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Conversation: "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy"

October 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: On September 9, 1965, Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers threw a perfect game. 27 men came up to bat; 27 men went down– no runs, hits, walks, or men on base. The Dodgers beat the Cubs 1-0, and would go on to take the World Series. It was Koufax’s fourth no- hitter, a feat which cemented his place as the greatest pitcher of his era, and, some would argue, of all time. The famously reclusive Dodger is captured in a new book, “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.” The author is sportswriter and novelist Jane Leavy. Jane, welcome to the broadcast.

JANE LEAVY: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: What made Sandy Koufax so special, both as a pitcher and a person?

JANE LEAVY: You know, Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate, probably put it better than anyone else. He said, “his triumphs surpassed mere success,” which is why Robert was poet laureate, and I’m not. It really summarizes how Koufax comported himself, both on and off the field. Certainly he is known to every bar mitzvah boy and every bat mitzvah girl in America as the pitcher who refused to pitch the opening game of the World Series in 1965 because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. But he also was different in the way he left the game. He walked away at age 30, rather than hang on and make the money that the Dodgers surely would have paid him to pitch another year. But it was an act of imagination and of a real human being to say, “I can imagine a life as full and as whole after baseball as the one I have led in baseball. But in order to lead that life I need to be whole. I want to be able to button my shirt. I want to be able to comb my own hair.” And so he walked away.

TERENCE SMITH: And you should explain that he did so because he had, what, terrible arthritis.

JANE LEAVY: What they called it in those days was traumatic arthritis, and he injured his arm sliding back into second base in August, 1964. It was never the same after that. But sports medicine was really medieval in those days. All they had was ice, which was a new innovation in keeping swelling down, and they could shoot the cortisone directly into his elbow joint. And they put on this stuff called Capslun, a paste made of red hot chili peppers that smelled so bad and burned so much that when Jim Kott went to shake his hand in the 1965 World Series, he had to run away. It felt like camphor. And he said he couldn’t be near him, and he just walked away.

TERENCE SMITH: In the book you paint a world, an America, and a game of baseball that’s really quite different from what we see today.

JANE LEAVY: Well, that game on September 9, 1965, was pitched three weeks after the riots in Watts began, the worst racial rioting in United States history. In fact, there were flames still in Los Angeles. And one of the rookies who flew in to play for the Cubs that night saw Los Angeles in flames from the airplane, and thought the city had been bombed. And it was also September 9, 1965, the day that Major League Baseball announced that the opening game of the World Series would be played on Yom Kippur. The game was not televised. There was no local television of baseball games, home games. Walter O’Malley, the Dodger owner, wanted people to come to the stadium.

TERENCE SMITH: And buy tickets.

JANE LEAVY: And buy tickets. And it’s the same reason that there were no water fountains in the state, even when it first opened. You know, he wanted people to come and buy beer. I don’t think they sold water then. And radio broadcasts were not routinely recorded. It was not, in fact, until the ninth inning of this game that Vince Scully, the legendary sportscaster, actually called the radio technicians and said, “you know, Sandy is pitching a perfect game. You might want to turn on the tape recorder.”

TERENCE SMITH: We can get to that in a minute. But even before that, you came across, in your research, some film footage of this game, quite rare.

JANE LEAVY: Yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: So talk about that, and take us back to that night, September 9, 1965.

JANE LEAVY: Well, once Sandy took the mount that night, he was making his sixth attempt to win his 22nd game of the season. They were worried about him. He had already told his friend, Phil Collier, the beat writer for the San Diego Union–a great baseball writer–that he intended to retire after the ’66 season. That’s how much his elbow hurt. And when he went to the mound, Dodger trainers and coaches were worried. Why hadn’t Koufax won? And if Koufax didn’t win, they weren’t winning the pennant.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

JANE LEAVY: So they gave the trainer, a man named Bill Bueller, a 16-millimeter Bell and Howell camera–state-of-the-art technology at the time–and three minutes of film. And they said, “go stand behind the umpire. Go stand back there where, you know, you’re not supposed to be, and shoot Koufax’s motion.” And since he had so little film, what he did actually was cut between every pitch.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s what we see, which is pitch after pitch, in this wonderfully fluid motion.

