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When she was growing up Long Island, Washington author Jane Leavy made frequent forays to the Bronx to visit her bookkeeper grandmother—who wasn’t much of a baseball fan but was eager to indulge Leavy’s love of the game. And the woman was well-placed to feed that particular passion: Her building, the Yankee Arms, was in the shadow of Yankee Stadium and noted for its baseball-themed stained-glass window.
But Leavy’s grandmother went beyond the call of duty. During the Jewish holidays, she would sneak the little girl, her Sammy Esposito baseball glove, and a transistor radio into religious services—inside a mink coat that was two sizes two big, even when it was warm out. “Her proximity to the stadium and my completely unadulterated love of this woman fused into a passionate fandom,” Leavy recalls.
Although Dodgers pitcher and future Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was an idol for an entire generation of Jewish baseball fans, young Leavy saw him as the enemy. “My guys were Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle,” she says. “To me, Koufax was the guy who struck out 15 of my Yanks in the first game of the 1963 World Series.” It’s not without a sense of irony, then, that Leavy has become the first writer in more than three decades to publish a biography of Koufax.
Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy attempts to place Koufax within a socio-historical context—as a man whose career spanned just over a decade chronologically but was important to urban history, economics, and the culture of celebrity. Leavy’s toughest challenge, however, was trying to connect with Koufax himself, who was considered something of a recluse. So she was surprised to return home one day to find a voice message from him, responding to an inquiry she’d made about a book proposal.
“‘Ms. Leavy,’ he said. ‘This is Sandy.’ Then there was an awkward pause. ‘Uh, Koufax,’” Leavy recalls. “I was really struck by the nuances of this initial communication….It was clear that he was not really a formal guy. He was used to calling people up and just saying, ‘This is Sandy.’”
As it turned out, Koufax was calling to say that he had no interest in participating in the book. But he eventually added that if Leavy was committed to the project, he would be willing to serve as a resource for confirming facts, to allow her access to a few of his public appearances, and to give his friends the go-ahead to talk to her. Ultimately, Leavy triangulated Koufax from 469 interviews—with childhood friends, beat reporters, and ballplayers.
“I concluded that he is a smart, complex, idiosyncratic human being whose talent precluded him from doing the one thing wanted to be: regular,” Leavy says. “He has been described by many people as a shy man, but he’s not shy around people he knows. He’s quite warm and funny in those situations. He is just a man who chooses not to place himself in the way of every camera and microphone.”
Leavy, 50, became a minicelebrity herself as a member of one of the first generations of female sportswriters. She started out at WomenSports magazine—a doomed project bankrolled by tennis star Billie Jean King. In 1981, as a Washington Post reporter, Leavy broke the gender line for Canadian baseball locker rooms: Because no one had warned the Montreal Expos in advance, outfielder/first baseman Warren Cromartie was so surprised to see her that he dove under a buffet table.
Now, Leavy says, her 14-year-old daughter faces a much-changed world for women in sports. “I was a tomboy in an era when that was still a word with meaning,” she says. “But my daughter is a better athlete than I ever was, and she doesn’t have that same schism. She can go from sweats and disgusting sports clothes to nail polish in 30 seconds. When I was a kid, it was either/or.” —Louis Jacobson