By Bill Simons
Jane Leavy is the pre-eminent Jewish baseball biographer. Her biographies of three of baseball’s most iconic figures – “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” (2002), “The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created” (2018) and “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” (2010) – are classics of the game’s literature. During the 1950s, however, prevailing conventions for little girls and perceptions of personal frailty threatened to distance the young Jane Leavy from the sport she loved.
The apartment of Leavy’s beloved grandmother Celia Zelda Fellenbaum was close enough to Yankee Stadium to hear the crack of the bat. Mantle – The Mick – the best player on baseball’s most storied team was Jane’s favorite. It was not just the switch-hitting centerfielder’s tape-measure home runs and boyish, muscular good looks that attracted the little girl. Young Jane felt that she and her grandmother were bound to Mantle by shared physical vulnerability and pain leavened by the courage to soldier on. By mid-adolescence, chronic osteomyelitis racked Mantle’s legs and ankles. Jane found common bravery in her grandmother’s Yom Kippur fasting despite severe diabetes, which required daily insulin shots administered to the thigh, and Mantle playing through pain. Young Jane, born prematurely, also knew physical challenge. Still, she wanted to play the Mick’s game. And it was her grandmother who bought Jane a baseball glove.
Decades later, Leavy would acquire a more complex relationship with her childhood hero. During her ascent as a sportswriter and feature writer for The Washington Post, Leavy battled vulgar sexual harassment in baseball locker rooms, including a masturbating coach. Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s drugged her drink. As Leavy evolved into a major American biographer, she manifested the courage she had perceived in her grandmother and Mantle years before.
Research on Mantle brought Leavy into rude conflict with the idealized romanticism of her youth. During her first time alone with an inebriated Mantle, Leavy felt shock and dismay as his uninvited hand advanced up the inside of her right leg. Leavy was determined not to let this proceed, but it was Mantle’s drunken collapse into unconsciousness, with his face tucked into her lap, that brought closure to the session. Nonetheless, subsequent interviews with Mantle followed. Critics credited Leavy with chronicling the alcoholic, irresponsible, sexist man-child, while finding the courageous, generous and tormented Mantle.
Her position as a Jewish woman significantly influenced Leavy’s approach to Koufax. That Leavy produced a brilliant biography of Koufax is remarkable since he turned down interview requests and prohibited contact with relatives. Much that one would expect from a groundbreaking Koufax biography is absent. The reader learns little of Koufax’s biological father, mother, stepfather, stepsister, years as an only child, wives, military service, academic record or private thoughts. Yet, much of significance is revealed, setting Leavy’s work above other Koufax biographies. Leavy is candid but unapologetic about omissions, asserting, “You don’t need to know everything to write the truth. You just need to know enough.”
Despite the boundaries Koufax set, Leavy forged compensatory paths. Leavy conducted an astonishing 469 interviews, encompassing teammates, managers, opponents, friends, fans and a myriad of others. Koufax agreed to confirm biographical details.
Although not the recluse that other writers have fashioned, Koufax is a private man, spurring Leavy to locate places she could mine. As a woman and an outsider, Leavy dug deep, more so than previous writers, into areas either distorted or neglected. She meticulously analyzed Koufax’ biomechanical pitching perfection. Essentially, Koufax threw only two pitches, fastball and curveball. During his abbreviated career, Koufax, suggests Leavy, was arguably the most dominant pitcher in major league history. With a blinding fastball, dropping “12-to-6 curveball,” and acquired pinpoint control, Koufax totally overpowered batters.
Leavy casts Koufax’ September 9, 1965, perfect game as a Greek chorus, weaving it though nine interspersed chapters, each devoted to a single inning. There is a dramatic artistry to Leavy’s telling of this historic game that envelops the reader in the illusion of presence at a specific time and place. Moreover, she invests the tale of perfection with an empathetic humanity, granting the ill-fated Cubs’ losing pitcher Bob Hendley with dignity. In the best game of his pitching career, Hendley yielded but one hit and lost on an error.
Leavy values detail, truth and significance, attributes that shape her Koufax biography. She sets the Koufax story within the context of American history, exposes the full extent of the physical agony pitching placed on Koufax’s gifted but severely injured arm, vitiates the myth that Koufax was a loner and a host of other shibboleths, and marks the Koufax-Don Drysdale salary holdout as the genesis of the transformation of baseball labor-management relations. And she brings gravitas to discussion of Koufax’s Jewishness.
Previous commentators emphasized Koufax as a source of Jewish pride, anchored in his refusal to pitch on game one of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Rather than depicting Koufax as an exemplar of Jewish tradition, Leavy casts him as a reflection of evolving assimilation and acceptance. A secular, non-observant Jew, Koufax was not bar mitvahed, but he spent a dozen summers at the Jewish Camp Chi Wan Da and countless hours on the basketball court at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst. In Leavy’s words, Koufax was “more dutiful than devout,” cognizant of the expectations of his parents and his connection to the Jewish community. During his 12-year, MLB career, Koufax never pitched on the High Holidays, but, despite mythology, he did not necessarily attend religious services on those days. Leavy invests much import to Koufax as a counter to the image of the Jewish male as a physically underdeveloped, timid intellectual. Also, central to Leavy’s depiction is her insistence that Koufax’s commitment to social justice, manifested by his close relationship with Black teammates and battle to improve conditions of baseball labor, derived from his Jewish conscience. Leavy attributes an ethnic cultural affinity and sensibility to this “very Jewish being.”
Jane Leavy has set a high bar for Jewish baseball biography.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.