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Book Review: Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy

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In Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, we learn about the great left-handed Dodger pitcher from the sixties. He dominated batters. Almost every day during the 2010 baseball playoff season, someone has compared the current cadre of top pitchers, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, and Cliff Lee, to Sandy Koufax.

Jane Leavy researched the book by interviewing over 400 friends, teammates, coaches, and opponents. Koufax authorized the biography, but he declined interviews for the book. Leavy provides the Jewish perspective on Koufax’s baseball life and career.

Leavy grew up in the Jewish faith, and she writes about one of their greatest sports heroes. In chapter 17, she labels Koufax King of the Jews. She substantiates her claim about Koufax for these reasons:

While Koufax was not the earliest Jewish baseball player, he was one of the earliest Jewish baseball players to become famous. He also embraced his religion.

On October 6th, 1965, Koufax refused to pitch for his Los Angeles Dodgers against the Minnesota Twins in the opening game of the World Series. The game fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. His choice of faith over baseball made him a hero among the Jews.

Of course, being good also helped his popularity. He won 26 games during the 1965 regular season, and struck out a record-breaking 382 batters in 335 innings. His ERA that year was 2.04. He lost only eight games. With a winning percentage of .765, he was nearly unbeatable.

His accolades do not stop there. The previous two seasons, he boasted an ERA under 2.0, and had an even better winning percentage. However, he pitched in fewer games. He was the first pitcher to have four no-hitters, including a perfect game.

Koufax played his entire career with the Dodgers. It lasted only 12 years, from 1955 to 1966. The franchise under-utilized his talents the first six years. Then they overused him the last six years, resulting in arthritis that forced him into early retirement.

Leavy starts Koufax’s story with baseball mechanics. Her first chapter focuses on his pitching style and form. Koufax primarily threw only two kinds of pitches: the fastball and the curve. Leavy provides the intricate details, and explains that Koufax knew biomechanics before the rest of baseball even knew they existed. In her words, “His virtuosity was a synthesis of physiognomy and physical imagination.”

Koufax stood 6’2”, weighed 210 pounds, and pitched left-handed. He had long legs, long arms, and big hands. He could hold two baseballs in each hand. In those days the mound was 15 inches high, and some claim the Dodgers mound was closer to 16. When Koufax released his nearly 100-mile-per-hour fastball, he intimidated batters.

Intermingled with the chapters detailing Koufax’s life, legend and style, Leavy shows us arguably the best baseball game ever, Koufax’s perfect game. She dedicates a chapter to each inning. The game occurred on September 9, 1965, with the Dodgers playing the Chicago Cubs in an evening game.

Bob Hendley pitched for the Cubs. In four matches that season, Koufax had not beaten him. In the fifth, the Dodgers scored a run without getting a hit. The scorecard read: “No hits, a walk, a sacrifice, a stolen base, and an error.”

Leavy recreates the game with all its suspense and drama. She uses the written record, interviews, and a recording of Vince Scully’s broadcast to make the reader appreciate the game. Her narration of the game really shines. Here is an excerpt from the sixth inning: “The Dodger dugout exuded a studied nonchalance that soon gave way to superstition. The impulse was conservative. If you change nothing, then perhaps nothing will change… The one thing you don’t do is mention the obvious.”

Coaches say baseball is a game of statistics. Baseball players and fans will readily admit it’s a game of superstition, and you don’t do anything to jinx the game.

By the middle of the 1966 season, Koufax’s arm was spent. It had been damaged for a couple of years, and steadily declining. He may have had a few more seasons in him, but Koufax wanted to go out a winner. He left when it became obvious that continuing would cripple him and he wasn’t going to win many more games.

During Koufax’s era, pitchers pitched entire games. No one counted pitches, and a set number of days off between games did not exist. Coaches used arms heavily.

Once Koufax retired from baseball, he tried to drop into obscurity. Leavy says that because he loved the game so much, he couldn’t stand to be around it and not pitching. He tried broadcasting, but he did not have the necessary broadcast personality. He did some coaching and some mentoring, but mostly he lived as a recluse.

Leavy, a former sports and feature writer for the Washington Post, knows baseball and the Jewish religion. Her knowledge is a perfect combination for a book about a Jewish baseball pitcher who threw a perfect game. She recently released a new hardcover, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.

Photo credits:

Koufax Holding Balls: Baseball Hall of Fame
Koufax Coaching: Andrew Mills, The Star Ledger

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About Bruce G. Smith

I'm a part time writer with a few articles published here and there. In addition to writing, I'm into nature and architectural photography.