(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, Jane Leavy attempts to shed light on the spectacular and enigmatic life of Sandy Koufax. Koufax was one of baseball’s greatest pitchers. He is also one of the sport’s enduring mysteries. Through hundreds of interviews with friends, teammates, family members, and acquaintances, Leavy reconstructs Koufax’s personal history, emphasizing his life in baseball. She also attempts to link Koufax’s life experience to thoroughgoing changes which have taken place in both professional baseball and society at large. The result is a book that is informative and nostalgic. Leavy does not, however, solve every aspect of the Koufax mystery. If anything, the book perpetuates and deepens the Koufax riddle.

The organization of Leavy’s book is somewhat peculiar. Interspersed with a chronological account of Koufax’s life and career as an athlete, she covers the perfect game he pitched for the Dodgers in Los Angeles against the Chicago Cubs on September 9, 1965. A perfect game is one in which no batters on the opposing team get on base through a hit, a walk, or an error. Perfect games are one of baseball’s rarest occurrences. For most of the book, chapters alternate between Koufax’s biography and the night of his perfect game. This may become confusing to some readers, especially when the time lines cross and Leavy is discussing events which took place around the time of or after the perfect game. For the most part, however, Leavy succeeds in producing a smooth narrative, telling the story of Koufax’s life and times while allowing the perfect game to unfold as a consummate illustration of the rare excellence Koufax achieved as an athlete.

Readers will learn or be reminded that Koufax was born Sandy Braun in Brooklyn, on December 30, 1935. Koufax’s parents divorced when he was three. For six years Koufax and his mother lived next door to her parents. Since his mother worked full time as an accountant, Koufax spent a great deal of time with his grandparents. Koufax was especially close to his maternal grandfather, Max Lichtenstein, “a plumber and socialist who dabbled in real estate.” When Koufax was nine, his mother married Irving Koufax, who adopted Sandy as his own and, for all intents and purposes, became Sandy’s father in every aspect but that of biology. The three moved to Long Island for several years, before moving back to the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn in time for Sandy to become a sports legend at Lafayette High School. The legend was not built on Koufax’s prowess at baseball. He was a magnificent basketball player with great leaping ability according to the standards of the day. Koufax did not play much organized baseball until be played at the University of Cincinnati as a walk-on freshman.

Based on that year and relatively rare appearances back in Brooklyn, Koufax signed a bonus contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the time, Major League Baseball was trying to economize its operations by discouraging large bonuses for new prospects. “Bonus babies” as they were called, had to remain on the roster for a full two years if they had been paid more than $4,000 to sign. Koufax signed for $20,000, $6,000 in salary and a $14,000 bonus. Thus, in 1955, at the age of nineteen, he was in the major leagues, but in very awkward circumstances. Dodger manager Walter Alston appeared at times to resent having to reserve a roster spot for Koufax, whose lack of experience and wildness could be costly for a team that was expected to win the pennant and, perhaps, its first World Series. On the other hand, Koufax’s exceptional physical ability provided moments of excellence even during his rookie year. Overall, Koufax pitched just forty-one and two-thirds innings over the course of the season, including two complete game shutouts (and the Dodgers did win the World Series). Unfortunately, Koufax’s promising performances in 1955 did not lead to steady improvement, or even consistent opportunities. Koufax pitched only fifty-eight and two-thirds innings in 1956 and actually backslid instead of making progress. He was not sent to the minor leagues in 1957, however, instead surviving as an occasionally brilliant fifth starter and long reliever for the Dodgers through 1960, by which time the team had moved to Los Angeles. In 1961, Koufax gained control and poise, winning eighteen games and establishing himself as a fine major league starter.

Then their came the legendary years. From 1962 through 1966, Koufax averaged over twenty wins a year, pitched thirty-three complete game shutouts, and led the Dodgers to two World Series Championships (all this despite two major stints on the disabled list). In 1965, Koufax solidified his reputation among Jewish fans by refusing to play the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur...

(The entire section is 1965 words.)