Koufax: The pitcher as a mensch
Jane Leavy chronicles 'A Lefty's Legacy'
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Jane Leavy grew up a baseball fan and a Jew, but she did not grow up a fan of one of the greatest Jewish players ever, Sandy Koufax. Her grandparents lived in the Bronx. How could she love a Dodger like Koufax? It was impossible.
"I was a Yankee fan. I went to synagogue on High Holy Days at the [Bronx's] Concourse Plaza Hotel," Leavy says. "I prayed every year that Koufax would not do to the Yankees what he did to them in 1963."
That was the year that the southpaw struck out 15 Yankees in Game 1 of the World Series. John Roseboro hit a three-run homer in the second inning, the Dodgers won 5-2, and the Angelenos swept the Bombers in four straight games.
(Never say that God does not answer prayers. After a last-gasp 1964 pennant, the Yankees were about to spend a floundering decade out of the winner's circle, and Koufax never faced them again.)
Life takes strange turns. Koufax retired after the 1966 season, just 30 years old, his left arm worn out and arthritic. His statistics put him in the Hall of Fame: 165 wins, a .655 winning percentage, a 2.76 earned-run average, four no-hitters.
Leavy grew up to become a sportswriter and ended up writing a biography about the pitcher, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" (HarperCollins).
She thought it would be hard. There's an aura around Koufax. He's thought to be the J.D. Salinger of baseball, the pitcher's version of Joe DiMaggio. "I knew what the established wisdom was," Leavy says. "He's a recluse. He's dour, taciturn, aloof."
It's not true, she continues. "As one teammate told me, 'He's the most misunderstood man in baseball.' "
A private man in a celebrity-crazed culture
What emerges is a man who simply likes his privacy but who committed the cardinal (no pun intended) sin for a celebrity: When he was done with his career, he just walked away.
"The only mystery is why we find it surprising that someone opted out," Leavy says. "It makes him different."
But, Leavy discovered, Koufax was one of the most respected players in the game, by teammates and competitors alike. She interviewed 469 people for "A Lefty's Legacy," from former teammates to sportscasters to classmates to a guy who had held on to a recording of Koufax's perfect game. Not one of them had a bad word to say about the title subject, she says. ("You must not have spoken to my ex-wives," Koufax joked when he was told.)
Koufax wasn't one of the interviewees, however.
"When I explained the premise of the book -- that it wasn't going to be a quickie kiss-and-tell but a serious work where I use his life in baseball to tell a larger story ... he said he didn't have any interest in taking part," Leavy says.
Eventually, however, Koufax agreed. He would rather the book not be written, he told her, but if it was going to -- and Leavy had a contract with HarperCollins that pretty much guaranteed it would be -- he wanted it done right. He told his friends it would be OK to speak with the reporter and went over biographical facts in dispute.
But that's as far as it went. He wouldn't even read the finished manuscript.
Leavy structures the book around the Dodgers-Cubs contest of September 9, 1965. Koufax pitched the game of his life that night, setting down 27 Cubs in a row for a perfect game. He had to; the Cubs pitcher, Bob Hendley, threw a one-hitter and lost, 1-0, on an error.
Around the game swirls the winds of a changing era. The 1960s were a bridge between the old baseball, the train-riding, placed-on-a-pedestal 16-team era, and the baseball to come, when expansion and free agents arrived, and New Journalists wrote about the nooks and crannies of the game and its players, changing perceptions of the national pastime.
In the middle of it all -- that night, literally -- was Sandy Koufax, Brooklyn boy-turned-L.A. transplant, a student of pitching mechanics long before computers and videotape, a private man in a celebrity-crazed culture. He was a throwback, and a pioneer.
'How's he doing?' folks ask
People recognize something in Koufax, says Leavy. Call it class, call it beauty, he's "kind of a tuning fork" for fans and non-fans alike.
"I think Koufax set a standard," Leavy says, "both in terms of the beauty and purity of his pitching motion and the way he comported himself. ... This is a man who gives a lot of time and thought to doing good things."
Take Bob Hendley. The perfect game added to Koufax's fame; Hendley disappeared into a footnote. His only regret, he told Leavy, was that he hadn't had the foresight to keep a memento of the Koufax game.
With a little help from Leavy, soon after a package arrived in the mail. In it was an actual 1965-era baseball with a signed inscription -- "What a game" -- and a friendly note from Sandy Koufax.
Then there's what Koufax means to Jews. The pitcher famously declined to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. That unassuming move still resonates, not least with Leavy herself.
In 1983, she was covering the U.S. Open tennis championships on Yom Kippur. A Korean airliner had been shot down by the Soviet Union. Her editors were screaming at her. And she thought of Sandy Koufax.
"I finished what I was writing, pressed 'send' and thought, 'Koufax didn't pitch on Yom Kippur,' " Leavy recalls. "And I haven't worked on Yom Kippur since."
Thirty-six years after Koufax retired, Leavy still finds that people are drawn to the pitcher -- and also drawn to individuals who have met him, like Leavy herself. As she's made the rounds on her book tour, she's been phoned and pulled aside by people who just want to know, "How's he doing?"
"I got the intimation early on, what it must be like to be him," she says. "People perceive me as a conduit to him."
Even former teammates have asked about Koufax, she says. "It gave me a sense of what it must be like to have people want a piece of you all the time."
You can call Leavy a Sandy Koufax fan now. She'd be pleased with the term. Writing the biography "has been a privilege," she says.
And what of Sandy Koufax himself? He plays golf, drops by spring training, travels, stays in touch with friends. He has nothing left to prove.
"People ask all the time, 'What's he done with his life?' " former Dodger pitcher and Braves broadcaster Don Sutton told Leavy. "He's enjoyed it."