Leonard Koppett (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Leonard Koppett

This article was written by Jim Leeke

Leonard Koppett (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)A combination of accountant, impresario, and American success story, Russian-born Leonard Koppett wrote with verve and understanding about the personalities, games, and statistics of the national pastime and other major sports for over half a century. Today, he is honored from Israel to Cooperstown.

Born Leonard Kopeliovitch in an apartment near Red Square in post-revolutionary Moscow, Koppett was the grandson of a prosperous cannery owner from the Crimean city of Kerch.1 His father, David, a trained musician, had been a prisoner of war in Hungary during the First World War. Afterward he worked for Amtorg Trading Corporation, the Soviet foreign trade office, which in 1927 sent him to New York City. His wife, Marya, followed a year later with five-year- old Leonard. They stayed in America when deadly political purges back home made it too dangerous to return to Russia. The Koppetts reentered the United States from Mexico in 1933 to comply with immigration quotas and later became naturalized citizens.

David Kopeliovitch found work in the New York food industry. His son remembered his parents later as the “ultimate assimilated, cosmopolitan Jews.”2 Young Lenny loved sports and the piano, but had too few gifts for the former and too little discipline for the latter. When he was nine years old the family lived on 157th Street, a block east of Yankee Stadium. He once met Babe Ruth, but glimpsed his own future among “some extremely non-athletic-looking middle-aged men” he saw leaving the ballpark toting black boxes containing typewriters. In his 2003 memoir, Koppett wrote, “As a small but literate person, I knew I’d like to make a living by writing—it involved no heavy lifting—and that the only way a writer gets paid every week is to work for a newspaper. It added up.”3

Lenny became a first-rate student at the prestigious Polytechnic Preparatory Country Day School in Brooklyn. After graduating in 1940, he entered Columbia University in Morningside Heights, where he was an editor on the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator. The paper published his first baseball story, in March 1941, under the byline Len Kopeliovitch. “Spring training is wonderful,” it began. “Although Columbia’s baseball players don’t get a trip to the Sunny South, Torrid Texas, or Clammy California, they do take spring training in the nonchalant, leisurely manner which is the best professional style.”4

Koppett also dove into broadcasting for the student-run campus radio station, CURC (Columbia University Radio Club), which later became WKCR. “Our first spoken program, I believe, was a nightly 15-minute sports report organized by Bill Levinson, a junior, and me, a freshman,” he recalled decades later. “We were offshoots of the Spectator staff, with no radio experience or skills. But dealing only with Columbia activities, we had exclusivity and inside dope.”5

His Americanization was nearly complete one night when at CURC he met Vic Zaro, captain-elect of the wrestling team, whose parents were both Russian. “Zaro spoke fluent Russian, and Lenny couldn’t speak a word of it!” the Spectator reported. “Vic has studied Russian in school, while Lenny dropped it the minute he learned to speak English.”6 Even so, a transplanted New Yorker who knew him a quarter-century later in California joked that although Koppett had been born in Moscow, “no one who knows him has ever suspected it was the one in Idaho.”7

Koppett worked as a student stringer for New York newspapers and occasionally got a mention from sports columnists, such as Hugh Fullerton Jr.’s lighthearted item in October 1942 about “our new Columbia star, Len Kopeliovich [sic] … He started running in a compulsory physical education class last year. Now he has come out for track and says the only reason is that he wants to beat [record-breaking Swedish runner] Gunder Haegg. That’s why they call him a promising miler.”8

With America fighting in World War II, Koppett entered the army in March 1943. Standing five feet, five inches and weighing 129 pounds, he was hardly prime material for the infantry.9 The army assigned him instead to the Army Air Forces. Columbia football coach Lou Little got a laugh later that year from a tongue-in-cheek scouting report the new soldier sent him during training at another, unnamed college. “Both guards pull out on deep reverses and the center has a weakness for stepping into gopher holes,” Koppett wrote. “But the morale of the student body is good.” He signed his missive “Sneak-and-Peak Kopeliovitch, an old reconnaissance man.”10

Koppett received language and logistics training at posts around the United States. Sent overseas in summer 1944, he served as a private first class in the 42nd Air Depot Group, an element of the Ninth Air Force, in England, France, and Germany. That December the unit’s football team faced off in snowy Paris with the powerful and heavily favored Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) team. The scoreless game went into a sudden-death overtime—unheard of at the time—which the underdogs won. Koppett later described the upset in a letter to a sports-editor friend at the New York Herald Tribune.

By the time he was discharged following 33 months in the army, Lenny Kopeliovitch had become Leonard J. Koppett. He returned to Columbia in spring 1946 to finish a final semester for his degree, although he is always listed as Class of ’44. Afterward he worked briefly as what the Spectator called “Sports Publicity’s inimitable purveyor of facts and figures.”11 Koppett then began covering sports for three major metropolitan newspapers in succession: New York Herald Tribune, 1948 — 1954; New York Post, 1954 — 63; and New York Times, 1963 — 1978. He also contributed to The Sporting News (1965 — 1984), Sports Illustrated, Saturday Evening Post, and other top national magazines. The baseball diamond especially attracted him.

