“Leavy has hit it out of the park…A lot more than a biography. It’s a consideration of how we create our heroes, and how this hero’s self perception distinguishes him from nearly every other great athlete in living memory… a remarkably rich portrait.” — Time
The instant New York Times bestseller about the baseball legend and famously reclusive Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax, from award-winning former Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy. Sandy Koufax reveals, for the first time, what drove the three-time Cy Young award winner to the pinnacle of baseball and then—just as quickly—into self-imposed exile.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Three decades after he threw his last pitch, Sandy Koufax was back in uniform at Dodgertown, a rare occurrence given his belief that baseball uniforms do not flatter those of a certain age. This is where he made his debut in the spring of 1955 and Vero Beach is where he has chosen to make his after-baseball home -- an odd choice for a man said not to like the game and the attention it brings him. Mornings when he's in town, he works out in the training room. The clubhouse guys gave him a key. He brings the bagels.
On this particular day in February 1997, he was at Dodgertown for a seminar on sports medicine. He had been recruited by Frank Jobe, the Dodgers' team physician, to teach an audience of biomechanical experts how to throw a ball. He couldn't very well say no: he was on Jobe's operating table at the time. He had torn his rotator cuff falling down the stairs. The Boys of Summers Past are not immune to senior moments.
Thinking of Koufax as clumsy is as disconcerting as the sight of the familiar "32" confined to this minimalist stage: sitting behind a buntingdraped table in a multipurpose room at what is now known as the Conference Center at Dodgertown. He looked thinner than in memory, thirty pounds less than his playing weight, the legacy of an afterlife as a marathoner. The old baggy uniforms always made him look less imposing than he was. His hair was thinner too, but silver, not gray. He had the appearance of a man aging as well as one possibly can, somehow managing to look graceful in uniform while perched beside a droopy fern.
In 1955, Dodgertown was a baseball plantation with diamondsthat disappeared into the orange groves on the horizon. No one could have envisioned then the industry that baseball would become; the science that throwing would become; or the pitcher Koufax would become. A pitcher so sublime, people remember always the first time they saw him -- among them fellow lecturers Duke Snider and Dave Wallace. What Wallace, a baseball man, recalls most is leaving the stadium convinced: "The ball comes out of his hand different from anybody else's."
His virtuosity was a synthesis of physiognomy and physical imagination. He didn't just dominate hitters or games. He dominated the ball. He could make it do things: rise, break, sing. Gene Mauch, the old Phillies skipper, was once asked if Koufax was the best lefty he ever saw. Mauch replied: "The best righty, too." As Billy Williams, the Hall of Famer, put it: "There was a different tone when people talked about Sandy Koufax."
Hank Aaron was his toughest out: "You talk about the Gibsons and the Drysdales and the Spahns. And as good as those guys were, Koufax was a step ahead of them. No matter who he pitched against, he could always be a little bit better. If somebody pitched a one-hitter, he could pitch a no-hitter."
John Roseboro was his favorite receiver: "I think God came down and tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'Boy, I'm gonna make you a pitcher.' God only made one of him."
He was an artist who inspired ballplayers to reach beyond their usual idiom for metaphor and simile. They called him the game's Cary Grant and Fred Astaire and compared him to the Mona Lisa and the David. "He looked like Michelangelo," Ernie Banks said. "Pitching, walking, what ever he did was kind of in rhythm with life, stylish." Sometimes one analogy did not suffice. As Koufax's teammate, the noted art historian Lou Johnson, said, "He was Michelangelo and Picasso rolled into one."
Absent the radar guns and computer-generated technology of the late twentieth century, which turned acts of grace into biomechanical models, he was admired rather than analyzed. His fastball remains elegantly understated, unmeasurable, unknowable. His curveball lives on in grainy television footage and in the memory of the unfortunates who tried to hit it. There are those, romantics and catchers, content to leave it at that -- Roseboro among them: "That SOB was unusual. There's never been another like him and I don't think there ever will be. Trying to explain how he throws, how he got his control, how he thinks -- he was just un-fucking-usual. Who gives a shit how he threw it?"
Koufax cared. Long after he retired, he became a roving pitching coach in the Dodgers' minor league system and a stealth advisor to an ardent cadre of pitchers, coaches, and managers who quote him like a shaman -- Sandy says! -- and then get in line for his autograph just like everyone else. He didn't want them to do what he said because Sandy Koufax said, "Do it." He wanted them to understand why it worked.
He had come to see his body as a system for the delivery of stored energy, intuiting the principles of physics inherent in the pitching motion. This realization not only put him ahead of batters, it put him ahead of science. It would take decades for the gurus of biotech medicine to catch up. Later, when he had the time, he visited their labs and delved into their textbooks seeking proofs for what he knew empirically to be true. He learned to break down the pitching motion into its component parts and to put the science of motion into accessible language. He improvised drills using a bag of balls and a chain-link fence, giving impromptu clinics in the parking lot of Bobby's Restaurant in Vero Beach. He held whole pitching staffs in thrall with his knowledge -- sitting, as John Franco of the Mets put it, "bright-eyed at his feet in the middle of the locker room like little boy scouts."
His face changes when he talks about pitching. His eyes light up, his grammar comes alive ...Sandy Koufax. Copyright © by Jane Leavy. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
An Interview with Jane Leavy
Barnes & Noble.com: What made you want to write this book? Given Koufax's reputation as being reluctant to talk to the press, how did you get him to cooperate with you?
