A Local Hero Vanishes, Mystery Shading Into Myth

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy , by Jane Leavy. HarperCollins, 256 pages, $23.95.

In the spring of 1966, before there was a functioning players’ union-let alone talk of revenue-sharing-Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax approached the Los Angeles Dodgers’ general manager, Buzzie Bavasi, in tandem, and demanded $1 million, to be split evenly between the two pitchers over the following three seasons. It was an unheard-of request, and Bavasi quickly refused it. The pitchers-one blond and extroverted, a gentile from California; the other dark-haired and introverted, a Jew from Brooklyn-held out for 32 days before eventually caving in only a couple of weeks before opening day. Mr. Drysdale agreed to $110,000 and Mr. Koufax $125,000-for the next year only. Though Marvin Miller and Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith would eventually become famous for revolutionizing the business of baseball, the Dodger duo, in their unified stand, were in some ways the sport’s real labor pioneers. “By bargaining collectively,” Jane Leavy writes in her hagiographic biography, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy , “they not only challenged the owners’ omnipotent domain, they forcibly dragged the industry into the twentieth century.” It was “the most underestimated event in Koufax’s career.”

As it happened, 1966 was the last-and best-season Mr. Koufax would ever pitch. After his Dodgers were swept in the World Series that fall, Mr. Koufax, his left elbow swollen and throbbing from recurring traumatic arthritis, called it quits. He was 30, and at the top of his game, having led the league in E.R.A. an unprecedented (and not since repeated) five consecutive seasons, but he could no longer straighten his throwing arm. (To understand the abruptness of this departure, imagine Pedro Martinez, himself 30 and comparably dominant, walking away from the game this fall.) The so-called Tommy John surgery, which might have spared Mr. Koufax his grueling, near-daily reliance on cortisone, Capsolin and codeine, wouldn’t be available until 1974. “Koufax, like so many other pitchers who came before him, was doomed by the time in which he lived,” Ms. Leavy writes. “He pitched on the cusp of a revolution. He was born a decade too soon.”

He was born Sanford Braun, in Bensonhurst, Ralph Kramden’s Brooklyn. (Evelyn Braun was remarried, to Irving Koufax, a local lawyer, when Sandy was 9.) At Lafayette High, where he was a contemporary of Larry King, young Sandy was a basketball and baseball star, and in 1955, after signing as a bonus baby with the revered local team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, he became one of three rookie teammates who hailed from the neighborhood. It was near the end of Jackie Robinson’s career, and Roy Campanella was by then a Dodger mainstay-but integration, as Ms. Leavy reminds us, was by no means a done deal; in spring training that year in Miami, black and white players stayed in different hotels.

It seems fitting that the great Koufax, a local boy, was the last man to pitch a game for the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers, who moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, bringing baseball to the West Coast at last. At the time of the move, however, Mr. Koufax had just nine career victories; he wouldn’t learn to control his fastball until a few years after Ebbets Field was demolished, in 1960. It was the 1963 World Series, which pitted the blond, blue-eyed Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford against the Hollywood Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Maury Wills, that made clear the cultural shift that had taken place, and established the transformation of Mr. Koufax from bonus baby to Hall of Famer. “The Bombers were the incarnation of moneyed, East Coast WASPdom: the old boy network in flannel pinstripes,” Ms. Leavy writes. “The Dodgers were the future: the coming of cool …. They were Jews and blacks, speed and daring.” Mr. Koufax outpitched Ford in the opener, and the West never looked back. The Dodgers celebrated their Series sweep with bagels and lox in the clubhouse.

If the Koufax-Drysdale holdout of 1966 was the most underestimated event in Mr. Koufax’s career, his refusal, on religious grounds, to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series, which coincided with Yom Kippur, was perhaps the most overestimated. Mr. Koufax was hardly the first Jewish ballplayer; Lipman Pike, a heavy-hitting outfielder, took up the game after his bar mitzvah, in 1858, and became the first known professional several years thereafter. Nor was Mr. Koufax the first Jewish superstar. Hank Greenberg, the famed Detroit Tigers slugger, was raised Orthodox, and in the heat of the pennant race of 1934, he sought permission from a rabbi before playing on Rosh Hashanah; on receiving it, he connected for two home runs to single-handedly beat the Red Sox 2-1. Ten days later, Greenberg attended services at the synagogue rather than play on Yom Kippur, and the Tigers got beat by the Yankees. Mr. Koufax, for his part, wasn’t particularly religious, and Ms. Leavy explains that, contrary to lore, he didn’t attend any services-didn’t even leave his hotel room-on the day that cemented his legend as “King of the Jews” (Ms. Leavy’s chapter heading).

So what of the lefty’s legacy? Ms. Leavy is in many ways wrong to say that he was doomed by the time in which he lived. After all, pitchers have rarely had it better than in the mid-60’s, when offenses were largely impotent, and Mr. Koufax had the added benefit of playing in a pitcher-friendly ballpark (where, as Ms. Leavy notes, the mound was reportedly inches higher than rules allowed-even before the 1969 adjustments). By bridging two eras, then leaving when he did and refusing to return, à la Michael Jordan, thereby robbing fans of the chance to watch him grow old, Mr. Koufax achieved a mysterious, mythical quality that has extended beyond the world of baseball.

As a way of indicating that her subject (and her book) transcends mere sports biography, Ms. Leavy cites the architect Louis Sullivan (applying “form follows function” to Mr. Koufax’s body and mechanics); the stylist E.B. White (comparing the Koufax delivery to the “clear, crystal stream” of White’s prose); and the poet Robert Pinsky (“people were amazed by him,” Mr. Pinsky said-leave it to a poet laureate!). But the questions arising from Mr. Koufax’s swift disappearance, as a man and not just a player, from public life remain unanswered; true to form, he chose not to participate in the book’s reporting. Ms. Leavy writes at the start that he took to calling her project “an unauthorized biography by a good woman,” and the book clearly suffers from her attempt to prove to its subject that her intentions were indeed purely good all along. Not a negative or even a complicated judgment is made of the enigmatic pitcher, who, in the course of a routine autograph-signing session, manages nothing less than to bring “dignity to this most undignified pursuit-the sycophantic elevation of one human being over another.”

Little new ground is uncovered here. Ms. Leavy fleshes out her (thin) biographical narrative by returning, in alternate chapters, to the play-by-play unfolding of a single game-a perfect game-that Mr. Koufax pitched against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965. The literary premise, expressed explicitly near the book’s end, is this: “The game paralleled the arc of Koufax’s career. Nine innings: from nothing special to never better.” It’s a weak conceit, even forgiving the fact that, with two strikeouts and an infield pop-up induced in the first inning, the game began with about as much success as any pitcher could hope for. Sometimes a game is just a game. That’s what Sandy Koufax would probably say-if he cared to talk.

Ben McGrath has written for The New Yorker , The New York Times Book Review and Slate.

A Local Hero Vanishes, Mystery Shading Into Myth