F e b r u a r y   2 0 0 3


Not a bad place for a broken heart
Up there with Koufax
by Mark Anderson

lear and vivid visions of my first broken heart came rushing back last month while reading Jane Leavy's current best-selling biography, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy."

Coast to coast: A youthful Sandy Koufax ushered the World Series west of the Mississippi, to the promised land of L.A. ["Young Koufax," by Mary Bergherr]

I was seven, it was 1965, they called him The Great Koufax and, in the World Series equivalent of painting two masterpieces – before and after getting your arm pummeled by a sack full of nickels – he shut out Minnesota in Game Five and Game Seven.

Eighteen innings, zero runs, two days of rest. The scant rest came after he'd skipped a game in favor of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays.

So they called him "Super Jew" and "The Left Arm of God," and put him on the cover of Life and Time magazines, too.

The 29-year-old Koufax mostly seemed unfazed. He favored basketball, yearned to be an architect and carried a tape deck in his briefcase to play music on the road, years ahead of Sony. He owned hotels and radio stations and was no teetotaler, but turned down offers to endorse alcohol and tobacco for money.

And he needed only two pitches: curveball and 100 mph. The fastball rose unexpectedly, the curve dropped off a cliff. Koufax retired at 30 to keep his left arm from falling off, then became the youngest ever voted into the Hall of Fame.

But all a seven-year-old knows is that baseball is everything, the wrong team lost and hearts can really get broken. Which is why, many years later, it felt good to read where somebody said, "A lot of people get on top and try to keep others down. Koufax tried to help everybody else get up there with him."

A man in motion: one foot planted in the quaint 1950s, the other kicking into the postmodern world. [AP/Wide World]

That's not a bad place for a broken heart.

Still, in 1965 the real story wasn't baseball, sports or even broken hearts. The story was a society grasping for civil rights and coveting greatness, while trying to learn the difference between knowing when to stick to one's guns, and when to know better.

Somehow it was all embodied by a Brooklyn-born Jew with one foot planted in the quaint values of the 1950s and the other kicking into a postmodern world.

That whole staggering saga, compellingly told, takes Leavy's book well beyond sports.

Leavy, a former Washington Post sportswriter, captures the vast and spectral era – the staid '50s and volatile '60s – a time when separate facilities for blacks were still commonplace, and baseball itself went from rather simple game to very big business. It was also a time when owners kept all the money and made all the rules – they'd banned black men as recently as 1947.

In 1955, after one season of college basketball, Koufax signed to pitch for his hometown Dodgers at $20,000. The minimum salary was $5,000. Ownership knew Koufax would put more Jews in the stands, but his veteran teammates were deeply resentful.

Meanwhile, Koufax fell victim to an insidious rule designed by the owners to keep themselves from bidding wars: Any youngster getting more than a $4,000 bonus had to stay with the major league team for two years. In other words, rather than gaining experience in the minor leagues, a raw and wild-throwing teen-age Koufax mostly languished on the bench for what eventually became the better part of six seasons.

Then, two years into his career and in what Leavy describes as the end of a time when you could walk through the adoring Brooklyn neighborhoods and hear every game coming out of radios galore, the Dodgers skipped town. The move ushered big-league baseball west of the Mississippi and into the promised land, or at least L.A.

Card carrying ace: The 1965 Topps version [nw drizzle archives].

That same year, Willie Mays and the Giants left Manhattan for San Francisco, clearly signaling that the country was shifting from a steeply eastward tilt to suddenly and undeniably level. With the help of the fledgling airline industry, the two coasts were joined in a way that radio, telephone and even railroad couldn't accomplish.

And while Koufax's first six seasons were a shrug, his second six are largely unmatched: more than 21 wins, 285 strikeouts and 19 complete games per summer, all amid a dizzying parade of Bay of Pigs, Berlin Wall, assassinations, Vietnam, space flights, Elvis, Doris Day, Malcolm X and Beatles.

These were heady times. By 1965, the Dodger Stadium scoreboard offered driving tips so fans could avoid the riots on their way home from the ballpark.

Then, in 1966 and before his final season and fourth World Series, and while owners still ran teams like plantations and the minimum salary had still only reached $7,000, Koufax went on strike.

After a protracted and well-publicized rift, Koufax and his right-handed sidekick, Don Drysdale, split a quarter-million dollars – effectively putting a first crack in the ridiculous dam that's evolved into the insane pro sports salaries of today. (That's a whole other story, although as a friend often reminds, it's got to be better now than when the owners kept all the money).

Koufax won 27 games after his strike, then retired. He'd been losing the feeling in his fingers, and his arm ballooned to twice its normal size after he pitched. Doctors warned that the damage could soon be permanent. Koufax feared that the painkillers were slowing his reactions to batted balls.

Jane Leavy strokes the winning hit.

But he tossed no-hitters in four of his last five summers, including a 1965 perfect game – a 27-up-27-down gem that forms the foundation of Leavy's book. Each inning of that 1-0 game (the Dodgers managed but one hit and scored on an error) gets its own chapter, with narrative chapters in between.

Leavy interviewed 500 Koufax contemporaries (speaking briefly with Koufax to gain tacit approval) and two remarkable things come clear: Baseball of the '50s and '60s was still American society's barometer, and the unique Koufax mystique endures to this day.

In the 35 years since, he's spent his time traveling, coaching, running marathons, learning to fly, driving a tractor, staying out of the spotlight and, as Koufax himself describes, living.

Mudcat Grant: Won 23 games in 1965, including World Series Game Six.

As for the broken heart, I followed that '65 season with a Minnesota vengeance. It wasn't my first, and Mudcat Grant, a good-natured, muttonchopped pitcher, was my favorite. Grant tapped his toe twice before every pitch and fronted an offseason nightclub act, Mudcat and the Kittens. He even hit a three-run homer while pitching the Twins to a win in Game Six.

But what I clearly remember is the afternoon of Game Seven. Frantic as I got let out of my second-grade classroom to end the day (it was the day-game era and my teacher, Miss Morgan, was obviously no fan), I ran down the block in search of anyone who knew the score. "They lost," someone yelled from a car, "2-0."

Then came the indescribable kicked-in-the-gut feeling that (fortunately) hasn't repeated itself all too many times since.

It was no surprise, then, a few years back when the editors of Sports Illustrated named their favorite sportsman of last century. Not Joe DiMaggio, not Babe Ruth. Not Micheal Jordan, not Wayne Gretzky. Not Arnold Palmer, Joe Montana, Jesse Owens, Pelé or Muhammad Ali.

Super Jew: Dodger Stadium drew 10,000 extra fans whenever Koufax threw.

They chose a gracious team player who strived for excellence, befriended without prejudice and carried the left arm of God.

Any time people question the overblown significance of spectator sports, it's worth remembering that athletics remains one reliable and fascinating way of comparing and quantifying the relative skills of humans at the top of given, practiced – and often entertaining – professions.

Add to that every so often, when a black man comes along to win gold medals at Hitler's Olympics, or another breaks baseball's color barrier with dignity, or a hockey team of amateurs beats the big, bad Russians and it happens again 20 years later. Or a guy opts for religion over baseball, achieves a quiet greatness, forever cracks open the bosses' vaults for himself and his mates, leaves at the top and never looks back.

That's when athletes and their sports become part and parcel with the real world – broken hearts be damned.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

site design / management / host: ae
© 2001-2006 nwdrizzle.com / all rights reserved.