“Baseball is chess — at 90 miles per hour.”
Roger Kahn, The Head Game: Baseball Seen from the Pitcher’s Mound
Sandy Koufax was a great pitcher and a good man. Jane Leavy makes this abundantly clear in her book, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. He worked hard, kept his nose clean, won games and was paid a hefty sum of money to do so. He racked up impressive stats, loved his mother and observed religious holidays. While his story is a nice contrast to the headline-making antics of John Rocker or Albert Belle, it’s also a little . . . well . . . dull.
Biographies about living subjects are tough to pull off. They usually fall into one of two categories — unauthorized exposé or fawning tribute — and offer few surprises. Leavy’s book is a tribute and she covers the requisite bases: Brooklyn boyhood, Jewish role model, failing arm. She also talked to a lot of his friends. They all think Sandy pitched fast and was a great guy. Yawn. There is nothing new here about the man. Yet the book is good. Leavy steers clear of humdrum by weaving a real-time narrative of Koufax’s 1965 perfect game through the chapters on his life — a story within the story. The glory and thrill of this pivotal game against the backdrop of a troubled country — Watts, assassination and war all loom large — is ultimately what carries her book.
Leavy is wise to fall back on the sport. Baseball has a unique hold on American emotions. It is capable of inspiring adoration and loathing in a single season. Yet despite strikes, rising ticket prices and thrown bats, fans come back. All it took to save a disastrous post-strike 1995 season was Ken Griffey Jr.’s graceful swing and boyish base-rounding grin. Similarly, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s friendly record-breaking home run race in 1998, glorified the sport in what started out as a bitter, strike-looming season. And in 2002 baseball added poignant beauty to the horrific wake of 9/11 with one of the most thrilling and emotional World Series’ in history. We watch because it makes us feel good. Leavy knows this instinctively. It is the essence of her subject — Sandy Koufax made fans feel good.
In September of 1965, Koufax was unbeatable. His record (27-4) was phenomenal at a time when pitchers routinely pitched entire games. Relief pitchers didn’t exist as we know them today. He would win the World Series that year, but Leavy shrewdly focused on the night he became the 15th man in major league history to pitch a perfect game.
The details of the game, written in present tense, are precise and thorough — a mark of Leavy’s research. She is a master of literary device in these chapters — developing characters, setting scene and building suspense. A perfect game occurs when a pitcher throws nine complete innings with no hits, walks, errors, or base runners. Twenty-seven men walk up to the plate, and twenty-seven men sit down. It may be the most phenomenal athletic feat in all of sports, requiring amazing physical and mental stamina. It is riveting to watch. Leavy knows the gut-wrenching anxiety that builds in these games, when “the line between the mundane and the heroic is drawn with every pitch, every potential passed ball, every errant bounce”. She chooses her details accordingly. She has players coming out of the locker room, fans turning up their radios, announcers shifting in their seats. You can almost hear the wind stop.
By the end of the every-other-chapter account, we know the cast well. We know the fate of Bob Hendley, the opposing pitcher, who threw a one-hitter and lost. We know the story of two fans, one of whom captured the only recorded copy of the game on tape. We know the announcer, Vin Scully, who by the ninth inning “was no longer simply the voice of the Dodgers. He was the narrator of a collective aspiration.” For all intents and purposes, we were there.
The parallel story, of Koufax’s life, is detailed, but light. Leavy falls short providing context to render any item significant. That Koufax was openly Jewish, for instance, when anti-Semitism was tolerated, should be intriguing. It is repeatedly mentioned throughout the book, but never developed. Pages are devoted to his refusal to pitch the opening game of the World Series, which fell on Yom Kippur. Great, but was this courageous? Leavy has Jewish America cheering wildly yet there is no evidence to suggest it was a groundbreaking stand. Koufax pitched the next night and the Dodgers took the series. If his sit-out posed a risk to the series or his career, or caused friction with his teammates, Leavy doesn’t mention it. And though I don’t doubt the existence of anti-Semitism in the late ’50s, for Koufax it seemed to consist of a few off-color locker room jokes and a former teammate admitting, “some of the players did not like him because he was a Jew”. It falls flat. Especially since the rest of the book is filled with he’s-a-jolly-good-fellow anecdotes from hundreds of former teammates and opponents.
The sweet spot of A Lefty’s Legacy is Leavy’s subtly rendered social commentary on baseball. As much as this is a tribute to Koufax, it is an affectionate and reverent ode to the sport he played. A scene in the book describes the start of Koufax’s perfect game in September 1965 — the lights at Dodger Stadium “obliterating the last vestiges of smog and smoke lingering over Watts some ten miles away.” It is an unsettling image — a little too close. Last year, when major league players tentatively stepped out on the field, wearing hats, ribbons, arm bands to honor the victims in New York, there was smoke still rising over Ground Zero. I believe fans in Yankee stadium were able to forget that for a brief moment. The game helped us escape chaos. I wonder whose story will be told against that backdrop.