Sandy Koufax

The instant New York Times bestseller about the baseball legend and famously reclusive Dodgers’ pitcher. Sandy Koufax reveals, for the first time, what drove the three-time Cy Young award winner to the pinnacle of baseball and then—just as quickly—into self-imposed exile.

In an era when too many heroes have been toppled from too many pedestals, Sandy Koufax stands apart and alone, a legend who declined his own celebrity. As a pitcher, he was sublime, the ace of baseball lore. As a human being, he aspired to be the one thing his talent and his fame wouldn’t allow: a regular guy. A Brooklyn kid, he was the product of the sedate and modest fifties who came to define and dominate baseball in the sixties. In Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, former award-winning Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy delivers an uncommon baseball book, vividly re-creating the Koufax era, when presidents were believed and pitchers aspired to go the distance.

He was only a teenager when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley proclaimed him “the Great Jewish Hope” of the franchise. But it wasn’t until long after the team had abandoned Brooklyn that the man became the myth. Old-fashioned in his willingness to play when he was injured and in his acute sense of responsibility to his team, Koutax answered to an authority higher than manager Walter Alston. When he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, he inadvertently made himself a religious icon and an irrevocably public figure. A year later, he was gone — done with baseball at age thirty. No other sports hero had retired so young, so well, or so completely.

Despite Sandy Koufax’s best efforts to protect his privacy, his legend has grown larger ever since. Part biography, part cultural history, Sandy Koufax gets as close to that legend as he will allow. Through meticulous reporting and interviews with five hundred of his friends, teammates, and opponents, Leavy penetrates the mythology to discover a man more than worthy of myth.

{
Leavy has hit it out of the park…A lot more than a biography. It’s a consideration of how we create our heroes, and how this hero’s self perception distinguishes him from nearly every other great athlete in living memory…a remarkably rich portrait.”

– TIME

{
A dizzying amount of reporting—more than 400 interviews—and Koufax doesn’t just survive the scrutiny, he emerges from it larger than ever…Ms. Leavy humanizes her subject even as she demythologizes him. The incomparable and mysterious Sandy Koufax is revealed…This is an absorbing book, beautifully written.

– Wall Street Journal

{
An honest and exquisitely detailed examination of a complex man, one whose skills were such that slugger Willie Stargell once likened hitting against Koufax to “trying to drink coffee with a fork.

– Publishers Weekly

{
A perfect gem of a book…Jane Leavy scatters the clouds of mythology to show us, after all these years, the man Koufax.

– Sporting News

..far richer than simply a tale of the promising youngster who finally struck gold. Calling on her hundreds of interviews, she offers a richly drawn account of an often misunderstood yet greatly celebrated athlete.

– Library Journal

A baseball classic; the first in-depth reporting on the life and career of the Dodger icon…a must read.

– New York Daily News

An exhaustively researched study that paints an intriguing portrait of the famously reclusive Dodger pitcher.

– Sports Illustrated

Koufax was a hero to a generation on the basis of his pitching accomplishments. This biography will earn him further respect for a life well lived

– Booklist

Chapter One

Warming Up

Three decades after he threw his last pitch, Sandy Koufax was back in uniform at Dodgertown, a rare occurrence given his belief that baseball uniforms do not flatter those of a certain age. This is where he made his debut in the spring of 1955 and Vero Beach is where he has chosen to make his after-baseball home -- an odd choice for a man said not to like the game and the attention it brings him. Mornings when he's in town, he works out in the training room. The clubhouse guys gave him a key. He brings the bagels.

On this particular day in February 1997, he was at Dodgertown for a seminar on sports medicine. He had been recruited by Frank Jobe, the Dodgers' team physician, to teach an audience of biomechanical experts how to throw a ball. He couldn't very well say no: he was on Jobe's operating table at the time. He had torn his rotator cuff falling down the stairs. The Boys of Summers Past are not immune to senior moments.

