SI 60 Q&A: Tom Verducci on Sandy Koufax and 'The Left Arm Of God'
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the magazine's best stories. Today's selection was "The Left Arm Of God," from the July 12, 1999 issue, in which Tom Verducci went searching for Sandy Koufax. In this SI 60 Q&A with associate editor Ted Keith, Verducci explains what happened when he finally found Koufax, and what the story means to him today.
SI: The headline on the cover, which was about SI's 20 favorite athletes of the 20th century, was "The Incomparable and Mysterious Sandy Koufax." What drew you to this idea?
VERDUCCI: It was my idea for a number of years and then the millennium peg to it was the reason why we went ahead and did it. I always was fascinated by his career. I was too young to really remember his pitching but always studying his career line, it struck me as amazing. And it wasn’t that he was so great it's that he was so bad before he was so great. I wanted to understand that.
SI: Did you know about how difficult it would be to track him down?
VERDUCCI: No, I didn’t and that was part of the case if you will, not just to understand his playing career but to understand Sandy Koufax. People were saying to me, "He’ll never talk to you," which made it even more of a challenge. That became part of my personal interest in the story.
SI: How did you go about trying to find him?
VERDUCCI: I started reporting it in spring training, and I went to [his old house] in Maine in March or April, early spring. There were a bunch of people that I knew in baseball who were close with him so I started calling in those relationships with people like Fred Wilpon, Al Leiter, Joe Torre, Dave Wallace, and saying, "Can you help me get this guy to sit down and do the interview?" I was also always, No. 1, trying to get him to sit down and do an interview.
SI: A guy who doesn't want to be found who lives a quiet life up in New England: He kind of comes across in the story as the J.D. Salinger of baseball.
VERDUCCI: [Laughs.] After I was done writing the story -- it was being edited and it was close to closing -- I came home one day and my wife said that there was a message for me, somebody named Sandy Klufax had called. I’m thinking, oh my God, I liked the way the story had turned out, and now if the guy is now going to talk to me I’ve got to redo the story. He had left a number, so I called him back and he couldn’t have been more gracious. He basically explained that he didn’t want to do an interview, it was nothing personal against me, just his policy. We spent the next 45 minutes talking not about baseball but about college basketball. He’s a huge college basketball fan. [EDITOR's NOTE: Koufax played basketball at the University of Cincinnati.] At that point I was OK with that, because I was crazy about the idea of "What if I have to tear this thing up?"
SI: Do you think that story helped bring him back into the public eye a little?
VERDUCCI: He’s kind of been out in public a lot more since then. In fact, not long after that story ran I sat with him at a Baseball Assistance Team dinner in New York and he was just very cordial. It’s not like he’s a recluse at all, he just doesn’t want to do media interviews. SI had printed up copies of the cover to hand out to people at his table. They were getting them autographed, and I didn’t want to get it autographed because I was sitting right there. He signed it anyway and personalized it with a very nice note. It meant the world to me, and I heard he liked the story.
I just think Sandy Koufax is such a man of conviction. He is so comfortable with who he is that I don’t think one story is going to change who he is or how he acts. What I tried to do in the story also is, I really didn’t want people coming away thinking he was a recluse. He's a man of conviction. He’s not a recluse. He’s out and about. He comes back for the Hall of Fame ceremonies. The Dodgers have brought him back in the fold. At Dodger Stadium, he’ll show up. One of the things I really admired about him is that he’s a man of his convictions.
SI: If he wouldn't talk to you where did you get all those personal details about how he lived his life?
VERDUCCI: I just tracked down as many people as I could who knew him in Maine, who had been over to his house. In fact, when he called I was able to fill in some details, just to place dates and times to get confirmation from him on a couple of his details.
SI: What do you think about Koufax now?
VERDUCCI: It’s rare in life where you have the image of a public figure that you hold in such high regard and then the person exceeds the image of that person. He just couldn’t have been more gracious, especially humble. Humility is really lost in today’s era. I was just blown away by this guy, one of my favorite people in baseball. I've spoken to him a few times since then. I've spoken to him on the phone a couple times, ran into him in Dodger Stadium once and we always have polite conversations.
SI: Does the story come up a lot for you?
VERDUCCI: Yeah a lot of people have brought it up to me. A lot of people who grew up with Sandy Koufax as their idol, even people who never got to know him or watch him pitch. There’s just something about him that resonates with so many people.
He was the best at what he was doing and he acted like he was just another guy. Also, his career ended way too soon. There’s that bittersweet tinge to his baseball career of What if, but in one sense it’s maybe even bigger that there never was a decline phase. I can’t think of any player who went out in any sport on top of the game like that. Maybe Barry Sanders?
SI: You chose to put yourself into the story every step of the way, which is rare for you. Why?
VERDUCCI: I did, and looking back on it I would even say that subconsciously I had such a personal interest in that story that I couldn’t keep myself out of it. I've even felt that in the best stories the writer brings a personal passion to that subject. When there’s something that piques your personal curiosity it always lends to the best stories. The whole genesis of it was my wanting to know what makes Sandy Koufax tick. That kept me going throughout not just the reporting but the writing of it.
Writing a bonus piece ... they never leave you when you're doing them. It’s the last thing you think about before bed and the first thing you think about when you wake up. The mental grind of living with a story definitely takes something out of you. But in the end it’s kind of a pleasant pain.
SI: Were you happy with the story, or do you wish you had changed it after talking to him?
VERDUCCI: I don’t go back and reread anything basically. I remember being happy with the way it turned out, because of that phone call with him. I would have been happy to tear it up and take a totally different angle on it [if he spoke on the record]. I remember being more happy with the story than getting the phone call. I guess that was an indication that I was happy with the story.