Book Review:

New Koufax Biography Depicts Jewish Pitcher’s ‘Pursuit of Excellence’

by Joseph B. Rosenberg

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy cover
by Jane Leavey
Harper/Collins, 2002

If Harper/Collins were not so politically correct, this book’s subtitle could have read: “Koufax’s K’s Make Kikes Kvell.” (To those lacking knowledge of baseball jargon and/or Yiddish, this translates to “Koufax’s strikeouts makes Jews proud”).

It is true that there were few Jewish heroes noticeable in the post-World War II era until Koufax became the cover boy for all things “heimish” in the years leading up to the seven days war of 1967. It is true that Hank Greenberg and Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears still graced post-war sports pages; but the anti-communist furor deliberately exposed many Jews as possible Communists and, in the case of the Rosenbergs, out-and-out traitors.

Luckily for the Jews, Alger Hiss was a pure 100% WASP, but the Hollywood 10 and their defenders were mostly Jewish, as was a good percentage of the folk paraded before Joe McCarthy’s tribunal.

Sandy Koufax became the antidote to all those who thought Jews could not defend themselves. This notion got a rude reassessment after Moishe Dayan and crew kicked butt in 1967 and later raided Entebbe and stood up to terrorism. So Koufax was the last of a long line of Jewish athletes like Benny Leonard, Luckman,Hank Greenberg and a slew of good basketball players.

To her credit, the author, who writes for the Washington Post, assesses the impact Koufax had on baseball and the sporting industry in less parochial terms. But clearly she portrays Koufax as a phenomenon because he was Jewish.

She uses the retelling of a perfect game he pitched on September 5, 1965 against the Chicago Cubs as the leitmotif for her biography, and brings to life the fact that Bob Hendley, journeyman pitcher, pitched an almost perfect one hitter himself. She shows the post-baseball Koufax as a complex and giving man whose foibles do not infringe on his status as a true mensch.

What we have in the 266 pages which detail Koufax’s life is really a love letter to the subject’s humanity and pursuit of excellence. Sports medicine really got its start from Koufax’s physical troubles, and his 1966 holdout with Don Drysdale led to the eventual growth of the Players Union and free agency. He was a leader in the clubhouse and probably could have contributed more in his early career if Walter O’Malley, Buzzy Bavasi and Walter Alston had used him more prior to 1960. O’Malley and his subordinate, Bavasi, could only see the dollars generated by Jewish fans in Brooklyn, not Koufax’s ultimate value. They didn’t even attend Koufax’s retirement press conference; having used him up and spit him out.

Actually, during the Koufax era (1960-1966) my Dodger God was Maury Wills, who revolutionized base running. He was the Dodgers’ offense and key to most of their victories. However, both Koufax and Drysdale’s effectiveness gave Wills the kind of low-scoring games that brought out Will’s genius. This will never be repeated, as pitchers now adhere to strict pitch counts that limit the type of damage that sidelined Koufax, and other than Randy Johnson you have no one like Koufax or Bob Gibson who was capable of giving of themselves for nine innings every fourth day.

Anyway, it was impossible to be a Jewish male and not get “Naches” when Sandy pitched. My grandmother always had the radio tuned to WEVD in New York because most of their programming was in Yiddish. I remember hearing reports of Koufax’s triumphs on WEVD, which usually ended with the words “mensch” and “single.” Sandy’s adoration by mainstream America let us know that we could play by America’s rules, be respected and, of course, win.

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This story was published on February 10, 2003.