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Arts & Culture Author of Sandy Koufax Biography Didn’t Grow Up Fan of the Jewish Star

October 22, 2002
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As a kid, Jane Leavy was an anomaly — a Jewish baseball fan who didn’t root for Sandy Koufax.

Blame her grandmother, who lived around the corner from Yankee Stadium and bought Leavy her first baseball glove.

“She was the woman who supported, with her grandmotherly tolerance, my infatuation with baseball,” Leavy says.

In fact, Leavy says she snuck her glove into High Holiday services and prayed that Koufax, pitching for the Dodgers, wouldn’t hurt the Yankees if the two teams met in the World Series.

During the past few years, Leavy, a longtime sportswriter, learned a lot more about Koufax — originally signed as “the great Jewish hope” by the Dodgers when they were still playing in heavily Jewish Brooklyn — as she researched a biography of him.

But “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” isn’t a typical biography.

Leavy, a longtime sports writer who lives in Washington, details the outlines of Koufax’s life — his childhood in Brooklyn and nearby Long Island; his mediocre early years with the Dodgers, as he struggled to control his wild pitching; and his outstanding five years between 1961 and 1966, when he had five of the greatest years any baseball pitcher has ever enjoyed before retiring because of a sore arm.

As part of her novel approach to the craft of biography, Leavy alternates chapters of Koufax’s life with an inning- by-inning description of Koufax’s perfect game in 1965, as told by fellow players, fans and friends.

But as she crafts the biography, Leavy makes it clear that she is as interested in the light that Koufax’s life sheds on U.S. history in the 1950s and 1960s — as a Jewish athlete emerges as one of America’s greatest sports heroes.

Indeed, Leavy goes beyond the famous Yom Kippur story — when Koufax refused to pitch in the first game of the 1965 World Series because it would have forced him to pitch before sundown on the Jewish calendar’s holiest day – – to explore Koufax’s Jewishness.

Koufax, who was raised by his stepfather, mostly grew up in a Brooklyn milieu where “you were Jewish because you were from Brooklyn,” said Gloria Marshak Weissberg, a classmate of Koufax’s at Lafayette High School.

“The schools closed on the holidays because the teachers were all Jewish. You were Jewish by osmosis.”

During his career, Koufax encountered a lot of anti-Semitism.

In one incident, Koufax and the Dodgers were stuck in a bus in Miami with no air conditioning.

As Carl Erskine, a fellow Dodgers pitcher, told the story to Leavy, the players “were moaning and mumbling, and Billy Herman was one of our coaches, who was a Hall of Famer. And after a while, he yells out, real loud, ‘You can give this damn town back to the Jews.’ And Sandy’s sitting right across the aisle, you know? And all of us are, ‘Oh Billy.’ So after a few minutes of silence, Sandy, in a real soft voice, says, ‘Now, Billy, you know we’ve already got it.’ “

Like slugger Hank Greenberg in the 1930s and 1940s and Shawn Green, a contemporary Jewish star for the Dodgers — “by honoring his tradition and acknowledging his tradition, while not really discussing it, he certainly enhanced and made it easier for other people to identify themselves proudly as Jews. And at the same time, he broadened the cultural image of what a Jew is,” Leavy says of Koufax.

His staunch resolve in the face of anti-Semitism is typical of the portrayal of Koufax that comes through in the book — as a man of quiet dignity and modesty.

In the biography, Leavy refuses to discuss much of Koufax’s personal life, including his two failed marriages.

“There’s a certain level of dignity that he comported himself with, and I thought it behooved me” to uphold his privacy, she says.

And even before she began writing the book, Leavy realized that Koufax had affected her.

While covering the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Yom Kippur in 1983, Leavy realized she had learned more from Koufax than she had previously thought. Although working on deadline, she walked out of the press box — and hasn’t worked on Yom Kippur since.

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