Reviews

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy by Jane Leavy

Teresa DiFalco

The glory and thrill of this pivotal game against the backdrop of a troubled country.


Sandy Koufax

Publisher: Harper Collins
Length: 304
Subtitle: A Lefty's Legacy
Price: $23.95 (US)
Author: Jane Leavy
US publication date: 2002-09
Amazon
"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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.