Baseball heroes are endangered species these days. The steroids scandals alone have tarnished the reputations—and records—of some of the game's most high-profile players. So, when choosing projects for full-fledged sports bios, editors often cast a moist glance into baseball's golden past. Recent triumphs in the field include Richard Ben Cramer's DiMaggio, David Maraniss's Lombardi and Mark Kriegel's Namath. Jane Leavy's book on Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger Sandy Koufax, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy took a fresh look at a legendary player and scored big with readers. David Hirshey, executive editor at HarperCollins, shares his thoughts on the editing of that book.
There are so many sports bios that lionize their subjects. How did you and Jane Leavy make sure this was a human story?
David Hirshey: Though Sandy Koufax had "written" an autobiography in the '60s, it revealed nothing more than he had been born in Brooklyn, played some baseball and was really good at it. So the opportunity to do a serious Koufax biography was out there and it was just a matter of finding the perfect writer. As a sportswriter myself in the late '70s, early '80s, I had become friendly with Jane Leavy of the Washington Post and knew Koufax had long been a passion of hers. Jane had an interesting take on Koufax that went beyond the conventional wisdom of the reclusive tortured artist of the pitching mound who was a role model to a generation of Jews whether they were baseball fans or not. By holding up a mirror to his storied career, which he walked away from so young and at the top of his game, Jane made the case, elegantly and poignantly, why Koufax stands apart, a true legend who declined his own celebrity.
How much did you know about Sandy Koufax yourself?
DH: Having grown up as a Jewish kid in New York in the '60s and followed baseball, I obviously knew what Koufax was capable of on the field but my father never let me forget how important he was off the field, no more so than when he refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur. Years later, when my father learned that I was preparing to play in a college soccer game on the High Holy Day, he called me up and barked, "If Sandy Koufax could sit out on Yom Kippur, certainly my son can."
The world of sports has changed in many ways since the Koufax heyday. It's a big business now; there are frequent drug-related scandals (Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco, etc.). Did the nostalgia factor in the Koufax story help sell the book to readers who are embarrassed by those scandals?
DH:I think the idea that Koufax embodied a time of greater purity and integrity in sports certainly appealed to readers. In a way, I've always thought of this book as the Jewish Seabiscuit, because it captured the passion and lore of an era when people could believe in a hero and that hero delivered. Of course, if you want the opposite, may I recommend Jose Canseco's book (Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big)?