I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and am old enough to remember Sandy Koufax, but clearly there are many young people, including baseball fans, who have never heard of him. This picture book biography seeks to bring Koufax front and center for young fans. The book opens as follows:
You gotta be kidding! You never heard of Sandy Koufax?! He was only the greatest lefty who ever pitched in the game of baseball.
The narrator is an unidentified Dodgers teammate who talks in an informal, folksy, style. We learn about Koufax growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, where "he was supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer." But Sandy was a fantastic athlete, great at basketball as well as baseball. Soon the baseball scouts come "sniffin' around," and the 19-year old Koufax is signed to the Dodgers. But Koufax wasn't a great pitcher right away. Some of the guys didn't like him, both because he kept to himself and because he was Jewish, and his pitching was erratic, setting records for wild pitches. In fact, Koufax even quits the team, but soon enough is back at spring training. But finally Koufax hits his stride, striking out player after player, throwing so hard his hat falls off. But fame and success come with a price; his elbow swells so badly after each game that he has to ice it and constantly take painkillers.
Author Jonah Winter tells, of course, the famous story of how Koufax sat out the 1st game of the 1965 World Series--his turn to pitch--because it fell on the Jewish High Holy Days, when "if you're Jewish, you ain't supposed to work...Sandy sits out the game to show he's proud to be Jewish, and to set a good example...and becomes an even bigger hero to American Jews."
And when he's at the top of his game, he startles the baseball community by retiring. It was that, or lose the use of his arm.
Winter doesn't try to make Koufax into a warm and fuzzy guy--instead, he concentrates on his journey and special talents as a pitcher. The illustrations in the book by Portuguese illustrator Andre Carrilho are extraordinary; done in graphite on paper, with color and texture added on the computer, they capture the speed, power, and grace of Koufax on the mound.
The book includes sidebars filled with statistics as well as factoids such as a list of famous Jewish baseball players.
This book has received a number of well-earned awards, including Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Young Readers, "Top of the List" award from Booklist as the best children's non-fiction book of 2009, Booklist "Editor's Choice," and ALA Notable Book, and honors from Kirkus and Parents Magazine.
Useful links: interview with author Jonah Winter about this book .