By Alex Belth
Bronx Banter, August 20, 2003
Jane Leavy, author of last year’s smash hit, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, is on a roll. Not only is Koufax due out in paperback this September, but Perennial (a division of HarperCollins) has issued a paperback edition of her 1990 comic novel, Squeeze Play. The novel follows the adventures of a woman sportswriter, A.B. Berkowitz, who happens to cover the worst team in baseball. The New York Times Book Review noted that the novel “does baseball mythology proud—the overall effect is that of a surreal parody, with a baseball team and newsroom that Mel Brooks might have assembled, where nobody and no activity is life-size, and where sex is a metaphor for baseball: you gotta play hurt.”
I recently had a chance to speak with Jane Leavy. I hope you enjoy our conversation.—AB
Alex Belth: After reading Koufax, what most impressed me about the man was that he wanted the one thing that seemed unattainable: to be regular, normal. He is attractive because he comes across as an unpretentious, decent guy.
Jane Leavy: And because he so much doesn’t want to be anything else. That is the ultimate paradox. When I first got in touch with Sandy, to try to persuade him to cooperate in whatever way he was willing to cooperate, I, of course, did the thing that every writer does. I sent him clips. I carefully edited everything and I did not send him a copy of Squeeze Play. ’Cause, of course, I didn’t know him, and I didn’t know whether the man had a sense of humor. When he called me back he said, “I want to read the novel.” I hemmed and I hawed, and I finally said, “You know, there are a lot of schlongs in it.” And he said, “Is mine one of them?” I said, “No.” And he said, “So what’s the problem?” That’s how I knew Sandy Koufax had a great sense of humor and that it would be fine.
Alex: Tell us about your novel, Squeeze Play.
Jane: HarperCollins is bringing out a Perennial edition; I’m sitting here looking at it. It just came in the mail.
Alex: And it’s a loosely fictional story based on your experiences as a sportswriter?
Jane: It’s not loosely fictional; it’s loosely inspired by my life as a sportswriter at The Washington Post. I was the alternate baseball writer for the Orioles between ’79 and ’83 [Tom Boswell was the senior writer]. I did a bunch of baseball, but by ’83 I started to do tennis as well, and I became the Olympic correspondent, so I stopped doing quite as much baseball in the mid ’80s. Squeeze Play is loosely inspired by my experiences in the locker room.
Alex: Did you always want to be a sportswriter?
Jane: I wanted to be a sportswriter because I wanted to be a writer, and a teacher once told me, “Write what you know.” What I knew, and still know, is the Yankees batting order and all the pertinent stats. This is why A.B. Berkowitz is a Yankees fan. That part of Squeeze Play is thoroughly and completely autobiographical. It is a love story about a girl and the national pastime. So sportswriting was a natural career choice for me, particularly baseball.
Also, don’t forget: I came up in the pre-Title IX era, when girls who liked to play ball were still tomboys; at puberty, we were consigned to observe. A writer is nothing if not an observer.
Alex: Which sportswriters inspired you?
Jane: The most formative sportswriter for me was Red Smith, the late columnist for the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, the paper my parents read when I was growing up. Red was literate, funny, self-deprecating, and he had a hell of a good time. When I went to journalism school at Columbia University after college, I wrote my master’s essay—a fancy name for a long magazine piece—on Red Smith.
This was when everyone else wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. The professors were appalled but privately jealous, I think. I hung out with Red for six months. And I said if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. I still think the New York Times should have white space where his column once appeared.
Alex: What made you write a novel instead of a nonfiction book?
Jane: Because you can always tell much more of the truth in fiction than you can in fact. Certainly, that was true in American journalism in 1990. I’m not sure you can make the same argument today.
Alex: So you came in at the tail end of the first wave of women sportswriters to venture into the locker room in the late 1970s.
Jane: There were women who came before me, including ones who were around in 1927. I was really in the second wave. I hit the beach in the second wave.
Alex: Did you cover any team sports besides baseball?
Jane: I did a little bit of everything. I did some basketball, I did some hockey, some golf. I did some tennis, some football. I started out being a feature writer/baseball writer, then I became a tennis writer/Olympic writer.
Alex: How were you treated differently from sport to sport?
Jane: You know, this might sound really strange, but there were equal measures of chivalry and Animal House in each sport. It depended on the guys. Football players, professional football players, I have always argued are the largest, most fragile creatures in the universe. By far. You have the whole war ethos, the troops, and such. These are scared boys. It doesn’t matter how cauliflowered their necks are: They are acutely aware that they are one really nasty hit away from being sidelined forever. So they have a very acute sense of their own fragility.
