Koufax: even the name is magic. As a very young left-handed pitcher, the grandson of a former professional baseball player, growing up in LA in the ’60s, Sandy Koufax was a mythical figure to me. I attended one of his four no-hitters, I followed him fanatically on the radio and in the paper (not much baseball on TV in those days), I read books about him.
The Dodgers were my team, and Sandy WAS the Dodgers to me. I was heartbroken in ’66 by the double blow of Sandy and the Dodgers being swept by the Orioles in the World Series, and then Sandy’s career ending at the ridiculous age of 33 from the scourge of arthritis.
J. Bottum reviews a new bio of the beloved, enigmatic legend in Commentary:
- THE PROBLEM is not to figure out why Sandy Koufax was a great pitcher. The problem is tofigure 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.
….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 ERA’s 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.
….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.
….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.
….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.