From Sports Illustrated
This week’s issue of Sports Illustrated features an excerpt from Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, a biography by Jane Leavy that will be published by HarperCollins on Sept. 17. SI.com spoke with Leavy about Koufax’s legacy, and how he dealt with and overcame prejudice and extreme physical pain to become one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.
Click here for a Koufax photo gallery.
SI.com: You write that Sandy Koufax’s hold on a new generation of baseball fans is what prompted you to chronicle his career. Why now, 37 years after he retired, does he continue to fascinate us?
Leavy: I think he is, as baseball players like to say, “class.” People have recognized that and responded to that over many years. They may not have understood completely what it was about, where it came from, its depth or its breadth, but I think people recognized that there was something very different about him that distinguished him. He was often described, erroneously I think, as being “different” in a pejorative sense — as being moody, aloof, not a team guy. In fact, he was very much a team guy and he was about as relentless a competitor and as tough a physical specimen as you might find in professional sports. What makes him different is he does not have a craven neediness — so common in modern sports and modern celebrity — to be recognized at all times, to dominate every place he goes and every conversation he’s in. In fact, I think quite the contrary. He’s a human being who would like to just be one of the guys, and the irony of his life and his career is that his talent precluded that one thing that he probably wanted to be more than anything else: just a regular guy.
SI.com: Sports Illustrated called him “the incomparable and mysterious” Sandy Koufax in naming him its favorite athlete of the century. Was his reputation as elusive and reclusive deserved?
Leavy: I think there’s something appalling about our society, in that the distinction between what is private and what is secret has been utterly obliterated. Sandy is somebody who craves his anonymity. He wants to walk down the street without being sought after. I think because he has refused to contribute to fanning the fire, he was deemed a mystery. We think it’s very odd if you don’t want to go on TV and promote yourself. And because it is so much an assumption in this culture that you must need and want that kind of public recognition and ratification of self, it’s a mystery. He’s not a mystery; what is mysterious is why he doesn’t want (the recognition) and wants to opt out of celebrity.
SI.com: You detail some of the bigotry Koufax endured as the only Jewish player on his team. You also explain that he bonded with and identified with many of his black teammates. Was that unusual?
Leavy: When Sandy was a rookie in 1955, remember, it was just 10 years after the liberation of the concentration camps in Germany. That there would be some anti-Semitism in baseball — or in America, for that matter — at that time is hardly surprising. In fact, what would have been a revelation is that there was not. Baseball has never been a bastion of liberal thought. Some latent anti-Semitism in the sport around that time is hardly surprising.
I think it was a time in America when Jews and blacks perceived each other — accurately — as minorities, and to some extent, persecuted minorities. So that when Jackie Robinson came up in 1947 and had a brief encounter with Hank Greenberg at first base in a game, there was a recognition of what they had in common. Greenberg, who had experienced much of the same bias that Robinson had, told him something along the lines of “Keep your chin up, Jackie.”
I think when Sandy came up, black players on the Dodgers — including Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Joe Black — saw the extent to which Koufax was resented, in large part because he came up at a time when guaranteed money was unthinkable, and here he was a bonus baby with a guaranteed roster spot. That guaranteed there would be resentment. I’m not sure it was blatant, or if it hit Koufax over the head. But it was definitely there. Hank Aaron told me there was an attitude of: “He should be off teaching school, or doing whatever they do.” It’s just that sort of inchoate kind of prejudice that is diffuse, but there.
The black players really took Sandy under their wing. Don Newcombe said to me that it was specifically because they recognized the situation he was in; they recognized that people did not want him there, on the roster taking up a spot of someone more experienced who could have helped them win the World Series. It was a confluence of events and biases that worked against him.
SI.com: You note that Koufax did not hide his religious beliefs, nor did he trumpet them — and that he was not particularly devout. Is it ironic, then, that he is perhaps best remembered for his decision not to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur? Did you get a sense of what motivated him to make that decision?
Leavy: I think it was reflex. Jews just don’t work on Yom Kippur. It’s the holiest holiday of the year, and whether you’re practicing/non-practicing, observant/non-observant, devout/non-devout, you don’t work on that day. Koufax had never pitched on Yom Kippur. It was a reflexive decision to do what was right in deference to his own family, in deference to his own tradition and in deference to recognition that, as a public figure, setting an example mattered.
Now, that said, I believe he was thinking, “I’m going to pitch the next day. What’s the big deal? We have Don Drysdale starting.” I think Koufax had no clue — and no intent — to create this legacy. And, in a way, that makes it even sweeter. Yom Kippur is a day of sacrifice. That’s why people fast. You’re supposed to spend the day considering the ways in which you have sinned, and making things right with God. And here’s Koufax, who’s doing this reflexively not out of his own great belief, but really more in deference to others. So it was a much greater sacrifice on his part. For a more religious man it might have been a no-brainer. For Koufax, it was the right thing to do.
He never had a clue it would turn him into a the new Patriarch. There it was, suddenly — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and ï¿½ Sandy. Perhaps one of the reasons he has never spoken about that decision is what could he say? What his intention was and what the effect of it was are two very separate things. The effect of it was enormous on the public. It was 20 years after the liberation of the concentration camps, a time when Jews were really being assimilated into American society. Sandy showed that you can do anything; you can be a pitcher, you can be Sandy Koufax, you can be the best in baseball — and you can also acknowledge (being Jewish) without fear. His simple willingness to acknowledge his religious background was an awesome fact. He may not have thought it was a big deal, but it was a big deal to everybody else who had been bar mitzvahed or was going to be bar mitzvahed.
