Pros: An interesting look at what Koufax and the Dodgers meant to America
Cons: Won't tell you where Sandy has been hiding, no real input from Sandy
The Bottom Line: Follow the Dodgers
Note: I originally wrote this review for Lit Bases, my blog on baseball literature, just yesterday. This book was tricky to track down on Epinions.
What, precisely, is the meaning of Sandy Koufax? That’s basically the question author Jane Leavy is trying to answer in her book Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, which just a few years after its first publication is already being hailed as a classic of baseball literature.
Leavy’s book, though hailed as a great piece of base lit, does absolutely nothing to demystify the famously enigmatic pitcher. Those glancing A Lefty’s Legacy in the hopes of learning just what Sandy Koufax has been up to for the last three decades won’t get much information on the subject. Leavy saves his post-baseball stuff for the afterword of the book, and even then, she doesn’t get much further than the standard diatribe about what Koufax does when he sticks his head out of his cave every couple of years or so. The occasional autograph convention, the occasional volunteer pitching coach, and Leavy implies that Koufax is a minimalist who lives by a quality of life and not a quantity of stuff philosophy. In a caption to a rare photo of Koufax performing duty as a pitching coach, Leavy writes that Koufax’s friends say he’s happier than ever.
This honestly did a lot to endear me to Sandy Koufax. While every other baseball myth is being attacked and derailed, Koufax continues to tower over most others precisely because he’s such a private figure. Think about it: We hate having our deepest, darkest secrets brought out to public light, but we love it when the most successful and famous people in our society are knocked down a few pegs. And now we have Koufax successfully keeping his life out of the spotlight to such an extent that people are finding it close to impossible to dig up any dirt.
Of course, it’s not as if Leavy is out to try to tell you about how Sandy Koufax finds fulfillment in being a secret communist supporter or drowning kittens. Even in the introduction, her angle is very clear: Her biography is going to fawn relentlessly over Koufax. Sandy Koufax is a man, and all men have flaws. And while I certainly don’t believe Sandy Koufax would ever support the commies or drown kittens, my point is that Koufax’s flaws will forever be closed to the public. Leavy had the best chance to learn about the Koufax the man and tell us about the dark corners of his soul, but since she doesn’t, we can safely assume Koufax’s flaws will be buried with him.
Koufax is famously Jewish, and Leavy makes her Jewish heritage instantly known. So Leavy’s Koufax bio gives us the angle of just what Koufax meant to the Jewish community. One of his most famous acts, refusing to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, was seen as a kind of self-defining act within the Jewish community. It also made him the most eligible bachelor to Jewish mothers with single daughters, although this act exempted, Koufax did nothing to assert any kind of religiosity.
A Lefty’s Legacy is, more than anything, a defining account of the impact of Sandy Koufax on American culture. To an extent, it is also an account of the Los Angeles Dodgers and American culture. Dodgers move west? That makes them a sign of American upward mobility. Hollywood team in rising metropolis? Emblem of cool. Koufax and fellow pitcher Don Drysdale holding out? Precursor to Curt Flood’s lawsuit and eventual free agency. Koufax’s Jewish heritage? Exposed him to the same kind of crap Jackie Robinson had to endure a decade earlier, and it helped Koufax bond with his black teammates more.
Leavy chronicles Koufax’s career as she takes us through a tour of the Dodgers and American culture, and this statement pretty much sums up the book. Although the cultural commentary tends to overshadow the baseball diamond at points, Leavy does tell us a lot of interesting things about Sandy Koufax which are largely forgotten and even a bit tarnishing to his legacy. One such nugget is that Koufax was signed while the team was still in Brooklyn, in 1955, the year the Dodgers first won the World Series. Another is that Koufax really forged his legend from 1961 onward. Before that point, he was used only sparingly and had a career mark of 28-31, a merely decent record.
The whole book is cloaked between an inning by inning account of Koufax’s perfect game, the fourth and final no-hitter of his career. I delayed reading this book because I tend not to like formats that are chopped up and revolving around singular events like this – usually it comes off as an attempt at heavy-handed drama. But Leavy’s inning accounts are short and unobtrusive and have more to do with the public perception of Sandy Koufax than anything he did on the field that hot September day against the Cubs. She weaves them into the general theme of the book very well.
One of the primary obstacles to this book is the fact that Koufax is exceedingly difficult to get ahold of. Leavy chronicles how hard it was in her introduction, and says that Koufax said he wasn’t going to be talking to her for the book. This probably explains why A Lefty’s Legacy wound up being the culture commentary that it is and not an account of every sneeze and cough Koufax performed in his life. Of course, some of the better known facts about Koufax’s life get repeated: He considered basketball his best sport, went to the University of Cincinnati as a walk-on, and had to warm his arm before every game and ice it afterward. But Leavy’s narrative style and plethora of different viewpoints offer up in-depth details to all of these things, like what kind of balm Koufax used to heat his arm with. A couple of myths also get debunked, the two major ones being that Koufax hated playing baseball and didn’t care about winning.
A remarkable thing happened as I read A Left’s Legacy: I began to see a lot of my own character aspects in Koufax. The Dodgers had long been threatening to take the top of my baseball totem as my favorite National League team, and Jane Leavy’s book is the one that clinched it for them. You’re not going to get a lot of dirt about Sandy Koufax by reading Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. There just isn’t a whole lot of dirt to find on the guy. But you will get some interesting new details and viewpoints on the things you do know about Koufax, as well as his impact of himself and the Dodgers and what they were to a changing American cultural landscape.
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