Sandy Koufax was a left-handed pitcher of sublime talent whose reluctant fame operated counterclockwise to the norms around him. He was Jewish, pitched at his best in Los Angeles, spoke little, complained less, and avoided the limelight. He gradually became so good at his job, particularly in the early 1960s, that his aggressive diffidence collided with the public need. At the peak of his talent, at age 30, his arm in pain, he walked away from the game.
Leavy’s accomplishment is contextual, tracking a “belatedly brilliant” comet through its natural arc using those who saw it and studied it, mostly in awe (“Baseball is distinguished by its lack of temporal imperatives,” she writes). The missing imperatives are important in the context of this book because Koufax didn’t sit for interviews. He has systematically refused to surrender his privacy, and didn’t change his policy for Leavy, agreeing only to verify data. The narrative doesn’t suffer Koufax’s direct absence — Leavy is simply too fine a writer — but she does occasionally betray the obvious: a reverence for her subject. To tame this eloquent sighing, she hangs a hard left into the times when Koufax came of age.
Of 1957, she writes: “Dislocation was the new national pastime, a restlessness facilitated by technology. The country was souped-up, tail-finned, and grilled.” Her period-piece sketches are meticulous. Writing about Koufax matters in counterpoint to today’s media-wise athletes, who exist (many of them), to fan their own fame, however modest.
Obsessive, Koufax mastered pitching as an art. It pleased him. He did it well and knew it. But he never forgot a central truth: he wasn’t an artist but a well-trained catapult, a physical wonder. And why should a catapult be a hero? Why should a baseball player be? “The shock that greeted his [retirement] announcement,” she writes provocatively, “was rooted in the assumption that athletes need to play in order to be complete.” Koufax helped Leavy challenge her own assumptions, another well-pitched game on his part, near perfect in fact.