At the same time they are these behemoths. They are some of the most vulnerable people that I’ve ever met. They’re also much more cowed in general by coaches and the whole system. You know how people talk about “the system” in football.
Basketball players are more hip, more sophisticated, more worldly kind of guys. I covered the Wizards some when they were still the Bullets, and I had some of my nicest experiences with basketball players. Phil Jackson probably changed my life forever because he was the first guy I met in a locker room, when I walked across the threshold in Madison Square Garden in 1978. I was on assignment for the New York Daily News, writing what now seems a fairly hilarious and dated piece about the prettiness of jocks. This was not long after Joe Namath was modeling pantyhose or whatever he was doing.
Alex: Or Jim Palmer doing the Jockey ads.
Jane: It was an old idea then, but what the hell. The piece was about how jocks were getting all prettied.
I walked into the Knicks locker room and I was scared to death. Which, of course, everyone is, male or female, the first time they walk into a professional locker room, and anyone who tells you different is lying through their teeth.
I knew enough instinctively to know, you let the beat people go first. Not that I had been a beat person, but I had enough common sense to realize that somebody on a tight deadline needs to get in and out. So I cowered behind a very large notebook, which I used to shield my eyes. When you look at the new cover of Squeeze Play, that’s what you see: a reporter, shielding her eyes.
Anyway, I hid. I stood there looking stupid until everybody was gone, and finally this guy comes out of the shower, stark naked, dripping wet: large, long, and white. And he puts his arm around me and says, “Is this your first time?” Bravado escaped me and I told the truth. I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, we just want you to know you’re doing very well.” And he patted me on the head and disappeared. My mother didn’t raise me to lie, so I told the truth. The guy was Phil Jackson and he went back into the shower. He came back out again, still naked, still white, and still very wet, and said, “By the way, what are you doing here anyway?” I said, “I’ve got to do this piece on jocks getting all pretty and sissified.” And he said, “Oh, okay.” And he went around the locker room, which was filled with Lonnie Shelton, Earl Monroe—”
Alex: Clyde was gone already, right?
Jane: Clyde was gone. But he goes up to Pearl and goes, “Yo, Pearl. You got some smells?” Pearl had never heard sweeter words. He goes, “Smells?” And he gets up off his trunk, which was filled with approximately 100 different varieties of cocoa butter and cologne. Phil Jackson begins taking the stuff out and trying it all on. And he’s spraying himself and spraying the rest of them. He’s dancing and he’s prancing. He’s having everybody sniff his wrists to see which smell becomes him more. He does this whole parade, this whole shtick for me, and then he stops and winks at me and says, “Got enough?” That is what we all know as being handed a story. He was quite deliberate, it was quite gracious, and it was quite formative.
From that moment on—even though I might have taken a deep breath every time I crossed the threshold—I didn’t expect the worst. The number of times that guys were chivalrous was astonishing.
Now, in Squeeze Play, the character in question, A.B. Berkowitz, has a different experience than mine. She is much more hassled and much, much more horrified. Her experience is far more difficult than my own was. That’s why I say it’s loosely autobiographical.
Alex: Did you know women that had a much harder time than you had?
Jane: Sure. Absolutely. I think partly it’s luck of the draw, who you get. How you comport yourself. It’s which sport, which team. If you get a team with some really bad red-ass guys, you are going to have a brutal time. If I had been a beat writer covering a team with Dave Kingman on it, I would have been miserable. He sent Helene Elliot of Newsday a dead rat, I believe. The Orioles were always described at the time as a very vanilla team. In that sense I had it pretty easy.
Did I have really bad moments? Absolutely. And most of the really absurd, totally horrible things that happen to A.B. Berkowitz in Squeeze Play actually happened, because I’m not good enough to make some of that shit up. Squeeze Play is a comic novel. It is an inherently funny situation, being a woman in a men’s locker room—it’s the old theme of being a woman in a man’s world, only naked.
I deliberately exaggerated the grossness in the early parts of the book in an attempt to replicate the assault on the sensibilities that occurs every time you cross that particular threshold. It’s very useful to be able to laugh.
That said, Squeeze Play, is also a serious book about journalism and the dilemmas every reporter faces. Done well, every interview is a seduction—not in the sexual sense. It is an attempt to get people to say what they don’t intend or want to say, to reveal more of themselves than they expected. It’s a kind of power, easily abused. It always made me feel responsible for the information I elicited and charged with a responsibility to handle with care.