Jane Leavy: What I wanted to do, and this is what I told Sandy when I first begged his indulgence and tried to acquire his cooperation, was that I was going to write a book that was not just biographical but was also a social history using his career to show how much had changed in baseball and sports and to a certain degree, in America. Koufax made it clear from the get-go that he preferred nothing be written at all -- he is not a man who wants to live in the past tense. But, he said, if it is going to be written, he preferred it be done right. To that end, he agreed to give me access to his friends -- telling them it was okay to talk to me -- and to verify biographical facts. So I describe his cooperation as circumscribed but invaluable. When Sandy Koufax didn't pitch on Yom Kippur, he had lodged himself in my soul. He was impressive by refusing to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, and by refusing to play as long as others do -- and going out on top -- he was unlike a lot of other athletes. Sandy knew when to quit.
B&N.com: He faced a certain amount of anti-Semitism from other players and other baseball people. Please tell us about that.
JL: When Sandy came up in '55 -- and here is this nice Jewish man from Brooklyn with this big contract which was more than many made -- not everybody was entirely for him being on the roster. A few Dodgers, marginal players as well as stars, actually went to the black players on the team and said, "What is that kike, Jew son of a bitch doing taking our job?" And, as Don Newcombe said to me, the black players were astonished, not just at the anti-Semitism -- that they expected, because the black players more than anyone else knew baseball was not a bastion of liberality -- but they couldn't believe the white guys could be dumb enough to be complaining to them. Of course, in 1955, ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps, blacks and Jews still identified with each other as minorities. So the response of the black guys on the Dodgers -- Newcombe, Joe Black, and Jackie Robinson -- was to embrace and take under their wing this nice Jewish boy. It was a world still rife with stereotypes.
B&N.com: In the days when Florida, where the Dodgers had spring training, was still segregated, Koufax made friends with many black players before that was common. What was it about Koufax that brought this about?
JL: That was partly due to his growing up in Brooklyn and being a basketball player who went out and competed at all the best courts, and the people who were the best were black guys. I think he was a man who was very comfortable in his own skin and everybody else's. After practice, the black players would go back to the black hotel, and Sandy would go back to the white hotel. But Koufax used to like to come over to the black hotel. He fit right in.
B&N.com: You use Koufax's perfect game against the Cubs in 1965 as an anchor, so to speak, for your biography. Why is that?
JL: I picked the perfect game for two reasons. One was that morning in New York, the guys who run baseball announced that the first game of the World Series would be played on Yom Kippur. So when Sandy went to the mound that night, September 9, 1965, he knew that if the Dodgers were lucky enough to win the pennant, and that was no assured thing, that he wouldn't be opening the World Series.
The second reason I picked it was because he had been struggling, his arm was already suffering the ravages of degenerative arthritis. He had already told one of the beat reporters whom he was very close to, a guy named Phil Collier, that the next year would surely be his last.
The other reason is because the game in many ways mirrors the arc of his career. It started out as a no-big-deal game that night. It went from nothing special to never better, much the way Sandy's career did. Those last two innings where he struck out the last six batters he faced, threw so hard that his hat fell off his head with more than one vehement delivery. No one had ever seen Koufax throw that hard, and rarely, if ever, has anyone thrown harder than that. He was never better than that.
B&N.com: Koufax became a hero to Jews when he refused to pitch in a World Series game because it was Yom Kippur. He gained the respect of Gentiles as well. Was Koufax a particularly religious man, and was this a difficult decision for him to make?
JL: He had never pitched on any of the High Holidays. It is just that none of them had ever coincided with the opening game of the World Series before. Well, he declined it because he was a Jew and Jews don't work on Yom Kippur. To him, it was no big deal. He was thinking, [Don] Drysdale will start the first game, and I'll start the second game. We'll win both of them and go back to Los Angeles two games up on the Minnesota Twins. Whoever would have thought both of those guys would lose? When Drysdale got hammered in the first game and Alston came out to get the ball, Drysdale said, "Well, Skip, I bet you wish I was Jewish today, too, huh?"
B&N.com: Koufax and Don Drysdale were considered rebels when they held out for higher salaries for the 1966 season in an age before free agency. What made them do this? What was the historical importance?
JL: It was Ginger Drysdale's [Don's wife] idea. They were certainly tired of [Dodger general manager] Buzzie Bavasi's act of playing them against each other and saying, "How can you ask for so much money when Don has only asked for this?" And so Ginger said, "Why don't you not sign unless both of you are happy." Sandy liked to challenge authority, and he already knew that next season was going to be his last. What they asked for in dollars, which Drysdale said was like asking for the moon at that time, was not nearly as significant in my estimation as the demand to be reckoned with. To say we don't want to be dictated to, we want to be negotiated with. And to demand the right to have representation, which in fact they did have. So, it was really an understated and very historical event in the evolution of labor wars in baseball.
B&N.com: You've subtitled the book "A Lefty's Legacy." What is Koufax's legacy?
JL: I think it is a legacy of uncommon decency and uncommon grace, both of a physical and nonphysical kind. I think that he is somebody whose way of being simply elevated him above sport, and I think people continue to revere him. And I have been astonished by it -- why 37 years after the man has pitched people still care. I think intuitively people sensed about this guy that he was better, not just in the way he threw a ball but in the way he behaved in public and the way he comported himself. He defined himself by what he did but also by what he refused to do. Not just for his decision not to pitch on Yom Kippur but also his refusal of continuing just for a buck, his refusal to endorse roach spray, and his refusal to get himself indicted for autograph merchandise fraud. He really is unsullied.
B&N.com: What will your next book be?
JL: The book I would like to write next is a novel about Babe Ruth. I have been working on it for a long time already, but whether I continue to do that or go back and write another nonfiction book, I'm not clear. I may do both at once. You never know.