Friday, April 10, 2009

Strike! You Never Heard of SANDY KOUFAX? by Jonah Winter

"You gotta be kidding!

You never HEARD of Sandy Koufax? He was only the greatest lefty who ever pitched in the game of baseball."

Jonah Winter's brand-new picture book biography plops us down in the bleachers right next to an old-time teammate, one who remembers those towering years when the Dodgers were the Brooklyn Dodgers and pitcher Sandy Koufax was an enigmatic rookie with a blazing fastball that he could barely control. In a era with larger-than-life characters--Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle--characters who were household names, sometimes flamboyant, sometimes heroic figures, Sandy Koufax was an anomaly, a player with amazing physical skills who had little to say about the game or his part in it.

Yet Koufax was a genuine American idol--a lanky Jewish kid in a sport where players of his faith were rare, a teen phenom who took years to come to his full powers, and finally a dominant figure on the mound who suddenly quit at the height of his game, still a mystery to his teammates and to his fans.

"Sandy kept to himself. Some of the guys didn't like him. He was one of the only Jews in baseball in those days. Some of the guys said some pretty lousy things behind his back."

Koufax seems to have gone out of his way to avoid personal conflict. Although he sat out a World's Series game to observe a religious holiday, earning a lot of grumbling from the fans, his main conflict seems to have been within himself. Early in his career Koufax was notorious for throwing harder--and wilder--than anyone.

"In '57 we moved to L.A. We'd been the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers; now what were we dodgin'--palm trees? Meanwhile the other teams were busy dodgin'...Sandy's pitches. In '58 he threw more wild pitches than any other guy in baseball.

Now you know what Sandy does? He throws his uniform into the trash--the pants, the blue socks, the number 32 jersey. Says nothin' to nobody. Just leaves. Quitsville.

[In the spring,] who do think shows up with a sheepish grin on his face? Kwano, the equipment manager, hands Sandy his uniform, which he'd yanked from the trash and says 'Here, I thought you might be needin' this.'"

If this was a fairy tale, Sandy woulda magically be great now. But this was no fairy tale."

Then after a disastrous spring season, in one of most dramatic comebacks in baseball, Koufax suddenly found his groove. Here's our old-timer's version of what happened:

"Then, in this one pre-season game against the Twins, he walks three guys in a row and loads the bases. Norm Sherry, the catcher, comes out to the mound. 'Kid, just put it over the plate. Let'm hit it. We got nine guys on this team who can field.' This time he's lookin' like he really heard it."

And, as we say, the rest is history. Koufax went on to pitch a no-hitter that day and in the next six years compiled an incredible batch of statistics--including a winning percentage of .655 per cent, the best of all time. As our veteran. philosophizing about the turnaround, says, "Sandy Koufax was a guy who finally relaxed enough to let his body do the one thing it was put on this earth to do. And what a thing of beauty that was."

Jonah Winter's You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!, colorfully narrated by his fictional eyewitness, captures the feeling of the time when baseball was truly the national sport and its heroes indeed seemed larger than life. Andre' Carrilho's bold hard-edged pencil and digital illustrations, beginning with the lenticular cover illustration which shows Sandy's delivery in action, take the story to a new level, capturing Koufax's unique persona and style perfectly. As Publishers Weekly puts it, "not just a homerun, but this book is a grand slam!"

Jonah Winter's other notable sports picture biographies include Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World.

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