In the early 1960s, legendary Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax was so much better than everyone else that other pitchers said he must have “come down from a higher league.” But Koufax’s supreme talent was matched only by his modesty. To this day, he politely declines interviews and shows no interest in having his life story recorded.
Edward Gruver’s Koufax is the first full-length bio of the southpaw Hall-of-Famer since Koufax’s own quickie autobiography in 1966. That was the same year Koufax quit the game after doctors told him he risked destroying his pitching arm. But, with Koufax’s continuing silence, Gruver’s book is as frustrating for its limitations as it is fascinating for its portrait of an athlete whose endurance of physical suffering was nearly superhuman.
In 1962, Koufax’s index finger was almost amputated due to a bizarre circulation problem. He pitched through the injury, even throwing the first of his four no-hitters. A year later, he developed arthritis in his elbow; his arm swelled to three times normal after each game he pitched. But pitch he did, 100-mph fastballs and wrenching curves that brought the Dodgers two World Series championships.
Gruver works his account of Koufax’s life — from Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn childhood to preternaturally quiet retirement — around a playback of the seventh game of the 1965 Series. Koufax threw a shutout on just two days’ rest, aching muscles doused with so much liniment that his teammates’ eyes burned when they got near him. But with Koufax himself absent from the book, we never really understand what drove him to defy the agony with the same fierceness with which he defied batters.
As a contribution to the art of biography, Koufax is far from awe-inspiring. But neither does it get in the way: In detailing the pitcher’s struggles against pain and his monumental achievements on the mound, Gruver shows a Sandy Koufax who still leaves you gaping in sheer wonder.
KOUFAX | By EDWARD GRUVER | Taylor Publishing 264 pages | $25 hardcover