Thursday September 10, 2009

Leavy's Koufax

About six years ago a friend gave me an uncorrected proof of Jane Leavy's "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," which was getting a lot of attention at the time, and I finally got around to it this past weekend. Something about September makes me want to read baseball books, I guess. Temperatures are cooling down and pennant races are heating up. Post-season is just around the corner. Or maybe it's the fact that baseball is dying (for the year) and everyone appreciates things more when they're dying. Baseball books are almost always pubished in spring, which is the one time of year I get to take baseball for granted. It's also the season I'm least likely to be inside, reading.

I like the structure of Leavy's book—every other chapter is an inning in his perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965—while the subsequent chapters give us his life and career: How a wild, afterthought lefty, with an ERA hovering near 4.00, became, for five years, the best pitcher in baseball. Levy would say "the best pitcher in basebal history" and that's part of the problem. She's a little hagiographic. She's a little too close to her subject. So was Aviva Kempner in that "Hank Greenberg" doc, but for some reason I found Kempner's love letter charming, Leavy's less so. Maybe it's the medium. Maybe it's the messenger.

Some of the best stuff is in the intro, when Leavy interviewed the players, many of them Hall of Famers, who faced Koufax. It's been said that his fastball rose when it got to the plate, which, according to science, is impossible. Of course 19th century scientists claimed no ball could curve, either; that the so-called "curve ball" was merely an optical illusion. The players here collectively give science a Bronx cheer:

Stan Musial: "Rose up just before it got to the plate."
Willie Mays: "I don't know how much it rose, it just rose. Ain't got time to try and sit there and count how high it goes. You just know it went up—very quickly."
Hank Aaron: "It did something, you know?"
Carl Erskine: "It re-accelerated. It came again."
Dave Wallace: "Fifteen feet from home plate, where the grass ends and the dirt begins, it got an afterburner on its ass."

Love Hank Aaron's line.

Ken Burns' "Baseball" doc argued, in passing, that Koufax went from mediocre mop-up man (with great stuff) to the best pitcher in baseball when someone told him he didn't have to throw so hard, but Leavy argues that the Dodgers in general, and manager Walter Alston in particular, just didn't give him the chance to find his rhythm during the 1950s. Koufax was a "bonus baby." Because he signed for over $10,000 in 1954, MLB rules stipulated that he had to stay on the 25-man roster. So not only did his signing piss off the other, veteran players, most of whom weren't even earning what this kid had just been given, but it pissed off the manager, who was suddenly saddled with a player he couldn't get rid of. If the kid wasn't any good he couldn't send him down to the minors; he had to keep him in the bigs. Alston, Leavy implies, dealt with this fait accompli by not taking advantage of Koufax's god-given talent.

That's certainly the case during his first two years: Koufax pitched 41 innings in 1955, 58 in 1956. In 1957, though, he seemed to find his rhythm, or at least a rhythm: 5-4, 3.88 ERA, with, most importantly, a 122-51 strikeout-walk ratio in only 104 innings. You'd think a manager would take notice. Maybe Alston did. Because the next year Koufax started twice as many games. But he got wild again: a 131-105 strikeout-walk ratio in 158 innings. His WHIP soared. The following year, too. So maybe he just wasn't good enough yet. Or maybe, as Leavy implies, Alston never let him settle into a rhythm. Who knows? Koufax probably doesn't even know.

Leavy also gives us the Ken Burns scene. Scenes. "Stop throwing so hard." Everyone told him this. Don Newcombe told him this. In a bar the night before a spring training game in 1961, Kenny Myers, an old scout, supposedly told him to keep his head level, don't rear it back. And in that spring training game, Norm Sherry, his catcher, came to the mound after Koufax walked the first three batters and told him, according to Koufax's autobiography, to "take the grunt out of the ball." According to Sherry, via Leavy, what he actually said was "Let 'em hit it." Take something off and let them hit it. Koufax, pissed off, did just that, in part to show Sherry how wrong he was.

And he struck out the side.

Back in the dugout, Sherry told him: "Sandy, I'm not blowing smoke up your rear end. But you just now threw harder trying not to than you did when you were trying to."

Something zen in that. Something zen about Koufax. The book attempts to probe his inscrutability. It lauds both his quest for perfection and his dislike of fame and celebrity—positing both against our sorry times—but, to me, the key to his success, and thus his meaning, is in this spring training game. The key is in finding the balance. Between force and not-force, pressure and not-pressure. Between wanting it too much and not wanting it at all. Maybe that's true of all things.

Chapter 12 is my favorite. The '63 World Series. When Koufax entered the national stage and ushered the Yankees off it. By '63 the Yankees were as common an autumnal sight as yellow leaves. From 1949 to 1964, they were in the World Series every year but two—1954 (Indians) and 1959 (White Sox)—and they won most of them, including the two most-recent Series. And there they were again. And what does Koufax do? He strikes out the first five guys he faces: Kubek, Richardson, Tresh, Mantle and Maris. He sets a Series record (that lasted all of five years) by striking out 15, and the Yankees went down in four games. How often had this happened before? Never. Not to the Yankees. John McGraw's New York Giants had beaten them once 4-0-1 way back in 1922, and the Yankees themselves had swept their Series' opponents six times (1927, 1928, 1932, 1938, 1939 and 1950), but they themselves had never been swept. Until the '63 Dodgers. In that first, 15-strikeout game, the Yanks lost 5-2 and the remarkable thing is they never scored that much again, losing the next games: 4-1 (vs. Podres), 1-0 (vs. Drysdale) and 2-1 (vs. Koufax). Koufax's 1.50 ERA for the Series was actually the worst on the Dodgers' pitching staff. That's from me, not Leavy.

"Sandy Koufax" is a good book but not a great book. It's the Johnny Podres of books. You could say Leavy never finds the balance Koufax found. Between force and not-force, pressure and not-pressure. She commits the most forgivable of writerly sins: She wants it too much.

Posted at 08:51 AM on Thursday September 10, 2009 in category Baseball  
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