on August 23, 2004
The Koufax story, as we remember it, and as author Jane Leavy depicts it, has some of the trappings of a medieval morality play. A 1954 Brooklyn boy improbably becomes a "bonus baby" with his hometown Dodgers. So wild and unpredictable a hurler, his manager dreaded to use him. He labors six years but never loses faith. Suddenly, in 1961, the fidelity of this Dodger Job is redeemed. He rolls off six years of impeccable performance that earn him a berth in the Hall of Fame. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything, including premature retirement when a left arm becomes irreparably damaged. And then he disappears to a privacy of his own doing.
This is an interesting work that features memory and impression over sabermetrics. Koufax did win eleven games in 1958; he was not exactly a stiff before 1961. And if one looks at the stats closely, he was not that far from his peers even at his best: in his memorable six-season span, 1961-1966, he bested Juan Marichal in wins by a slim 129-124 margin and Don Drysdale by 129-111. [Marichal would win another 113 after Koufax retired.] Thus, the difference between Koufax and his peers like Marichal, Bob Gibson, and Drysdale must lie elsewhere than in sheer statistics. Jane Levy seeks to find that "otherness," focusing upon the atmosphere of postwar Brooklyn, the influence of Judaism upon the pitcher, and the mixed emotions of Koufax and his admirers alike when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Leavy captures what stats guru Bill James uses as the ultimate criterion for admission to the Hall of Fame: his contemporaries thought of Koufax as the best at his position.
Koufax's career covered twelve years, much shorter than Marichal's or Warren Spahn's. In retrospect, however, he seemed to have pitched in two different eras of the game. In those grainy black and white films of the 1955 World Series, when Dodger outfielder Sandy Amoros started the mother of all double plays near the left field foul line, a very young Koufax watched from the Dodger bench. He was there the next year to see Larsen's perfect game; he moved with the team to Los Angeles; he pitched in the Coliseum with its "Wally Moon home run porch" and was a member of the 1959 World Series Championship team, posting an 8-6 season record. Aside from winning big in the 1960's, he and Drysdale attempted the first "collective bargaining" strategy and started the ball rolling for Curt Flood and Marvin Miller.
Amazingly during his Brooklyn high school days Koufax was not considered prospective baseball material, and certainly not a pitcher. His sport, ironically, was basketball, and on February 10, 1953, Koufax and his Lafayette High School five [which included a scrappy Alan Dershowitz] embarrassed a New York Knicks team paced by Harry "The Horse" Gallatin and Al McGuire. He might never have attempted organized baseball were it not for a serendipitous encounter with one Milt Laurie, Braves' prospect turned truck driver. Laurie was impressed with the speed of Koufax's delivery, if not his control, and eased him into the world of Brooklyn amateur baseball. Later, at the University of Cincinnati, baseball coach Ed Jucker [yes, that Ed Jucker, better known for his coaching on hardwood floors.] complained that none of his catchers would go near Koufax for fear for life or limb. It is unclear who among the Dodger organization first caught sight of Koufax-though Walter Alston had seen him play basketball at Cincinnati-Al Campanis appears to have spearheaded the recruiting and signed the lefty.
Koufax, as Leavy observed, came to the Dodgers at roughly the same time as Alston. The latter's conservative and basic outlook on the game was never quite at peace with the unpredictable Koufax. Their relationship was tense. Leavy overstates the case when she argues that Alston was flat out afraid to use him-Koufax started 25 games in 1958-but she is correct that the Dodger organization did not know how to manage him. As a result, Koufax developed his unique windup and delivery pretty much on his own. Leavy devotes an entire chapter to his delivery, including kinetic sketches--admirable until one realizes that this very delivery nearly destroyed his left arm. When the reader considers how Leo Mazzoni has nurtured flame-thrower John Smoltz through near twenty profitable seasons, the tragedy of Koufax's shortened career comes into clearer focus.
The Koufax who emerges here is neither a philosopher nor a religious fanatic. He is a competitive but sociable Brooklynite who never totally succumbed to West Coast glitz nor corporate Dodger hubris. His reserve is a genuine humility, a reluctance to trade in on what he considered a physical ability, and should not be confused with the darker shadows of DiMaggio. He was loved by his teammates, and respected [and feared] by the opposition. Thanks to Leavy's extensive search for Koufax contemporaries, there is a plethora of anecdotal material from Ron Fairly, Ken Holtzman, Nate Oliver, Jeff Torborg, Maury Wills, Wes Parker, and Ed Vargo, to name a few. The ultimate in nostalgia is Leavy's reconstruction over nine chapters of Koufax's perfect game of September 9, 1965. Pieced together from a scouting film, a boy's tape recording of the radio broadcast, and memories of the participants, Leavy recounts one of baseball's greatest pitching duels, between the perfect Koufax and the near perfect Bob Hendley of the Cubs. It is proof positive that the Koufax era was an experience that lifted all boats in the tide of competition.