Endsley, Brian M. Finding the Left Arm of God: Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers, 1960-1963. Jefferson, ND: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015. Pp. 296. Bibliography, Notes, and 64 Photos. $29.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
Even the most casual fan of American sports history is no doubt familiar with the name Sandy Koufax: particularly his decision to not pitch on Yom Kippur, which fell on the day of the first game of the 1965 World Series (against the Minnesota Twins). Indeed, this choice has been hailed extensively ever since, even by President Barrack Obama at a 2010 White House visit by the retired hurler for an event honoring Jewish American Heritage Month. While Jane Leavy’s magnificent 2002 biography, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy proffers an excellent analysis of the Hall-of-Famer’s life and times, the goal of Brian M. Endsley’s work, Finding the Left Arm of God, has more modest intentions. Here, the author seeks to follow up on another of his McFarland publications, Burns no More, a tome on the 1959 Dodgers world championship season (in which Koufax was quite pedestrian—by his later standards—with an 8 and 6 mark and an ERA of over 4.00) and to detail Koufax’s transformation from a “thrower” who had been 36-40 (prior to 1960), to one of the greatest pitchers ever; who would, over his remaining seven seasons, go 129-47 (for a total of 165-87). In twenty chapters, subdivided into the seasons between the end of 1959 and 1963 World Series, Endsley accomplishes his task by introducing readers to key players and events that reshaped a young man with an also-ran mark into an immortal.
Endsley proffers readers substantive background into most of the players who would don Dodger blue during Koufax’s transformative years;=, giving fairly extensive personal histories of players such as Frank Howard, Willie Davis, Maury Wills, and many others. Of particular significance, especially for those who are more “SABR-metric” in their inclination, is the author’s discussion of the influence of Alan Roth upon Koufax’s career. The role of this individual, one of the first to keep such meticulous statistics, provided Koufax with a sense of how he was not taking advantage of opponents, particularly against left-handed hitters (p. 67). Combining Roth’s insights with the work of pitching coach Joe Becker (such as altering his grip on a curve ball as well as slight modifications to his pitching motion), Koufax began to turn the corner. A final element took shape in March of 1961 thanks to the discernment of backup catcher Norm Sherry, who advised his room- and battery-mate to “take the grunt out of the fastball” during a spring training outing in Orlando (p. 69-70). As a result, Koufax recalled that “I came home a different pitcher from the one who had left [Vero Beach]” (p. 70). Of course, the turnaround was not instantaneous and there were troubles still ahead. In 1960, an often-times wild Koufax was not used regularly and had requested a trade. In 1961, his mark improved to 18-13 and his ERA declined to 3.52. Further, he would pitch the first of his starts against another prodigy, Bob Gibson. In sum, the 1961 campaign, though ending in disappointment for the Dodgers, foreshadowed great things for Koufax (and Los Angeles). Not only did they leave behind the “Cement Prison” of the Coliseum, but they challenged the Reds almost until the end of the season.
The 1962 season opened with much promise, including the first game at Chavez Ravine. Koufax would have another impressive season, 14-7 with an ERA of 2.54, but it was also a year that went, as Endsley notes, “numb.” The chapters in this section detail the how Koufax suffered a nearly catastrophic injury against the Pirates in late April, the subsequent efforts to address the problems with his arm, and how the Dodgers’ season came apart at the very end versus the Giants. By the end of 1962, Koufax doubted his ability to return and had already begun to pursue other interests, including part ownership of the Tropicana Motor Hotel in Hollywood. Would 1963 turn out differently? Yes, it would as this season turned out to be among the greatest ever compiled by a Major League pitcher. Koufax went 25-5 and had an ERA of 1.88 and culminated in another World Series title for Los Angeles. Not all went smoothly, though, as Koufax did have shoulder issues, but overall it was a magical campaign that served as the first zenith of a Hall-of-Fame career.
While Endsley does a masterful job when writing about baseball, the book does have some flaws. At various points, the author goes beyond the field and attempts to contextualize the seasons with some of the major events taking place in the United States and the rest of the world. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this endeavor, as contextualization is critical to placing the story into the broader history. Unfortunately, Endsley’s endeavors to discuss the “Stop Kennedy” coalition, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem come across as quite “clunky” and ineffective. Certainly, it is imperative to bring in outside events for perspective, but Endsley’s efforts at this do not flow with the rest of the text and interrupt the narrative. The Diem mention, for example, is the very last paragraph of the text, not a particularly wise way to wrap up a book on Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers.
In summary, Finding the Left Arm of God is an effective examination of the transformation of one hurler’s career. Endsley’s work demonstrates the powerful impact of combining pure athletic talent, statistical analysis, and coaching in order to bring out the best in a player. If we overlook the contextualization issues noted previously, this is a highly informative and enjoyable work that baseball fans, both of the statistical and “regular” variety will surely enjoy.
Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) published by McFarland.