“Koppett knew the whole history of baseball,” columnist Tom FitzGerald later recalled. “From the late ’40s on, he practically lived it. He covered the Yankees of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.”12 Koppett likewise chronicled the Dodgers and Giants before their departure to the West Coast, and the bumbling new Mets afterward. He also covered established teams and new arrivals in the other major sports: the football Giants and Jets, the basketball Knicks and Nets, the hockey Rangers and Islanders, as well as New York college athletics.

The sportswriter continued flashing his dry wit, as in a 1950 profile of former pitcher Hal Schumacher, a scourge of National League hitters for 13 seasons. “But now, less than four years after his last appearance in a New York Giant uniform, Hal is the batter’s best friend, and it is his former colleagues, the pitchers, who bitterly resent his appearance,” 26-year-old Koppett wrote. “For Prince Hal has turned traitor. He sells bats.”13

Koppett witnessed and reported on a golden age of New York baseball. He was an official scorer at Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, and Mets home games from 1954 through 1972. He saw Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’round the World” at the Polo Grounds in 1951 and covered Don Larsen’s perfect Game Five at Yankee Stadium during the 1956 World Series.

He also understood sports’ failures. During the 1958 World Series at Yankee Stadium he saw Norm Siebern misjudge three fly balls in left field during a 3 — 0 Game Four loss to Milwaukee. Manager Casey Stengel afterward replaced Siebern with Elston Howard. Koppett noticed the crushed young outfielder trying to slip unnoticed from the clubhouse following New York’s Game Five victory and stepped over for a quiet word. “I want to tell you, Norm, that yesterday when we came in to interview you after the game you acted like a champ,” Koppett said. “That’s the only word I can think of. A champ.”14

As a beat writer and columnist, Koppett often looked beyond the games and the players to the big time business of sports. “Pay-as-you-watch television is still the basic reason the Dodgers are going to Los Angeles and taking the Giants to San Francisco,” he wrote in 1957. “That’s why the meeting yesterday between Mayor [Robert] Wagner and Owners Walter O’Malley and Horace Stoneham produced nothing. There was nothing that could be produced there.”15

Now and then he also wrote just as crisply about classical music. “Two works composed 325 years apart, hard to classify, seldom heard, made a perfect match at Philharmonic Hall last night as The Concert Opera Association, directed by Thomas Scherman, gave the first of the four programs it has scheduled for this season,” he wrote in 1962 of compositions by Igor Stravinsky and Claudio Monteverdi.16

Shifting from the ethereal to the punishing, Koppett was one of only three sportswriters (out of 46 polled) to rightly predict the outcome of the Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight February 25, 1964, in Miami. The following week he and Newsday’s Bob Waters appeared on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret, their secret being that they’d picked Clay (later Muhammad Ali) to upset the heavyweight champion.

That spring Koppett married Suzanne Silberstein of Pittsburgh at the Harmonie Club in New York, Earl Wilson noting the April 24 event with a three-dot item in his popular syndicated column.17 The couple had met several years earlier while Suzanne was a graduate student. By the time they exchanged vows, she held a master’s degree from Columbia and was a member of the English department faculty at Hofstra College. The Koppetts would have two children, David and Katherine.

While covering the sports beat Koppett developed unique ways of viewing statistics. In spring 1965, for instance, he offered some “inconsequential but possibly amusing” figures about the inept young Mets. “The toughest town for the Mets has been Los Angeles; three won, twenty-four lost for .111,” he wrote. “But the toughest state is Pennsylvania, where the Mets are 5-22 in Philadelphia, 4-23 in Pittsburgh and 0-1 in Williamsport, for a .164 average.”18 (The Mets had lost an exhibition game in Williamsport to their AA affiliate that season.)

The Times featured Koppett and other top writers in print ads extolling the Gray Lady’s baseball coverage as 1966 spring training approached. “Every winter, Len Koppett combines his interest in the history of baseball (he reports that the Russians did not invent the game) and his love of music to help create a theatrical extravaganza for the annual Baseball Writers’ dinner,” the ad noted. “Then he heads for Fort Lauderdale to write for your entertainment.”19

Koppett’s book, A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball, published in 1967, became a classic. (He would change Man’s to Fan’s for later editions). “I hesitate to say that this is the best book on baseball I ever read,” wrote Times colleague Arthur Daley. “But I can’t remember ever reading a better one.”20 Baseball entrepreneur Bill Veeck praised the book’s broad range and its appeal to both fans who cared about the game’s intricacies and to those who didn’t. “But the best chapter, worth the entire price, is devoted to the duties, responsibilities, and powers of a manager,” Veeck wrote. “Whether it be strategy, gamesmanship, discipline or leadership, Koppett’s exposition makes such sense that it should become a standard reference for every real or imagined manager in the land.”21

The sportswriter became known for amiably arguing either side of an issue, and he didn’t hesitate to knock down even his own theories, as he would do in a 1978 Sporting News column about a seeming connection between the stock market and the Super Bowl. Koppett pointed out that after the first 11 Super Bowls, the market rose for the year when an original National Football League team won; conversely, it finished lower whenever an American Football League team won. And in baseball, he added, during 12 of the 15 baseball seasons since 1963, the market fell for the year whenever major league batting averages went up, and vice versa. Koppett offered no explanation for the market-football correlation, but speculated that when moneyed ballplayers invested in stocks, they concentrated more at the plate when the market was down.