JANE LEAVY: Right. And what you can see, ironically– he didn’t intend this, I don’t think– but you can see how each motion replicates the one before. And of course, that is what made Koufax perfect, the ability to replicate a motion in infinite space, exactly the same way, over and over again. So Bill Bueller is standing back there, and around the second inning, an usher who patrolled that very important real estate behind home plate came and said, “get out. You’re in violation of the fire rules. The fire marshal is going to ban you. Get out.” And, you know, Bill said, “I don’t want to leave. I’m the trainer and this is Dodger equipment. Why should I go?” The guy said, “if you don’t go, I’m calling the Vice President.” And he did call the Vice President. And the Vice President came and ordered Bill Bueller to leave.

TERENCE SMITH: So we don’t have film, but we do have the recording– you came across this as well– the recording of Vince Scully as he calls the very last play. Let’s listen to this.

SPORTSCASTER: Two and two to Harvey Keene. One strike away. Sandy into his windup. Here’s the pitch. Swung at and missed! A perfect game! ( Cheers )

TERENCE SMITH: There you go. I mean, you can really hear it and sense the excitement.

JANE LEAVY: Well, you know what’s amazing about this, Terry, is, it is probably statistically the best baseball game ever pitched. The other guys in that game… Bob Henley pitched a one-hitter, the game of his life, and lost. Statistically, baseball lunatics will tell you it has several things that distinguish it. It’s the only no-hitter in baseball history where the other pitcher pitched a no-hitter.

TERENCE SMITH: A one-hitter.

JANE LEAVY: Thank you, a one-hitter. Thank you. It’s the only game in which only 53 men all together came to bat. It is the only game in which there was only one man left on base. It is the only game in which there were only two base runners, both of whom, by pure chance, happen to be Lou Johnson, who scored the only run of the game on a walk, a sacrifice, a steal, and an error.

TERENCE SMITH: So it was very special– as is, obviously, Sandy Koufax. But he is a very private man, and I gather… tell me what his reaction was when you came to him and said you wanted to do a book about him.

JANE LEAVY: He said, “I’d rather you didn’t.” He referred…

TERENCE SMITH: But…

JANE LEAVY: I’m sorry, go ahead.

TERENCE SMITH: But he did ultimately cooperate to some degree.

JANE LEAVY: He refers to this as an “unauthorized biography by a neat lady,” which I immediately told my husband is going on the tombstone, because nobody ever calls me a lady.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

JANE LEAVY: He said he’s not a man who wants to live in the past, certainly not his past. And I think he realizes that when do you that as an athlete, which so many of them do, that you’re… it’s a form of cannibalizing yourself. And in order to not do that, he prefers not to indulge in personal public retrospection. But what he said was, when I explained the kind of book I was trying to write, he would give me access to his friends– which he did– and he would verify biographical facts, so I could go back and check things with him, which meant that I had informed cooperation, if not complete cooperation.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And finally, briefly, Sandy Koufax today: What’s he doing? How is he?

JANE LEAVY: He’s a happy man, and he is living in Vero Beach, Florida, which was the first hint, frankly, that he was not the man, not the recluse everybody says. If you hate baseball, and if you hate what you were in baseball, you don’t live ten minutes from Dodger Town, the spring training address du jour. He’s the kind of guy who shows up for teammates. He was the ultimate teammate. When Don Sutton was a rookie, it was Sandy’s last year, 1966. And when Sutton became eligible for the Hall of Fame, he asked Koufax to come to his ceremony, so he could thank him publicly for teaching him how to be a ball player. Two weeks later, the Dodgers held another ceremony on the field at Dodger Stadium. They forgot to invite Koufax. His invitation never arrived. No mention of him in the script. Here he comes– he walks on the field, surprising everybody — paid his own way. Don Sutton looks at him and says, “what are you doing here?” Sandy says, “How could I not come? You’re the only 300-game winner I ever played with.”

TERENCE SMITH: What a great story. The book is “A Lefty’s Legacy.” Jane Leavy, thanks so much.

JANE LEAVY: Thank you, Terry.