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May 02, 2000|EARL GUSTKEY

What: "Koufax"

Author: Edward Gruver, Taylor Publishing

Price: $24.95

This is probably a must for any longtime Dodger follower, especially those old enough to remember memorable Chavez Ravine nights in the 1960s, when baseball's greatest left-handed pitcher threw one gem after another.

Problem is, Sandy Koufax threw so many they seem to blend into a tapestry of pitching artistry.

The most compelling element in this biography is a recounting of Koufax's years of struggle and frustration, of a time when he was blessed with a cannon for a left arm yet unable to throw strikes. After his first six seasons, Koufax was 36-40.

Pitching coach Joe Becker, who joined the Dodgers the same day Koufax did in 1955, was his mentor, first toning down Koufax's exaggerated windup and eliminating a backward lean, which prevented him from throwing fastballs for low strikes.

It has been 33 years since Koufax's stunning--he was only 30--retirement announcement. The years of injections to relieve the pain of arthritis in his pitching arm were too much, he said. Over a generation later, his achievements have been dimmed by time.

Gruver points out a pearl from Bill James' "Historical Baseball Abstract." In Koufax's 1963 and '64 seasons, in games which the Dodgers scored three runs or fewer, he was 18-4.

In the 1965 and '66 seasons, with pain growing in his left arm, he struck out 699 hitters and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 4.7:1. His earned-run average was 1.87.

His 336 innings pitched in 1965 were the most by a left-hander since 1906.

On the negative side, Gruver's intermittent, awkward segues to Koufax's classic victory in the seventh game of the 1965 World Series at Minnesota could have been presented more effectively as the first or last chapter. Gruver also is factually mistaken in some areas.

Still, the book has merit. Few realized the extent of Koufax's arthritic pain, and certainly not many of the hitters who could barely see his heater.

"I'm going to sit up all night and cry for him," power-hitting third baseman Ken Boyer wisecracked. "He threw me one pitch that was impossible. No ball can get up to the plate that quick. Then he threw it again."

The Times' Jim Murray could understand Boyer's lament. He once advised readers in a column to "come out to the ballpark every fourth night and watch nine innings of industrial accidents."

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