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The Art Of Biography

Roslyn native brings

sports legends to life

In recent years, works of biography and history have come to supplant novels as best sellers and in some instances, important works of art. If this is the case, then Roslyn native Jane Leavy has played her own role in transforming sports biographies, with her work on two greats from the 1960s, Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle

A self-described “tomboy,” Leavy grew up in Roslyn just as Little League baseball was taking off. There, she pitched “briefly and poorly” for the long-forgotten Blue Jays of Roslyn Little League. Leavy came from a family with an interest in sports. Her father, for instance, was a water boy for the 1927 New York football Giants. On her parents first date, as she relates, her father took her mother to a Brooklyn College football game. “She retaliated by taking him to Loehmann’s after the final whistle,” Leavy recalls. “It was a template for their 63-year union.”

Another family connection gave the young Jane Leavy a bird eye’s view of sports history in the making. Although Leavy’s parents would move to Long Island, her grandmother’s synagogue was in The Bronx, home, of course, to Yankee Stadium. The synagogue held High Holiday services in the second floor ballroom of the equally famed Concourse Plaza Hotel. From there, the young Leavy had a clear (and free) view of Mickey Mantle patrolling the vast center field expanse of Yankee Stadium. In 2010, when Leavy gave the William Cullen Bryant Lecture, she recalled how back in the 1950s, she had chose Mantle as “my guy,” all in the spirit of the times. Decades later, when Leavy was a staff reporter for The Washington Post, she volunteered to cover the now-retired and troubled Mantle at a 1983 benefit golf tournament in Atlantic City. Mantle behaved in an often-boorish banner, but the germ for writing a biography of the Yankee great was being planted.

Before Mantle, there was Leavy’s biography on Sandy Koufax, one published in 2003. The dominant pitcher in baseball during the early 1960s, Koufax, due to arm troubles, retired at age 31 in 1966. Since then, the Dodger great, a native of Brooklyn, has remained out of the public spotlight, save for occasional visits to Dodger training camp. Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy brought her subject back into public view. Koufax was a Hall of Fame pitcher. He also made news for a joint holdout with fellow pitching great Don Drysdale and for not starting Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on the same day as Yom Kipper.

On the heels of the Koufax biography came the Mantle volume, The Last Boy. As the premier athletic hero of his day, there have been dozens of books on Mantle, but Leavy, once again doing extensive research and interviews, put Mantle’s remarkable career and his troubled private and family life in a new light. As with the Koufax biography, The Last Boy was also a celebration of prodigious feats on the baseball diamond. With Koufax, there were the pitching heroics of 1963 and 1965 when Dodgers won the World Series, plus his perfect game in 1966. Mantle, of course, played on seven World Series-winning teams. He was also legendary for his numerous tape measure home runs from both sides of the plate, an athletic achievement that has not been seen in baseball history, before and after Mantle’s 18-year career.

Reviews for both biographies noted the human element that both portrayed.

“Leavy has hit it out of the park,” wrote Daniel Okrent in Time. “A lot more than a biography. It’s a consideration of how we create our heroes, and how this hero’s self perception distinguishes him from nearly every other great athlete in living memory…a remarkably rich portrait.”

“Ms. Leavy has done a dizzying amount of reporting—and Koufax doesn’t just survive the scrutiny, he emerges from it larger than ever,” added Jonathan Mahler in The Wall Street Journal. “Ms. Leavy humanizes her subject even as she demythologizes him. The incomparable and mysterious Sandy Koufax is revealed. This is an absorbing book, beautifully written.”

Meanwhile, The Last Boy received praise from a Brooklyn native, Joe Torre, who grew up as a Yankee fan.

“Every kid growing up in New York in the Fifties wanted to be Mickey Mantle, including me,” wrote Torre. “You wanted to wear the uniform like him, run like him, talk like him, look like him, and, most of all, play baseball like him. Jane Leavy has captured the hold he had on all of us in this gripping biography.”

Almost lost in the success of her biographies is the fact that Leavy is also an accomplished novelist. Her novel, Squeeze Play about a female reporter who covers The Washington Senators was dubbed by Allan Barra in Entertainment Weekly as “the best novel ever written about baseball.”

Squeeze Play was inspired by Leavy’s career as a sportswriter. Leavy was a staff writer at The Washington Post from 1979 to1988, first in the sports section, then writing for the style section. She covered baseball, tennis, and the Olympics for the paper. She wrote features for the style section about sports, politics, and pop culture, including, most memorably, a profile of Mugsy Bogues, the 5’3″ guard for the Washington Wizards, which she claimed was longer than he is tall.

Before joining The Washington Post, she was a staff writer at WomenSports and Self magazines. Leavy’s work has been anthologized in many collections, including Best Sportswriting, Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference, Child of Mine: Essays on Becoming a Mother, Nike Is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend: Women Writers on Baseball, A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sportswriting by Women, and Making Words Dance: Reflections on Red Smith, Journalism and Writing.

The latter book is instructive as Leavy wrote her master’s essay at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on Red Smith, one of the finest stylists in all of sports journalism, a wise influence that may also explain her success in the publishing world.