Alex: Did you find that the black players were more sympathetic to you as an outsider, a minority?
Jane: Yeah, I think so. Though I think, frankly, that being 5’1” was both a decided advantage and disadvantage. It was a disadvantage because of where I came up to on most of these guys, which is why I carried very large pads and felt tip pens, so I didn’t have to look at what I didn’t want to look at. Contrary to the popular belief, you don’t go in there to look. You do your best not to look.
Alex: That must be awkward because you must have to force yourself not to look.
Jane: Well, you get adept at writing upside down and pirouetting in place very quickly. You position yourself—if you can—behind a pillar, or you lean in a certain way so that you can see a person’s face and not anything below the neck.
I always found it incredibly amusing that there were guys who thought you were really there to ogle them. There was one guy who started bating me, a hockey guy. I asked the guy to put his pants on; I was sitting and talking to him. I really didn’t want to look at him, and I said, “Would you put your pants on?” He said, “Oh, I thought you all just came in here to look.” I said, “As a matter of fact, I really am not interested in looking at your particulars, and I would really appreciate it if you put your pants on. I’m not on deadline, there is no urgency here. Believe me, I can wait.” He just looked at me incredulously, and I said, “Hey, look, pal: I’ve seen them before and yours isn’t any prettier than anybody else’s. Put on your pants.” And I said it in a really loud voice and, believe me, it made an impression. It was very premeditated.
Alex: How much tension existed between the female sportswriters and the male sportswriters?
Jane: Oh I think that was very individual. Some women had a really hard time. Sometimes I had a harder time with the reporters than I did with the athletes. Sometimes it was the reverse. I think that was luck of the draw. Early on, that might have been truer than it was later. It became pretty much commonplace. Though one thing I have always believed—and it is certainly a theme in this book—is that a woman reporter can be very much at an advantage, not a disadvantage.
The advantage is that you are an outsider, which is what reporters are supposed to be. Too often, I think male sportswriters get involved in unseemly competition—if only with themselves—to show guys that they know as much as the real guys do. Well, they don’t.
But you’ll get some old geezer who played second base in high school debating with Alfonso Soriano the best way to make a play at second. You know, that’s not a reporter’s job. A reporter’s job is to ask the questions that elicit the answers. And then check them against the facts find out if they make sense. It’s not to say, “Hey, let me tell you about the time that I played second base.”
I think that women tend not to compete with the athletes based on trying to prove themselves. And women listen better. I also think that being short was an advantage in that I was very non-threatening. A lot of the guys used to think of me as a little sister, I guess. I came up to their waists, maybe, and they’d pat me on the head kind of deal. So I think you could make it work to your advantage.
I also think that you had to show them in one way or another that you could get along. That you could hold your own. Athletes test themselves every day. If they play every day, that is. Or every Sunday. But they test themselves—against each other and against the opponents. They live by testing themselves. Against time and against distance and against each other. And sooner or later, they are going to find a way to test you to find out what you are made of. There are all sorts of ways you can respond to that. That is pretty individual. I always tried to let them know that it would take a lot to gross me out.
Alex: Roger Angell wrote a good piece about women reporters in the late ’70s called “Sharing the Beat” [New Yorker, April 9, 1979]. I was particularly taken with the comments made by Jane Gross. One of the things she said was how much she appreciated how much the guys got on with each other, the companionship.
Jane: I actually came to envy it. This is actually somewhere in Squeeze Play, but these guys actually get to sit around naked and eat sloppy joes and scratch themselves and talk to their friends, and nobody thinks it’s weird! Wouldn’t you like to able to like to do that once? Just sit around and be utterly unselfconscious? And be a complete dirt ball.
They are comfortable with themselves in a way that is absolutely, in a strange way, seductive. To say the least, they are earthy, but there is a comfort level with their bodies, with each other, with sitting around and not thinking twice if, oops, sloppy joe is falling in my pubic hair. And I ultimately came to envy that. The experience of being in the locker room has nothing to do with sexuality; it had to do with a kind of comfort with themselves and with each other, and with their place in the world.
Alex: Jane Gross said she felt more sympathetic toward men after working the beat.
Jane: Well, I never felt unsympathetic to men. I should re-read that piece. But it is true that women ask different questions. One example that I’ve always used is, if a reporter says to a player, “Well, where was the pitch?” And the pitcher would say, “It was on the outside corner.” And a male reporter would interrupt, “No, I was up in the press box, it wasn’t on the outside corner, it was right down the middle.” And the pitcher would look at him like, “What planet are you on? How could you possibly be arguing with me about where the pitch was?” This would go on endlessly.
