I’ve been neglecting this blog because life has been in overdrive. I traveled throughout the month of March, which allowed me to read but kept me too unfocused to write. Sometime in the past four weeks, we decided to put a contract on a house, put our house up for sale, and all of the chores and stresses associated with that have been a bear. Not all of my neglect is from work, of course. Those of you who know me heard that I was in Detroit last week to see Springsteen. More specifically, I was in the front row of the Palace at Auburn Hills last week, where I strummed Bruce’s guitar on “Born to Run.” Yes, I boast. Point being, I’ve been busy. But I’m back. Expect a rapid succession of posts this week.
One event I missed this year because of work travel was Opening Day. It’s practically a Municipal Holiday here in Cincinnati, and it was difficult to break away from the festivities. If you’ve read this blog before around this time of year, you know I like to post a baseball book review to celebrate the beginning of the season. A few years ago, I started this blog with my post about Willie Mays. Last year, I read about Joe DiMaggio. This year? Sandy Koufax.
Jane Leavy’s “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” was a treat. My dad grew up a Dodger fan and he used to love Koufax. Other than knowing he was great, I knew little about the man who could throw a ball “with such velocity and spin that when the ball met the wind, the air cried.” Leavy has pieced together a terrific biography with little participation from Koufax, who is known for avoiding the spotlight, a constant theme in this book.
The structure of the book is its greatest feature. Leavy begins with a short story about Robert Pinsky, a Poet Laureate who wrote affectionately about Koufax, and about how she convinced Koufax to allow her to write this book. Then she introduces us to Koufax at a baseball clinic in the nineties, with young pitchers still fascinated by legend. After that, we go back in time to 1965, to Sandy’s perfect game. And then the book toggles back and forth between an inning of that perfect game and the more conventional biography. The build-up to the ninth inning is slow and dramatic, just like it would have been that day. The architectural design of this book is stunning.
Like any biographer would want to do, Leavy tries to figure out what makes Koufax tick. Here’s a guy—perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time—who gives the game everything he has, (he nearly renders his arm unusable in the process), and then at the end of his career, he seeks out almost no notoriety, no fame, and no fortune. I don’t know that Leavy ever quite figures him out—there’s next to nothing in the book about how he felt about this pitch or that game or another person. Her title is her confession. If this had been a straight biography, it would have simply been titled “Sandy Koufax.” But no, this isn’t that, this is about the legacy he left, and so her subtitle, “A Lefty’s Legacy” is really a more apt name.
I think by avoiding the spotlight, Koufax has given us a gift. People can remember him how they choose. On more than one occasion, Leavy quotes a player talking about a Koufax inning, only to go search in vain to find a record of any such inning. She tells us of fans who obsess over an autograph, a signature on a check, or a chance encounter sometime in the last 50 years. It’s a remarkable phenomenon that is repeated throughout the book.
Like any baseball book, it can be judged by the quality of the “old-timer-tales.” This one has plenty. What I mean are the hijinks and quips and tall tales that are the stuff of legend. A player commenting that when he was young “Sandy couldn’t hit a cow in the ass with a bag of rice at five feet.” The stories from Vero Beach—Dodgertown—are memorable. Here’s one: When the Mayor of Vero Beach expressed some discomfort with the Dodgers’ racial makeup and what that might do to the town during Spring Training, the GM of the Dodgers stayed up stamping “Brooklyn Dodgers” on twenty thousand two-dollar bills. He gave the money to players and told them to go spend it in the town. The Mayor didn’t complain any more.
And I loved a story about Koufax pitching for the University of Cincinnati in college. He played my alma mater, Xavier University, in baseball’s version of the “Crosstown Shootout.” Turns out Koufax lost. Not much pride in my Musketeers’ victory though—the Xavier players were said to have shouted anti-Semitic epithets at Koufax throughout the game.
Koufax’s religion was covered at length in the book, and Leavy was right to focus on how he was the pride of the Jewish community and how his decision to sit out of a World Series game on Yom Kippur left as an important of a legacy to some as did his pitching.
One complaint—the book was a little light on the baseball games he played. Please don’t think this is because the book was written by Jane Leavy and not by someone named Richard Leavy—her writing about baseball is as eloquent and precise as any author I’ve read. But whole seasons are covered in just a few pages. I hoped for a little more.
Yet that minor offense is forgiven with the description of the perfect game, especially the final inning. Taken alone, the description of the game could have been its own “New Yorker” article. Couple her book with the audio of Vin Scully calling the final three outs of that game, and you are transported to 9:46 p.m. on September, 9th 1965. Listen:
So there’s my annual baseball biography. I’ll take recommendations in the comments for next April. Before I go, I’ll just say that today, despite all of the work travel, the house stuff, and the normal stresses of life, I spent two hours reclined on my bed, with the windows open, a book on my lap, and the Reds game on. I was completely content. That’s what baseball does in the Spring.
Thanks for reading. And Go Reds!