10 Things to Learn from Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy

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Looking at Clayton Kershaw, I imagine he’s close to being this generation’s Sandy Koufax, both being left-handed Dodgers strike-out kings. As long as Kerhaw doesn’t lose velocity like Tim Lincecum of the Giants or deal with injuries like Koufax, there’s no reason why he won’t be one of the best ever. Jane Leavy’s Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy is an excellent biography of the Jewish superstar, and here are ten key things I learned about him:

1) Koufax held the ball aloft to show the proper grip on the curveball: between the middle and ring fingers with his middle finger resting inside the long seam of the ball. His thumb, index finger, and even his ring finger were largely superfluous. He threw his curve off his middle finger, karate-chopping the air, pulling down on the seams with uncommon force and friction, thus generating unprecedented spin. “When you push back up, you’ve got to bend your wrist, hook it, so your hand is almost inside your arm,” he explained. “You can’t throw it as hard. You can’t spin it as fast pushing up as you can pulling back down.” Pulling down also places less stress on soft tissue and prevents the ball from popping up into view. In photos, you can see his thumb sticking straight up as if hitching a ride.

2) ‘Look at that guy, he’s built like a Greek god.’ We looked. It was Koufax. He was sixteeen years old then.” “Nobody knew how strong Sandy was,” Buzzie Bavasi said. “Great upper body. Got it from his mother. Lovely woman.” Great lower body too. In a pickup basketball game at the YMCA, Cohen said, “he split his gym shorts, his thighs were so big. Cheap shorts.”

3) When he was growing up, baseball was neither Koufax’s dream nor his passion. His dream was to play for the New York Knicks. Wilpon was the sandlot star for whom a major league career was confidently predicted, the boy with all the tools, a polished pitcher at age sixteen who piqued every scout’s interest. Koufax was a tagalong. Sometimes he kept Wilpon company when he was summoned to Ebbets Field to throw batting practice. The Dodgers made Wilpon an offer; he does not remember how much. “Everybody got an offer,” he says.

4) As for throwing behind the barracks, everyone did—that’s where the string area was. Joe Pignatano caught him in the spring of 1955. “Everybody said, ‘Sandy’s wild, wild, wild,’” Pignatano said. “He was not that wild. A little high and low in the strike zone. Once they put that tag on you it stays with you. They never stayed with Sandy long enough to give him a chance until later when they had nobody else.”

5) Drysdale came sidearm; Koufax came over the top. Drysdale’s ball beat you up, Koufax’s rose to greet you. “Drysdale was like going to the dentist without Novocain,” Joey A. liked to say. “Sandy had the Novocain.” Facing him was painful only in retrospect.

6) Though he was a heavy smoker and the surgeon general’s report on tobacco hadn’t yet been released, he would not be photographed smoking a cigarette. In an era when caution labels were not yet required reading, he refused to endorse either tobacco or alcohol. He did a sweater ad. He owned a piece of a motel on the Sunset Strip, Sandy Koufax’s Tropicana Inn.

7) In the spring of 1966 to say of a man he’d a played for nuthin’ was the ultimate accolade and the ultimate fiction. They played for money, just a lot less of it. The conceit of mercenary selflessness is a fin de siècle construct, a gauzy, revisionist mythology which allowed fans to think better of their heroes and owners to keep salaries down. When spring training camps opened that February, the minimum player salary was $7,000—one thousand dollars more than it was when Koufax signed with the Dodgers in 1955. Winning mattered. World series checks weren’t just latte money.

8) The Dodgers not only counted on him to win, they counted on him to make them all better, to infuse even the most modest among them with his quiet bravado. If he was bullet-proof, so were they. He wasn’t exaggerating when he told Ron Fairly late in the season, referring to rookie Jim Barbieri, “If I pitch well from here on out, I can double the man’s income.” And when a television network offered him $25,000 to film a documentary on a day in his life, he said he would do it for $35,000—and only if $1,000 was given to every member of the team and coaching staff.

9) Doctors were injecting steroids directly into the elbow joint. Once he had an adverse reaction. He was lying on the training table when infielder Jim Lefebvre walked in. “His arm, it was, like, twice the size,” Lefebvre said. “It was like a boil. I looked at him and I said, ‘Oh, my God, your season’s over.’ He looked at me and he goes, ‘No, no, Frenchie, it’s too late in the season. I won’t miss my start.’ And he didn’t.”

