The most treasured baseball biographies are the ones that take readers to ballparks they haven't visited and inside minds they haven't met.
It is no small achievement, as hundreds of biographical efforts have fallen short of the warning track. The task is that much more difficult when the subject is Sandy Koufax
— a man known as much for his privacy as for his left arm. Koufax grants interviews as often as David Eckstein
wins home run titles. It just doesn't happen.
In Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, author Jane Leavy faced the challenge of not being able to interview her subject and still somehow pulled together a rare and insightful work, one that not only celebrates Koufax's redoubtable career, one that allowed him to become arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher in history.
“He didn't just dominate the hitters or games,” Leavy writes. “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.’”
Leavy, an award-winning and former sports and feature writer with the Washington Post, did have one thing going for her that other Koufax biographers did not. Koufax allowed Leavy to interview his family, friends, former Brooklyn-Los Angeles Dodgers teammates and opponents. During hundreds of queries, Leavy uncovered myriad nuggets that illustrate Koufax's applied genius on the mound and his gentle integrity off of it.
Koufax is a rarity not only in baseball, but also in media-driven America. When celebrity knocked, he politely closed the door. He is principled but doesn't wear his values on his shirtsleeve. He didn't pitch on Yom Kippur even when it meant missing a crucial World Series start. He did not try to capitalize on his name, as the man he so often is compared to — Joe DiMaggio
— so willingly did. Even as a ballplayer he read books and attended cultural events. With his fame and movie-star looks he could have had any woman. Instead he often talked about finding a suitable wife. Koufax loved baseball but he fashioned a fulfilling life without it.
“He doesn't defy anything,” Bob Costas says in Leavy's book, “except the norm.”
Throughout Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, Leavy weaves chapters about her subject's life with fascinating details of September 9, 1965, the day Koufax threw a perfect game. Therefore, she tells Koufax's story in layers. This is not another simple chronology and stat book on a ballplayer, where the first chapter is about his childhood, the last is about his final breath and in between one learns he hit prodigious home runs or deftly whiffed batters. Leavy hunts for bigger game.
Yet Leavy is comprehensive and meticulous. Those seeking details about Koufax's days as a Brooklyn boy, of his early career troubles as a bonus baby in Brooklyn, or his celebrated an unmatched seasons in Los Angeles, will not be disappointed. But for every stat provided there is a quote or an insight that says something louder than figures alone can speak.
For example, Leavy does a masterful job detailing Koufax at his peak, during the years 1962 to 1966, when he so overpowered lineups that appropriate superlatives were not easy to fashion. During that time Koufax won three Cy Young Awards
(when only one was given for both leagues) and threw four no-hitters. He led the league in ERA every year and won twenty-five or more games three times.
While Koufax was whipping the New York Yankees in the 1963 World Series, a year in which he went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA, Hall of Fame Bronx Bomber catcher Yogi Berra
stood on the sidelines and asked the question on everyone's lips: “How the hell did he lose five?”
Leavy explains how Koufax and pitching partner Don Drysdale
challenged baseball's antiquated reserve clause, and how Koufax coped with an arthritic pitching arm, which caused his retirement at age thirty.
Throughout Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, Leavy provides readers with rich detail using creative storytelling. Her subject is alluring and she compliments his impressive legacy. The work is impressive enough that even though he hasn't thrown a meaningful pitch in thirty-six years, by reading this book you can again (or for the first time) see Koufax's brilliant windup.