Saturday, April 28, 2018

Review of "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy"

Until today, I was probably of one of the few readers of baseball books who had not read this book. I had started it numerous times, but never finished.  This time, since it was the monthly selection for the Goodreads Baseball Book Club, I was determined to finish it.  My only question now is what the heck took me so long.  Here is my review of "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy"

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy

Baseball, Dodgers, biography

Publish date:
September 17, 2002

282 pages

5 of 5 stars (outstanding)

Anyone who watched baseball in the five year period between 1962 and 1966 will tell you that the best pitcher during that stretch was Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers. There are so many stories about how good he was, and many of them are shared in this excellent biography of the pitcher written by Jane Leavy. 

The format of the book is not the typical format for a sports biography. The chapters alternate between Koufax stories and the innings of the most spectacular game of his career – a perfect game thrown against the Chicago Cubs on September 9, 1965.  That game was also marked by the fact that the Cubs pitcher, Bob Hendley, threw a great game as well, allowing only one hit, but ended up as the losing pitcher.  No matter whether the chapter is about that game, Koufax’s teenage years in Brooklyn, his struggles early in his career, his meteoric rise to greatness or his post-baseball life, the reader is sure to not only be engrossed in the material, but will also learn something new about the pitcher.

All of the legendary stories about Koufax are covered – his decision to not pitch on Yom Kippur when it fell on the same day as game 1 of the 1965 World Series is described in great detail and what it meant to Jewish people across the country is just one of them.  Later in that series, he shut out the Minnesota Twins in game 7 with just two days’ rest. 

Leavy covers the famous holdout against the Dodgers that he and fellow Los Angeles pitcher Don Drysdale executed in 1966.  She makes a case that this action was just as important to the eventual abolishment of baseball’s reserve clause as was Curt Flood’s legal case that was heard by the Supreme Court.  She states that had Koufax and Drysdale had not held out, then Flood’s case could not have happened.  While I agree with her argument, it is hard to see how they are connected.

Leavy writes about Koufax’s early troubles with the Dodgers as part of a bigger issue that all teams had with “bonus baby” players, which Koufax was.  If a player was offered a bonus to sign his first contract about a certain threshold, he had to remain on the major league roster for at least two years.  This rule was in effect until the amateur draft began in 1965, and many clubs let these players languish on the bench or only gave them sporadic game action.  The latter was the case for Koufax, as he didn’t get a lot of innings until the decade changed to the 1960’s.  Ironically, once it was seen how dominant a pitcher Koufax became, the same manager (Walter Alston) who used him so little early in his career now seemed to overuse Koufax.

The last topic this review will mention that the author wrote about in depth was the extent of his arm pain, which led to his retirement after the 1966 World Series when he was at the peak of his performance.  The description of his arm during off days, rubdowns on game day and the lotion used to relieve his pain runs the gamut from funny (the reaction of a kid who put on a game-used jersey by Koufax that still had the ointment on the sleeve was hilarious) to the grotesque (just about any description of the swelling of the arm after a game).

There is much more to this book but these are just a few snippets of the wonderful stories that Leavy weaves together to make this a book that every baseball fan, especially fans of the game in the 1960’s, will want to pick up.

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