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Cover Review

Marvel on the Mound

SANDY KOUFAX: A Lefty's Legacy, By Jane Leavy, HarperCollins: 282 pp., $23.95

September 15, 2002|WALTER BERNSTEIN | Walter Bernstein is a screenwriter and the author of "Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist."

It can be said that there was no better preparation for life's vicissitudes than being a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After that, no defeat was foreign to you. Hard knocks were not only expected but welcomed; it was how you knew you were alive. What would be tragedy to a Yankee fan was risible to us, mere lagniappe.

As a boy, I would gather with my friends outside the right field fence of Ebbets Field, waiting for a homerun ball to fly over so that we could give chase as it rolled merrily down the street. But when the Dodgers were up--we could just see home plate through a tiny space where the fence didn't quite touch the ground--we sat back against the fence and rested. The Dodgers didn't hit home runs; they were lucky to hit the ball out of the infield.

But a true fan is forever, and we remained loyal even during the later years when the Dodgers became winners. By then, our lives had been set. A scarred psyche could handle the fact that this team was not the team we had once loved. This team offered a sunny post-Depression view of life: Given talent, you could win. But, when news filtered through the borough in the early '50s that the Dodgers had acquired a local product, a fire-balling southpaw flinger guaranteed to turn the league on its ear, we could temper our rejoicing with the knowledge that he was also Jewish. Something bad could always happen.

The pitcher's name was Sandy Koufax, and he did indeed turn the league on its ear. His life--at least his baseball life--has now been told with a reverence bordering on idolatry by Jane Leavy, a former sportswriter for the Washington Post. Still, there is a lot to be reverential about. Leavy points out that for "five consecutive years, from 1962 through 1966, Koufax led the National League in Earned Run Average (he is the only pitcher to have done that). Four times he led the National League in strikeouts. Three times, he won at least twenty-five games. Ninety-seven times, he struck out ten or more batters .... [In] his last year, pitching with a crippled, arthritic arm, he won twenty-seven games and completed twenty-seven games. And he never missed a start."

The idea that any pitcher today might complete seven games, let alone 27, is like thinking games might last less than three hours or that hitters not be allowed to stroll around the stadium between pitches, flexing their muscles. Koufax's record is a quaint reminder of olden days when a pitcher who couldn't throw nine innings was considered a sissy.

Koufax was a marvel not because of the games he finished but how he finished them. He had only two pitches, a fastball and a curve. But as Willie Mays put it, "He threw them very well." It didn't matter if the batter guessed which one was coming. According to Willie Stargell, another mean hitter, "It was like trying to drink coffee with a fork."

Koufax also inspired a certain headiness of prose, and Leavy is not immune to this. "They called it a yellow hammer. They called it a biter and they called it a bitch. Mostly, they called it unfair. It started a foot over your head and headed south in a hurry. Hitters swore it broke two feet. From the letters to the knees. From the table to the floor. From heaven to God's green earth. They said it fell out of the sky."

Koufax did not, however, start as a baseball player. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall with a tremendous vertical leap, his first love was basketball. He was captain of the team at Lafayette High School in the Bensonhurst part of Brooklyn, a middle-class, mostly Jewish and Italian neighborhood. His compatriots grew up to be such disparate luminaries as Larry King, Alan Dershowitz, Jerry Della Femina and Vito Farinola, who became Vic Damone. The rising baseball star was Fred Wilpon, Koufax's best friend. But Wilpon rose only to the ownership of the Mets, a lesser stardom.

Koufax's ambition was to play for the New York Knicks. Once, his high school team practiced against some of the Knicks' players, and Koufax dunked over Harry Gallatin, a premium pro. The next time he tried it, Gallatin and Al McGuire leveled him. He never did get to the Knicks. He went on to the University of Cincinnati and, on a school trip to New Orleans, the baseball team found it lacked players. Koufax had played some sandlot baseball and offered to pitch. That was it for basketball.

He pitched only one season of college ball, going 3 and 1 with a 2.81 ERA. But word had gotten out; there was this kid who threw very, very hard. Major league scouts began coming around and there were tryouts for the Giants and the Pirates. The Yankees, as Leavy says, "with their customary ethnic sensitivity, sent a Jewish scout to court him, offending his family." Al Campanis, working for the Dodgers, got Koufax a tryout at Ebbets Field. Rube Walker caught him and afterward said, "Whatever he wants, give it to him. I wouldn't let him out of the clubhouse."

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