10) On September 9, 1965, Sandy Koufax and Bob Hendley pitched one of the best baseball games ever played. Hendley pitched a one-hitter, the game of his life, and lost on a young catcher’s error. The only run scored on a walk, a sacrifice, a stolen base, and a bad throw. As Scully said, “The only hit, you almost couldn’t dignify as one.” Hendley’s teammate, Ken Holtzman, calls it “the greatest loss in baseball history.”

10 Thing to Learn from The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood

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As a kid, I became a baseball encyclopedia – I clipped baseball statistics from newspapers, read baseball cards, and even knew all the names of the baseball stadium. Today, with online access to anything ever known about baseball available within seconds, it’s no longer important to be such baseball nerd (or historian). Even then, however, for whatever reasons, I was not such a big fan of Mickey Mantle. Perhaps because he didn’t have the homerun record like the Babe. He didn’t have a crazy hitting streak like Joe DiMaggio. Or maybe it was simply because he was a Yankee, and I was a Giants fan.

This started to change when I watched 61, a great movie about Mantle and Roger Maris’ chase of the single season home run record in 1961.

And then last year, I read Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, a great look at the real (a great friend, terrible husband and father) man, as well as the player that he was (amazing) and the player that he could have easily been (if not for Joe DiMaggio), through both his faults and brilliance.

Here are 10 things worth remembering from the book about Mickey Mantle:

1) When he retired, Mantle’s 536 career home runs placed him third in major league history. Thirteen of them were game-ending homers. His 1964 World Series home run off Barney Schultz, a “walk-off” home run in the current vernacular, broke Babe Ruth’s series record. Ten times, he collected more than 100 walks; nine straight seasons, he scored 100 or more runs; four times, he won the American League home run and slugging titles. He collected 2,415 hits, batted .300 or better ten times, won three MVP Awards, and appeared in twenty All-Star Games. He scored more runs than he drove in (1,677 to 1,509).

2) Compounding Stengel’s befuddlement was the disconnect between Mantle’s power and his actual size. At only five feet eleven and maybe 185 pounds, he wasn’t big at all. Yankee pitcher Eddie Lopat was first to observe, “That kid gets bigger the more clothes he takes off.”

3) His teammates barely recognized him when he reported for spring training with the Class C Joplin Miners in 1950. “What the hell did you do?” demanded Steve Kraly. He looked like a blacksmith and sprinted like a cheetah. “The ground shook when he ran by,” Jack Hasten said.

4) He knew what his doctors could not— he was never the same after the 1951 World Series [his rookie season]. Straightaway, he could still fly down the line, his fanny getting lower with each step. But he knew he had lost lateral movement, the ability to change directions, to cut and run. And he didn’t tell Frank Sundstrom, the young surgeon who took the preoperative history, how much pain he was in until after the operation.

5) Yankee bon vivant Don Larsen summed up the big league ethos: “You got to have a little fun, for God’s sakes. You’re going to play in big cities and watch TV? Or go to movies? Those weren’t even invented.”

6) No one in baseball thought Mantle’s drinking was exceptional because it wasn’t. He could quit when he wanted to and “handle it”—baseball’s ultimate praise—when he had to. He always took Stengel’s preseason admonition to heart: “Son, you’re the Yankees now.”

7) Every day, Mickey would go by DiMaggio’s locker, just aching for some word of encouragement from this great man, this hero of his. But DiMaggio never said a word. It crushed Mickey. He told me he vowed right then that if he ever got to be a star, this never would be said of him.”

8) But when Mantle’s monument was unveiled in center field in 1996 at a ceremony emceed by Billy Crystal, DiMaggio actually punched him in the stomach because he failed to introduce Joe D. as “Baseball’s Greatest Living Player.”

9) He told her that often when Mutt and Lovell went out to a Friday-night barn dance, her teenage daughter, Anna Bea, babysat for her half siblings. He was four or five years old when she began molesting him, pulling down his pants and fondling him while her friends, “teenagers and older,” giggled and smirked. “They started playing with him,” Merlyn told me. “And, of course, he got an erection. They laughed at him. He remembered how embarrassed he was.” That was the only time they ever spoke about it. “It could have been why he turned out the way he did,” she told me.

10) He was more energy-efficient as a right-handed hitter but his posture, batting left-handed, was more classical. Right-handed, he stood upright; left-handed, he assumed a feral crouch. Right-handed, his swing was compact; left-handed his swing was like a storm, a vicious prairie updraft.