NICE JEWISH GIRL SPORTSWRITER: How Jane Leavy came to write books about Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Be it courage or conflict, triumph or tragedy, Jane Leavy has covered the entire gamut of human drama in her compelling books on Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth.

And yet the story of how the Bronx-born, New York Yankees-nursed Leavy endured several trials-by-fire to become the top Jewish sports biographer of the past two decades probably outdid any anecdote in her voluminous book texts.

Wind the clock back to 1981 when she was an eager-to-impress, recently-hired sportswriter at the Washington Post in an era where women had just barely been admitted to sports locker rooms.

Jane Leavy swinging one of Babe Ruth’s bats.

Only several years before, a court order mandated women be allowed access to World Series clubhouses, against the wishes of baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and to the dislike of many players. In 1984, a very prominent Cubs slugger, noticing a couple of women in the Wrigley Field locker room, went full monty on them from across the room, gyrating about like a male go-go dancer canvassing for tips at a bachelorette party.

So into this tentative, and ultimately perilous, atmosphere Leavy waded, trying to do a Washington Post-quality story on the “Billy Ball” uplifting of the Oakland Athletics under controversial manager Billy Martin.

“It was a day game, and after the game, in the locker room, four or five players surrounded me,” Leavy recalled. “Hey, Jane, have a drink with us. They proffered a cup of something. They pressed in a little closer and said, ‘C’mon, Jane.’  I could barely move. I said to myself, ‘I’ll just take a sip.’

Leavy as a young girl with her grandmother Celia Zelda Fellenbaum.

“I took a sip and woke up (many hours later) at a motel.  They put a knockout drug in there. A PR guy for the A’s got me to safety. I wasn’t sure what happened.”

Leavy decided to confront Martin. In his office, Martin was leaning back in his chair, “naked in the middle, but wearing cowboy boots,” Leavy said.  “He said, ‘Sleep well, Jane?’”

If the slipping-the-mickey-to-Leavy incident had been transported 38 years into the future and reported, a major criminal case and heavy suspensions would have been the minimal result. Baseball would have suffered a major black eye. But in 1981, the mindset for Leavy was shame and silence.

“I never told anybody,” she said. “My focus was I had done a bad job.  The salient part is it never occurred to me that it wasn’t my fault. I had erred. I had done something wrong. That was my whole mindset. I felt embarrassed at what I perceived as my lack of professionalism. 

“I wasn’t worried that no one would believe me. As threatened as I felt being surrounded by a group of guys in an unfamiliar locker room, I thought it was my job to get the story and not complain and not to make myself the story. I blamed myself for being stupid enough to take a sip of what they were offering. I thought that was unprofessional of me.

“I felt like, ‘You gotta play hurt,’ and not be judged differently as a female reporter,” she said. “I made a choice to keep it to myself. I would not be in any way surprised if other female writers were in that position.”

Sandy Koufax warming up before pitching in a game at Wrigley Field.

A version of the incident made it into Leavy’s first book, the fictionalized “Squeeze Play,” in 1990. A female sportswriter named “A.B. Berkowitz,” covering the Washington Senators, stands in for the real-life Leavy.

“I was on The Today Show (plugging ‘Squeeze Play’) and Bryant Gumbel asked, ‘What is a nice Jewish Girl doing in a place like that?”

“That’s what my mother (Fay Leavy) wanted to know. She thought I’d be writing for Vogue.” 

Leavy was born in Royal Hospital, about a mile north of Yankee Stadium. The dynastic Yankees of Casey Stengel were imprinted on her by that proximity. And why not? Her grandmother, Celia Zelda Fellenbaum, lived in an apartment building called the Yankee Arms at 751 Walton Avenue, “one very long, very loud foul ball from Yankee Stadium.”

Father Mort Leavy  was “the proud son of a bookie and rumrunner, and supplied booze to the Polo Grounds during Prohibition.”  Mort became water boy for the New York football Giants in 1927.  Fay and Mort Leavy’s first date was to a Brooklyn College basketball game, but as a wife, Fay eventually would not let him listen to ballgames in the house. Moving to Long Island, Mort Leavy, an entertainment attorney who represented the likes of Joan Didion, took his daughter on Sunday drives to listen to Giants football broadcasts.

“He hated the Yankees, but respected my love of them,” Leavy said.

With the help of an indulgent bubbe in Fellenbaum, Leavy was able to enjoy an aural feast for the 1964 World Series: the sound of the shofar at High Holiday services in the Concourse Plaza Hotel ballroom in the Bronx, and the Yankees World Series broadcast. Fellenbaum wore a mink coat two sizes too big, better to conceal Leavy’s transistor radio.

“I listened to Red Barber inside a cocoon of heavy red velvet drapery that concealed his voice and my apostasy,” Leavy wrote in “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and The End of America’s Childhood.”

Leavy was attracted to sportswriting with newspapers making their first attempts to hire women, despite the access issues. She attended Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, authoring her master’s thesis on all-time sports columnist Red Smith, who allowed Leavy to follow him on his rounds. When she finally became a sportswriter, she encountered saints and sinners.

Rushing to a University of Virginia press conference as a green Washington Post scribe, she was bowled over by head football coach Dick Bestwick’s comments.

“I don’t like Jews as a group,” he told Leavy. “I replied, ‘How ‘bout as individuals?’ The next day I was kicked out of Bestwick’s locker room by his weight coach. He picked me up by the scruff of the neck and deposited me outside among drunk alumni.  I was scared to tell my boss, Post sports editor George Solomon, who was Jewish. I was just so raw.”

