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Searching for Sandy Koufax

October 20, 2002|JOSH KARP

Willie Stargell called hitting against Sandy Koufax like "trying to drink coffee with a fork." And so it was. Koufax, the hype-aversive legend sometimes dubbed "the J.D. Salinger of baseball," dominated the sport from 1962-1966 like no pitcher before or since. He made his mark off the field as well, refusing to pitch on Yom Kippur and retiring at his peak in 1966, after 12 years with the Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers, to avoid further injuring his arthritic left elbow. During three years of research, author Jane Leavy conducted 469 interviews to find the real Koufax for her new book, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" (HarperCollins). Koufax, 66, who still mentors occasionally for the Dodgers at spring training, declined to be interviewed for the book but helped provide access to friends and teammates. We asked Leavy about the man behind the myth.

Why has Koufax been so reclusive since his retirement?

He's not a recluse. He has friends. He has a life. My guess is that he can be most himself when he's not being a public person. A public entity who doesn't choose to spend his afterlife exploiting his public self isn't a recluse. He's just not a media hound.

Describe your first encounters with Koufax.

He left me a message saying, "Ms. Leavy, this is Sandy . . . uh . . . Koufax. I don't really have any interest in this project, but I'll call you back." And the next day he did. He's a very polite, courtly man. I started talking and he wouldn't interrupt me. At the end of the conversation, he said that he really didn't have any interest in the project, but [that] if I wanted to come to Vero Beach [Dodger spring training camp], I could talk to him about it.

So did you?

At Vero Beach, there's a walk up to the main entrance with a mural of Dodger Stadium and a row of seats from Ebbets Field. If you're a big-time kind of guy and want attention, you stroll down that walk and linger purposefully in front of the mural. Koufax came through the side door. He doesn't need or crave the attention that everyone presumes is his birthright. I sat under a wall-sized [photo collage showing] him embracing [catcher] Johnny Roseboro after the 1963 World Series. He didn't look up.

What separates Koufax from legends like Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio?

Koufax gave the impression by the way he left the game that he didn't need baseball to know who he was. It's the opposite of when Hank Aaron was asked what he did to keep busy and responded, "I'm being Hank Aaron." I don't think Koufax wanted to spend his life being Sandy Koufax, the public persona. I think he wanted to be himself. It was a radical thing to do. The Koufax persona seems part of a world apart from today's baseball industry. [Former U.S. poet laureate] Robert Pinsky said, "His triumph surpassed mere success." He was bigger than winning. He's an American icon as much for what he refused to do as what he did on the field. There's a hunger in this world of $252-million shortstops and [cryogenically] frozen Hall-of-Famers to reach back to an era where things seemed more pure, whether they were or not. The defining differences of Koufax's career weren't economic. They were moral, and bound up with a sense of responsibility to his teammates and the game. In every way that matters, he offers a barometer--a way of measuring where we were and where we've come to.

What was your lasting impression of Koufax?

Two words were used for him by ballplayers. He's "class" and a "gentle, gentle man," in the old sense. Picture that coming out of the mouths of so many sweaty ballplayers.

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