Finally, one day I heard Jim Palmer—or maybe it was Scott McGregor—say, “Where was the pitch? It was over the goddamned fence. That’s all you need to know.” I’ve witnessed debates where guys would be sitting there, insisting to an athlete, that they know more about what happened on a particular play, and the players would sit there rolling their eyes.
A female reporter is much more likely to say, “Tell me what happened.” Or in the case of a trade, “How do you feel?” That question has become ubiquitous today, and it wasn’t when Jane Gross or I started reporting. But it’s the idea of seeing the person as a complete human being and not just a piece of chattel, or a page of statistics. Sure. “How about your kids? When was the last time you tucked your kid in?”
Alex: Do you think baseball is ready for an openly gay player?
Jane: Gee, I don’t know. I think we live in a homophobic society, with a president who thinks that gay marriage is a sin and feels compelled to tell us that we are all sinners as a consequence. So do I think that it would be particularly well-received in a locker room? No, I doubt it would. But you know what? I’m sure there are plenty of gay athletes out there who have figured out, for better or worse, how to get by. Maybe some friends know, maybe some friends don’t know. Certainly there are gay athletes out there. I’ve never met one who resembled the guy in [the Broadway play] Take Me Out.
Alex: Were you pleased with the reception of the Koufax book?
Jane: No, I really hated being on the best-seller list for 16 weeks. Somebody was saying something very sweet to me about it recently, and I said, “Look, let’s be real. This has to do with Sandy, not me.” This is a response to who he is. I was fortunate enough to be in the position to write about somebody who really touches a chord in lots of people.
The mail that I have gotten has been astonishing, absolutely mind-boggling. I’m still, very slowly, wending my way through answering 1,000 letters, and that’s not including emails. The stories people have to tell, and the things that he meant to them, are incredible. You can say, “Well, it’s not curing cancer,” but he did something that—it wasn’t so much what he did, but how he did it that touched people.
Alex: You also made a very concerted effort to paint a specific portrait of him. For instance, you didn’t get into his marriages.
Jane: I chose not to speak to his ex-wives. I’ll tell you something that’s fascinated me. The supposition that people made, even though it was stated quite clearly that it was my choice, was that this was something he insisted upon. I would say, “Go back and read the introduction.” He asked me only one thing: not to speak to his niece and his nephew, and I said, “Okay.” It was my choice not to speak to his ex-wives. I knew that it was a fairly radical thing to do in modern journalism.
Alex: What was the reasoning behind it?
Jane: My reasoning behind it was complex. What it comes down to is, this is a book about him as a ballplayer and about the time in which he lived and how he dominated it. It was never intended to be an exposé about where did Sandy Koufax disappear to and why he disappeared. Certainly, I felt that I needed to account for and explain what he does now, and I think that I did that. But I didn’t want to spend 200 pages talking about what he’s done since 1966.
The reason he’s a public person is because of what he did between 1955 and 1966. If he had been married to anyone during those years, I might well have had to make a different decision. Had he had children, I might well have had to make a different decision. But given the fact that he’s been divorced from two women, neither of whom was in his life when he played baseball, and that the book was not about the ex-ballplayer but about the ballplayer, I felt it was a reasonable choice to make.
Alex: Ultimately, there wasn’t any reason to talk to them for the purpose of the book.
Jane: Part of the problem is that it’s like a temptation. It’s like a chocolate éclair that’s out there on the counter. You go down that route and… What if you do talk to them and they say really shitty things about him. You know, what do ex-wives say? Then you feel compelled to spend time and attention dealing with that. I didn’t want to be there. I don’t know whether his ex-wives would have said nasty things or whether they would have said, “You know, it was a really important time of my life and I wish him well.” I don’t know what they would have said. I just didn’t want to go there.
The thing that I find astonishing, Alex, is that people therefore think it’s not an intimate portrait. We’ve come to define intimacy in this country as meaning exactly one thing: who you shtup, how often, and in what position. That’s not the definition of intimacy I choose to embrace. I would argue that the book is a very intimate portrait of him, without being one that is invasive. It’s not what makes him important.
Alex: How did he respond to the book?
Jane: I have never asked him if he read it, I have never asked him to read it. I have never asked whether he’s going to read it. I said one thing to him and that was that I respected his sense of embarrassment of being the subject of a book, and I felt it was completely consistent with who he is that he wouldn’t want to read it. I don’t know whether he’s read it; I doubt that he has.