Thinking of Koufax as clumsy is as disconcerting as the sight of the familiar "32" confined to this minimalist stage: sitting behind a buntingdraped table in a multipurpose room at what is now known as the Conference Center at Dodgertown. He looked thinner than in memory, thirty pounds less than his playing weight, the legacy of an afterlife as a marathoner. The old baggy uniforms always made him look less imposing than he was. His hair was thinner too, but silver, not gray. He had the appearance of a man aging as well as one possibly can, somehow managing to look graceful in uniform while perched beside a droopy fern.

In 1955, Dodgertown was a baseball plantation with diamondsthat disappeared into the orange groves on the horizon. No one could have envisioned then the industry that baseball would become; the science that throwing would become; or the pitcher Koufax would become. A pitcher so sublime, people remember always the first time they saw him -- among them fellow lecturers Duke Snider and Dave Wallace. What Wallace, a baseball man, recalls most is leaving the stadium convinced: "The ball comes out of his hand different from anybody else's."

His virtuosity was a synthesis of physiognomy and physical imagination. He didn't just dominate hitters or games. 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." As Billy Williams, the Hall of Famer, put it: "There was a different tone when people talked about Sandy Koufax."

Hank Aaron was his toughest out: "You talk about the Gibsons and the Drysdales and the Spahns. And as good as those guys were, Koufax was a step ahead of them. No matter who he pitched against, he could always be a little bit better. If somebody pitched a one-hitter, he could pitch a no-hitter."

He was an artist who inspired ballplayers to reach beyond their usual idiom for metaphor and simile. They called him the game's Cary Grant and Fred Astaire and compared him to the Mona Lisa and the David. "He looked like Michelangelo," Ernie Banks said. "Pitching, walking, what ever he did was kind of in rhythm with life, stylish." Sometimes one analogy did not suffice. As Koufax's teammate, the noted art historian Lou Johnson, said, "He was Michelangelo and Picasso rolled into one."

Absent the radar guns and computer-generated technology of the late twentieth century, which turned acts of grace into biomechanical models, he was admired rather than analyzed. His fastball remains elegantly understated, unmeasurable, unknowable. His curveball lives on in grainy television footage and in the memory of the unfortunates who tried to hit it. There are those, romantics and catchers, content to leave it at that -- Roseboro among them: "That SOB was unusual. There's never been another like him and I don't think there ever will be. Trying to explain how he throws, how he got his control, how he thinks -- he was just un-fucking-usual. Who gives a shit how he threw it?"

Koufax cared. Long after he retired, he became a roving pitching coach in the Dodgers' minor league system and a stealth advisor to an ardent cadre of pitchers, coaches, and managers who quote him like a shaman -- Sandy says! -- and then get in line for his autograph just like everyone else. He didn't want them to do what he said because Sandy Koufax said, "Do it." He wanted them to understand why it worked.

He had come to see his body as a system for the delivery of stored energy, intuiting the principles of physics inherent in the pitching motion. This realization not only put him ahead of batters, it put him ahead of science. It would take decades for the gurus of biotech medicine to catch up. Later, when he had the time, he visited their labs and delved into their textbooks seeking proofs for what he knew empirically to be true. He learned to break down the pitching motion into its component parts and to put the science of motion into accessible language. He improvised drills using a bag of balls and a chain-link fence, giving impromptu clinics in the parking lot of Bobby's Restaurant in Vero Beach. He held whole pitching staffs in thrall with his knowledge -- sitting, as John Franco of the Mets put it, "bright-eyed at his feet in the middle of the locker room like little boy scouts."

His face changes when he talks about pitching. His eyes light up, his grammar comes alive ...

© 2002 Jane Leavy.

Read an Excerpt

Three decades after he threw his last pitch, Sandy Koufax was back in uniform at Dodgertown, a rare occurrence given his belief that baseball uniforms do not flatter those of a certain age. This is where he made his debut in the spring of 1955 and Vero Beach is where he has chosen to make his after-baseball home—an odd choice for a man said not to like the game and the attention it brings him.