax was marked and defined by his ethnicity almost as much as was Hank Greenberg in the '30s or Jackie Robinson in the '40s. In days gone by, such was life throughout baseball and society in WASPish America.
When Koufax was at the height of his powers, a teammate said something like, "We'll be OK today the Big Jew is pitching." In their earlier days with the Yankees, Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto were known as "Big Dago" and "Little Dago" by teammates. In the early '50s, the pioneering Dodgers fretted about the advisability of fielding a lineup with more blacks than whites. Did such things reflect prejudice and bigotry as much as the attitude of infamously racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who once released a black cat from the dugout as Robinson took the field? Or were they simply symptomatic of a time when a person's religion or race frequently was considered more significant by others than it would be now?
"Think of the stereotype of the Jew in literature," Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation tells Leavy in assessing Koufax's social impact. "He broke so many [of the rules]. Here was a good-looking Jew a perfect player, an enigma, a man who didn't reach for fame or money. He broadened the concept of what a Jew is."
And, says Leavy, "if Koufax had been a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant who played clean and kept his nose clean, he'd have been proclaimed the second coming of Jack Armstrong. But he was a Jew. So he was [considered] moody, aloof, curt, intellectual, different" even if he wasn't.
When attempting to obtain Koufax's cooperation for the project, Leavy left a message telling him that the book "would not be a biography as much as a social history of baseball, using his career as a way to measure how much has changed." The result can be savored as much by non-fans as by those for whom Sandy Koufax inarguably was baseball's best pitcher in the second half of the 20th century.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide