Any experienced reader of baseball biographies would know that when Jane Leavy began her book about Sandy Koufax, she was already behind in the count. Strike one: most baseball biographies are about as interesting as foul balls. Strike two: in the 36 years since he last threw his atomic fastball, Koufax has accommodated the intrusions of reporters about as frequently as he used to accommodate opposing hitters.
Even so, Leavy has hit it out of the park. Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy (HarperCollins; 282 pages) is a lot more than a biography. It's a consideration of how we create our heroes, and how this hero's self-perception distinguishes him from nearly every other great athlete in living memory. But it's also a remarkably rich portrait of an intentionally elusive man. (Joe DiMaggio, notes Leavy, "marketed his privacy; Koufax cherishes his.") Leavy doesn't give us intimate details about her subject's life--his two marriages rate just three sentences--but still makes him real and knowable and writes so well that she doesn't resort to the sort of cliche that begins this paragraph.
A former sportswriter for the Washington Post, Leavy represents Koufax's career vividly, from the time he was first scouted by the Dodgers ("The hair on my arms rose," Al Campanis reported) through those five years in the 1960s when he may have been the greatest pitcher ever--so dominating, said slugger Willie Stargell, that hitting against him was like "trying to drink coffee with a fork." In his last season Koufax won 27 games yet chose to retire at the age of 30, his left arm so ravaged by then that he was living on cortisone.
But Leavy is less interested in the ballplayer than in the man and in how the world reacts to him. His closest friends on the Dodgers were usually the subs at the end of the bench. When a former player approaches Koufax for an autograph, she writes, he blanches because a "peer [has] become an acolyte." As one of the very greatest of living ballplayers, still venerated by fans--especially Jewish fans, who embraced him with a fervor bordering on idolatry--Koufax could build a very profitable life out of his fame, yet he appears at maybe one autograph show a year, content to make a living instead of a killing. He has elected, writes Leavy, to "opt out of his celebrity."
When Doug Harvey--a former umpire so esteemed by National League players that they called him "God"--said to Leavy, "I have as much respect for Sandy Koufax as for any man I've ever met in my life," he wasn't talking about Koufax's skill. It was not his matchless talent that exalted Koufax beyond his greatest contemporaries so much as it was his knowledge that character was not connected to talent. He never discredited his majestic accomplishments--"How could you do the things I did and not love it?" he asked Leavy in an unguarded moment--but he always knew their limits. At a time when too many unpleasant tales of celebrities deformed by their off-camera vanities would have shattered our illusions if we still harbored any, Sandy Koufax proves to us that it's possible to be both great and good. That goes for Sandy Koufax too.