SI.com: Part of the book focuses on the lengths Koufax went to in an effort to combat the arthritis in his left elbow — dousing himself with hot sauce, ingesting all kinds of anti-inflammatory elixirs. Yet you note how he pitched pennant-clinching games on two days’ rest and made three starts in eight days in the 1965 World Series. In this day of five-man rotations and pitch counts, how has history managed to overlook those herculean efforts?
Leavy: Two things: I think he was a misunderstood man who did not choose to correct the mis-impressions, and they compounded over the years. That’s how Koufax became “aloof,” that’s how he became known as a “reader” and an “architect” — long after he had stopped thinking he would ever go to architecture school. There is, I think, implicitly, a bias about Jews and Jewish men. They’re not supposed to be tough and they’re not supposed to be athletes. They’re all supposed to have concave chests and be very scholarly, but not so good with the fastball. And Sandy, in his physical toughness, refutes all those stereotypes. He was breathtaking, he was left-handed, he was, to a certain extent, enigmatic. He was not seeking fame or fortune. In every way, he refuted stereotypes. And the one that perhaps was most moving was his willingness to and his absolute insistence to pitch in the kind of pain that at this point nobody would think of doing.
He was the ultimate team guy, and I think the guys on his team knew it. By the seventh game of the World Series in 1965, he couldn’t throw a curve anymore. He came out of the bullpen to toss his third game in eight days, and catcher John Roseboro went to the mound to find out why Koufax wasn’t throwing his curve. And for the first time, Koufax admitted to his catcher, the guy who was his favorite receiver, “My arm’s sore. I just can’t do it.” And Roseboro looked at him and said, “What are we going to do?” Koufax replied, “(Blank) it, we’ll blow them away.” And that’s what he did. He went out there and pitched a shutout, 2-0, with 10 Ks, on two days’ rest. With one pitch.
Shawn Green’s father, Ira, an old baseball coach who loved Koufax when he was growing up, said to me, “How could people not understand this guy? He gave everything for his team. He gave up his career. He gave up his arm.” He was unbelievably stoical in the face of it. Even his teammates had no idea how bad it was.
SI.com: You wrote recently that the key to understanding Koufax was understanding how he felt about baseball. How does he feel about it?
Leavy: When I began reporting this book back in 1999, all I knew about the guy was that he had beat my Yankees back in 1963 and that he was alleged to be a reclusive, enigmatic, mysterious guy who really didn’t like what he did, who really would have been happier being a doctor or a lawyer, or, of course, an architect. So it seemed to me that the key to understanding him was whether that was true. Did he really only do it because he had such a golden arm? If that was a misreading of the guy, then he was an entirely different person than the received wisdom. So it was the one thing I felt I had to know.
This is not an authorized biography. Koufax made it clear from the beginning that he preferred nothing be written about him. He did not participate financially, would have no editorial control. One he realized we were going to go ahead with it, he said, “Well, I’d rather it be done right.” And to that end he gave me access to his friends, which is no small item. And he agreed to verify certain matters of personal biography. That was invaluable.
But I had one shot at making my case to persuade him to participate. He agreed to meet me, back in 1999, at a restaurant in Vero Beach, to hear me out. I got to the place early and sat down under a large picture of Sandy leaping into Roseboro’s arms, in 1963, after he had struck out 15 Yankees. And the smile on his face, and the implosion of his dimples, simply said to me: “There goes a happy man.” I waited for him to arrive. He walked in, introduced himself, but he didn’t look up. Can you imagine Charles Barkley walking into a room with a huge mural of himself dominating it, and not looking up? Finally, I called his attention to the picture. I said, “Sandy, how could anyone look at that picture and think you didn’t love it?” Finally, he looked up and said, “I absolutely loved it. How could you do the things I did and not love it?” And that was the key to me, to understanding the man. Once I knew that, I could proceed.
I think his self-imposed exile, as it often described, after he retired, which everyone took to be further evidence of his reclusive, elusive self, was in fact, prompted probably more by the need to separate. To find some other way to be without this thing that he loved and that had defined him. I don’t think he wanted to make a life simply being Sandy Koufax.
People still say to me, “He’s a recluse.” And I respond, “No, he’s not a recluse. He just doesn’t like to be interviewed.”
SI.com: During this process, what insight did you gain into what he’s doing now?
Leavy: He did do a long stint as a roving, itinerant minor league pitching coach for the Dodgers. Subsequent to that, he has sort of volunteered his advice at spring training for the Dodgers and for the Mets. He works with a lot of pitchers very quietly. He doesn’t want the notoriety, or to make a big deal of it. He’s still a very serious student of the game.
One of my favorite parts of this was finding video tape of him teaching sports medicine therapists, physical therapists and doctors and trainers about the mechanics of pitching and putting it in terms of the principles of physics, specifically how you can minimize injuries to soft tissue by obeying and parroting the laws of physics in a pitching motion. One of the bio-mechanical experts who works with Frank Jobe, the Dodgers’ team physician, told me, “This guy was way ahead of science. He understood things about the mechanics of pitching and pitching correctly, and ways to minimize the injuries.” Way before they had biofeedback, and computers to break down a pitcher’s motion and understand exactly what happened when and where, Koufax had done it by studying physics.
He’s a reader, he travels. He doesn’t have a job, per se, these days. But he’s making a career of simply having a life. I get asked this question quite a bit, what is Sandy doing now? When I asked him how to respond, he told me: “Tell them I’m having fun.”