A Jewish Lefty at 104 mph
Jude Wanniski
October 23, 2002


Memo To: Baseball Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Sandy Koufax

As a Brooklyn boy and a regular at Ebbets Field in the 1940's and 1950's before they move to LA, I could never root for the “hated Giants” in the World Series, unless they played the “hated Yankees,” in which case I would be forced to stick with the National Leaguers. So I have been rooting for the Anaheim Angels since they made the playoffs, because Anaheim is closer to LA than San Francisco and the Dodgers did not make it this year. In the games so far, I find myself thinking about Sandy Koufax every time a pitcher gets his fastball up to 98 mph, which I think is the fastest I’ve seen a pitch recorded this October. Maybe the pitch meters were not as accurate back in those days, but I remember Koufax routinely dished them up at 104 mph. In his penultimate season with the Dodgers, 1965, he pitched 335 innings and struck out 382 batters! There could be arguments back then on who was the best hitter, but no argument that Koufax in his final three seasons was the best of all time at what he did.

We never met, but were contemporaries in Brooklyn, he six months older than I, living few miles apart, he in Bensonhurst and the Wanniski’s in Borough Park. The biography just out, “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy, brings back memories of those those times and places. There were not many Jewish ballplayers in the majors. Other than Koufax I can think only of Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers, Al Rosen of the Indians, and Cal Abrams of the Dodgers. So it was not surprising when I found a splashy review of the book in this week’s Forward, which you can read online or just below. In a separate little story in the Jewish weekly I discovered that there have been 140 Jewish big leaguers in all, some of them playing only an inning or two. Only Sandy topped 100 mph.


How a Southpaw Wound Up Bigger Than Baseball
Reporter Jane Leavy Is Pitch-Perfect With Biography of Sandy Koufax

Baseball arguments are wonderfully passionate and never decisive, but it is hard to demur that during the last five years of his pitching career, 1962-1966, Sandy Koufax was the greatest baseball pitcher who ever lived. In 1963, 1965 and 1966, Koufax led the Los Angeles Dodgers into the World Series, and they won two of them, sweeping the Yankees in four games in 1963. Although Koufax won relatively few games, 165, before injury forced his premature retirement in 1966, an astounding 40 of those wins were shutouts. In 1972 the 36-year-old left-hander became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. "The greatest Jewish athlete since Samson" and "the culmination of 3,000 years of glorious tradition starting with Moses" were just two of the many accolades that came Koufax's way.

As his athletic achievements faded into history, Koufax's character and class continued to fascinate. The example of a Brooklyn-born Jew who refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur has played a great part in establishing Koufax's quiet heroism. That he wound up pitching two shutouts in that series against the Minnesota Twins, including the Game 7 clincher, has only added to the legend. But, except for an autobiography published upon his retirement and a brief career as a television baseball commentator, Koufax has shunned the limelight. He never enjoyed the attention bestowed upon a celebrity, and he treasures his privacy.

Until 1999, Koufax turned away all the aspiring writers who wanted to delve into his story. Then veteran sportswriter Jane Leavy presented her case. Leavy (pronounced "Levee"), is a native of Roslyn, Long Island, who grew up a Yankee fan. "I even prayed in temple for Koufax not to pitch against the Yankees," Leavy told the Forward. Leavy's grandmother Celia Zelda Fellenbaum bought Leavy her first baseball glove and lived near Yankee Stadium in an apartment house that had stained-glass windows with crossed baseball bats in the lobby.

But when Leavy became a Washington Post sportswriter in the 1980s, she was bitten with the Koufax bug. Following his example, she started not to work on Yom Kippur and grew ever more fascinated with his story. In making her case before Koufax in an interview that felt more like an audition, she told him that she wanted to write not a biography per se, but a social history of how his career in baseball, from its fitful start in the mid-1950s to its meteoric success in the 1960s, was a precursor to changes in both baseball and American society.

Koufax reluctantly agreed, but only on the condition that she abide by his strict ground rules. "If you must do it, I want you to do it right," he said. Leavy was not to interview his closest living relatives, his two ex-wives or his current significant other. He would provide a list of phone numbers of baseball people and personal friends who might have something useful to say. He would verify facts but nothing else. "It has to be your book, not mine," Koufax insisted.

Leavy accepted Koufax's terms, interviewing more than 450 of the people in Koufax's life. Her book, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," is a masterpiece of concise, often lyrical writing that is guaranteed to appeal to a broad audience. For the baseball scientist, there is a strikingly clear description of the physics of throwing a baseball. "It was like one muscle was throwing the ball," notes broadcaster Tim McCarver, who faced Koufax as a St. Louis Cardinal. There is a graphic description of the pain that Koufax endured during the "era of sacrificial lambs" when sports medicine had not begun and "draining, icing and waiting" were the only treatments available for Koufax's arthritic elbow.

For the baseball elegists, there are the thoughts of onetime American poet laureate Robert Pinsky, whose poem "Night Game" immortalized Koufax. (Pinsky reads with Leavy on the HarperCollins audiobook version of "A Lefty's Legacy.") For the baseball historian, Leavy spins a convincing narrative of Koufax's early struggles in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and his emergence as the future Hall of Famer, who before his last season in 1966 joined with fellow ace pitcher Don Drysdale and refused to sign a contract until the Dodgers improved their salary offers. It became a significant prelude to the growth of the strong Major League Baseball Players Association. One of the special aspects of Leavy's book is her treatment of 1950s Brooklyn, where Koufax came of age —— it "holds my youth," in Koufax's pithy words. Of his Bensonhurst, Leavy writes, "It was the hamlet in which 'The Honeymooners,' Ralph and Alice, lived, and where the Koufaxes settled. It was a neighborhood of lower middle-class Italians and Jews [whose] parents were just as likely to read Il Progresso and the Jewish Daily Forward as the Daily News and the New York Post." A natural athlete whose greatest gifts were for basketball, Koufax had no clear idea then of the future. "To be successful and make my parents proud," were the unrevealing goals he expressed in his 1953 Lafayette High School yearbook.

Koufax was clear on what he didn't want, in part because of his adored grandfather, Max Lichtenstein, a plumber with socialist leanings who once walked out of a Con Edison job because the factory gates reminded him too much of the Russia from which he had fled. "Sandy and I didn't want to be straphangers and go on the subway every day," says Fred Wilpon, the New York Mets owner who actually was a bigger baseball star at Lafayette High School than Koufax, and one of Leavy's essential sources.

Digging deeply into the true story of Koufax's slow development, Leavy has discovered that Koufax entered the University of Cincinnati not on a basketball scholarship, as widely believed, but as a regular student who made the basketball team after a tryout. He tried out for baseball in the spring because the coach of both teams was the same man, Ed Jucker, and baseball promised a spring trip to Florida, a more appealing choice than returning to Brooklyn.

When it became clear that Koufax had the raw talent worthy of a professional chance, his family accepted the offer of a bonus contract from the hometown Dodgers. Although other teams belatedly tried to enter the bidding, Irving Koufax, Koufax's stepfather, had pledged his word to the Dodgers. In a letter that is still framed and prominent in Los Angeles Dodgers offices, Irving wrote, "Sandy doesn't say much because he feels he has yet to prove himself, but I know he is proud to be a 'Dodger' and that he will not throw this opportunity away."

As Leavy told a Brooklyn bookstore crowd on a rainy night last month, "I would have loved to meet his parents because they raised him so well."

Lee Lowenfish last wrote for the Forward in June 2001 about the Brooklyn Cyclones and the return of professional baseball to Brooklyn.