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A Home Run and a Slam Dunk in Two Must-reads

Nancy Sundstrom - March 6th, 2003
This past fall, two acclaimed books on sports arrived on the literary scene - one a biography about one of the legendary figures of baseball written by a respected female sports journalist, the other a memoir set against the backdrop of basketball penned by a best-selling author.
Respectively, they are “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy“ by Jane Leavy and “My Losing Season“ by Pat Conroy, and both are highly recommended by this reviewer, who, admittedly, is more of a sports enthusiast when it comes to the written word than I am a viewer and aficionado.
But both of these are such vivid depictions of so many different aspects of the two sports, that they transcend belonging to that genre.

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy

Leavy, an award-winning former sportswriter, feature writer for the Washington Post, and author of the comic novel “Squeeze Play,“ who has stated that this well-crafted profile is actually more of a social history of baseball, but that doesn’t seem to change the fact that the book serves both purposes well, especially since Koufax had such an amazing impact on the game.
In recreating the myth and the man who were equal parts of the southpaw pitcher, Leavy interviewed hundreds of people who knew him well, including Hank Aaron, Joe Torre, childhood friend and Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon, and even an old Dodgers equipment manager. Their stories are gems - Koufax capping off his first year by watching the 1955 World Series against the hated Yankees from the bench; heading from a historic Dodgers‘ victory at Yankee Stadium to class at Columbia University, where he was studying architecture; Koufax holding out for a more lucrative contract with Don Drysdale in 1966, creating the free agent system, and more.
Leavy has a wonderful feel for the material, especially in dissecting what made Koufax such an exceptional pitcher, as this excerpt from the chapter “Warming Up“ shows:

“He had come to see his body as a system for the delivery of stored energy, intuiting the principles of physics inherent in the pitching motion. This realization not only put him ahead of batters, it put him ahead of science. It would take decades for the gurus of biotech medicine to catch up. Later, when he had the time, he visited their labs and delved into their textbooks seeking proofs for what he knew empirically to be true. He learned to break down the pitching motion into its component parts and to put the science of motion into accessible language. He improvised drills using a bag of balls and a chain-link fence, giving impromptu clinics in the parking lot of Bobby‘s Restaurant in Vero Beach. He held whole pitching staffs in thrall with his knowledge - sitting, as John Franco of the Mets put it, “bright-eyed at his feet in the middle of the locker room like little boy scouts.“ His face changes when he talks about pitching. His eyes light up, his grammar comes alive ...“
Koufax had the five greatest consecutive seasons of any pitcher in major-league history, and from 1962-66, he lead the National League in earned-run average every year and won at least 25 games three times. He retired in 1966, due to an arthritic pitching arm, and pretty much eschewed the limelight thereafter. Leavy captures the essence of a man who was as misunderstood at times as he was revered, and plays it all out against a more innocent age in the game of baseball. If you love the sport or the subject himself, this is a must-read.

My Losing Season by Pat Conroy

“I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one. There was a time in my life when I walked through the world known to myself and others as an athlete. It was part of my own definition of who I was and certainly the part I most respected. When I was a young man, I was well-built and agile and ready for the rough and tumble of games, and athletics provided the single outlet for a repressed and preternaturally shy boy to express himself in public....I lost myself in the beauty of sport and made my family proud while passing through the silent eye of the storm that was my childhood.“ Conroy, one of America’s most beloved storytellers, is known for those sorts of simultaneously elegance and intense insights, and his latest book, his first non-fiction work in quite some time, he uses that introduction to began time traveling back to 1967 to the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, a now famous military college where Conroy came to the realization that “this season had been seminal and easily the most consequential of my life.“
Conroy, author of “The Water is Wide,“ “The Great Santini,“ “The Lords of Discipline,“ “The Prince of Tides,“ and “Beach Music,“ delivers a narrative that seamlessly melds that era of far more losses than wins with his childhood. His depiction of how his love of basketball and athletics formed the basis for some of his most crucial life lessons is uniquely Conroy’s, and universally every young man’s. And to see that and raise two, when he writes that “Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass,“ he speaks not only to those of the male persuasion, but to humankind, in general.
But as morally complex and often heartbreaking as I find Conroy’s ideas and analytic prowess, it is his style that I always find myself marveling at. In the opening chapter, “Before First Practice,“ for example, he creates the sights and smells of a college locker room and marries it to something larger:
“I made my way to the locker room early that afternoon because I wanted some time to myself to shoot around and think about what I wanted to accomplish this season. Four of my teammates were already dressed when I entered the dressing room door. The room carried the acrid fragrance of the past three seasons for me, an elixir of pure maleness with the stale smell of sweat predominant yet blended with the sharp, stinging unguents we spread on sore knees and shoulders, Right Guard deodorant spray, vats of foot powder to ward off athlete‘s foot, and deodorant cakes in the urinals. It was the powerful eau de cologne of the locker room. I realized that my life as a college athlete was coming to its inevitable end, but I did not know that you had to leave the fabulous odors of youth behind when you hurried out into open fields to begin life as an adult.“
Most of the writing in this book showcases Conroy at his most personal and insightful, and that is not to slight the masterful capturing of the games themselves, even when they go south. Make no mistake about it, “My Losing Season“ is a winner.


 
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