Before she hired on at the Post, she was assigned to do a story for the New York Daily News’ Sunday magazine on how jocks had become “pretty and sissified…I was supposed to find out how Brylcream was out and cologne was in.” Admitted to the New York Knicks’ tiny locker room, Leavy was “encircled by a long, wet arm, and the guy asked if this was my first time. Phil Jackson patted me on the head. He pranced around the locker room spraying his teammates with cologne. He finished, winked at me and asked, ‘You got enough?’”

But she also found supporters. She was covering the NBA Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) on a road trip to Chicago. “I didn’t know what the hell to do,” Leavy said. “It was a really long walk from the team bus to (Chicago Stadium’s) Gate 3 ½. We were all carrying giant computers. Rick Mahorn (6-foot-10 center) picked up my stuff to carry to the gate, where a Chicago cop asked where he was taking the stuff. I told him this is not an errand boy, it’s Rick Mahorn kind enough to carry it. The cop reluctantly let us in, and Rick insisted he carry my stuff all the way into the Stadium.”

Eventually, Leavy left daily journalism when she realized the athletes she was covering were young enough to be her children. “Squeeze Play” was well-received, but Leavy really put herself on the map in 2002 with “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.” She penned a rich, textured biography of the Hall of Fame Jewish lefty.

Koufax preferred to not play to the crowds or soak in adulation just for the sake of it. And so he would not participate officially in Leavy’s biographical efforts. However, between his sense of personal standards and Leavy’s salesmanship, a unique deal was struck. Leavy would interview everyone in his orbit to re-create his life, while Koufax would confirm the information and quotes gathered, and endorse the cooperation of those in his inner circle. Leavy had numerous conversations with Koufax, but almost all were off the record.

“A Lefty’s Legacy” energized the baseball-reading public and reminded American Jews of a certain age what a role model Koufax had become.  When Leavy’s book tour took her to the Barnes & Noble at Old Orchard shopping center, the line to greet her snaked down the staircase from the main level to the autographing area in the basement. 

Leavy expertly defined Koufax’s hold on Jews and millions of others from his decision not to pitch on Yom Kippur during the 1965 World Series.  He likely sequestered himself in his Minneapolis hotel room, but wishful local Jews claimed they had spotted Koufax, like an apparition, in their congregations during services.

“Koufax is hardwired into the psyche of the American Jewish community… grown men are transformed by putting on Koufax’s jersey,” Leavy wrote. “The decision not to pitch was a transforming event, providing the catalyst for an unknown number of lawyers and Littler Leaguers to acknowledge and honor their religion in kind.  Koufax made them brave. By refusing to pitch, he both reinforced Jewish pride and enhanced the sense of belonging – a feat as prodigious as any he accomplished on the field.”

Leavy heading out to the mound at Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch. She grew up right near the ballpark.

Leavy added that Koufax himself would be silent on his action – and yet finally “got it.”

“It’s embarrassing being a religious icon, especially an inadvertent one,” she wrote. “Later, friends say, he would become a reader of Holocaust literature and quit driving German cars. He came to appreciate the significance his decision had for others.”

A Jewish female senior citizen met Koufax at a funeral, grabbed his right arm and would not let go as if it was radiating holiness. After she finally let go, Koufax friend Tom Villante told him, “You know, Sandy, in my lifetime there’s three guys I’ve known who have transcended their sport and become a symbol for their race and nationality.”  Villante mentioned Jackie Robinson for African-Americans and Joe DiMaggio for Italian-Americans before he listed Koufax for Jews.

Villante continued to Leavy: “He said, ‘I know it.’ And he said it as if he had accepted it. This is something he carries around with him. And he is very proud of it.”

Writes Leavy, “Koufax refused to be a Jew’s  Jew or a gentile’s Jew. He may have been different but he refused to be anything other than himself. In the Talmud, it is written that some attain eternal life with a single act. On Yom Kippur 5726, a baseball immortal became a Jewish icon.”

More than 15 years after “A Lefty’s Legacy” took the literary world by storm, Leavy said “as far as I know, (Koufax) has never read it. To me, that’s the biggest compliment I could get. Here’s a guy I describe at length who is not interested in being the center of attention, not craving it. If he would tear open the cover of the book to see what was in it, he wouldn’t be who he is.”

Leavy has been on the hustings over recent months promoting her latest book, “The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and The World he Created.”

Chicago was the site of the most mythological event in baseball history – Ruth’s “called shot” homer in Game 3 of the World Series on Oct. 1, 1932 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, witnessed by the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Almost all published accounts said Ruth never pointed at the bleachers before connecting, but the Babe knew a good yard when he heard one, and thus played along.

Leavy’s book on Ruth is her second about a legendary Yankee. The first was “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.” Mantle’s first homer was struck at old Comiskey Park on the same day Minnie Minoso made his White Sox debut and slugged his first Sox homer.  Mantle would go on to bedevil contender-level Sox teams for the next 14 seasons, helping thwart all but one pennant aspiration.

Leave it to Leavy to conjure up a Mantle Jewish angle. She recalled working at her Post sports-department desk in 1983 when Mantle called, confirming an interview.

“Hi, this is Mickey. Mickey Lipschitz,” he said.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish,” Leavy told her idol.

The Mick summed it up: “Let me tell you something a guy told me when I first came to New York. In New York, when you’re going good, you’re Jewish. When you’re going bad, you’re Eye-talian.”

1 Comment on "NICE JEWISH GIRL SPORTSWRITER: How Jane Leavy came to write books about Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax"

  1. I just LOVED this article, Jane. Sometimes I feel I already know you——-BUT—–somewhere I am blessed with the only grandchild I will ever have. I have already missed so much with her. Fortunately she was reared by a wonderful family that afforded her with many advantages and much love. Someday I hope to meet her, but my time may be getting short. Due to cancer that I am recovering from, but old age (79 this year). I am so prou
    d of her accomplishments.
    I respect your many accomlishments and admire your work. I have many ancestorial things and pictures to share with her.

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