What did it all mean? “Absolutely nothing on any rational level … To use sports statistics constructively, you must never lose sight of that possible error,” Koppett wrote. “Some sets of numbers do prove something, others don’t prove but suggest and others create misleading similarities. Statistics, always, are the starting point of an investigation, not the conclusion.”22 His Super Bowl theory nonetheless still resurfaces every football season.

Viewing stats in new ways didn’t always endear him to more established writers. Koppett once entered a press box in New York (accounts vary, some saying Ebbets Field and others Yankee Stadium) toting his ever-present briefcase. Veteran columnist Jimmy Cannon glanced up and asked, “Whatcha got inside, Lenny—decimal points?”23 American sportswriters, including Koppett, repeated the tale for decades. “What I do is entirely cerebral, but it’s not creative cerebral, it’s reportorially cerebral,” Koppett later explained.24

In 1973 he convinced his Times to relocate him to the West Coast as a sports correspondent, the paper’s first on that side of the country. “My greatest professional achievement is persuading The New York Times to send me to California,” he joked.25 Settling in Palo Alto, home of Stanford University, Koppett remained the knowledgeable Puck of professional and college sports. He ordered vanity license plates for his car: KF79. In football lore, this was the name of the touchdown play his alma mater used to beat Stanford 7 — 0 in the 1934 Rose Bowl. “Some Stanford grad, class of ’34, watching me drive by, is going to have a heart attack,” the Columbia grad said with a laugh.26

Koppett was now a rotund little man with an odd resemblance to fictional spymaster George Smiley. David Burgin was the notoriously fiery editor-in-chief of the Palo Alto-based Peninsula Times-Tribune, which served the bedroom communities between San Francisco and San Jose. Burgin had a gift for hiring young up-and-coming journalists, including two future Pulitzer Prize winners.27 He equally appreciated old pros like Koppett, who left the Times in 1978 to get off the road and work from home as a freelancer.

Burgin convinced Koppett to come to the Times-Tribune in 1979 as a columnist and executive sports editor. They were an odder couple than Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, but their collaboration worked. When Burgin suggested the sportswriter as his successor as the paper’s editor in 1982, Koppett assumed the helm of the suburban daily.

“He was ever the student and the professor and the rabbi,” sportswriter-turned-political writer Steve Daley recalled of Koppett. Daley once bumped into him in London, leaving St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square. “He’d been at a midday orchestral performance and was as giddy as if he’d been at a Yankees-Red Sox double-header.”28 Editor emeritus when the peninsula paper closed in 1993, Koppett afterward became an occasional columnist for the Oakland Tribune.

Koppett’s 17 books primarily dealt with baseball and basketball. He always kept the fan foremost in mind. “Every player, in his secret heart, wants to manage someday,” he observed in Thinking Man’s Guide. “Every fan, in the privacy of his mind, already does.”29 While still at the Times-Tribune he finished Sports Illusion, Sports Reality, which addressed what he called “the essential nature of the commodity a sports promoter has to sell. An illusion. Specifically, the illusion that the result of a game matters.”30

In 1992 Koppett received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In a brief acceptance speech he said baseball had given him “endless enjoyment from childhood on.” But he worried that younger baseball pros weren’t having as much fun in the game, perhaps because they took themselves too seriously. It was only the work, he said—“writing for us, playing for the players”—that had to be taken seriously. “If everyone concerned could lighten up a little bit these days, and not feel so uptight and self-important so much of the time, all of us might be better off,” he said, faintly smiling to cheers from the crowd.31

His influence on younger sportswriters and statisticians was evident with the 1993 publication of his book on baseball’s top managers, The Man in the Dugout. “Koppett is a seminal figure in recent baseball nonfiction,” said a Washington Post reviewer, “an incisive analyst whose seriousness and intelligence have inspired a whole generation of baseball writers, spawning such varied but indispensable phenomena as the Elias folks, Bill James and (although Koppett probably would rather be spared the credit) sabermetrics.”32

James, the father of sabermetrics, had a complicated relationship with the sportswriter. He dedicated his book 1984 Baseball Abstract in part to Koppett. But in a long review of The Man in the Dugout, while praising Koppett’s style and breadth of knowledge, he wished that the man he’d admired a decade earlier had written it. “His unbroken focus on what is changing within the baseball world makes that world seem like an underground continent, dark and self-contained,” James wrote. “Nothing seems to have changed between 1916 and 1960 except that the farm systems grew up and the number of home runs increased.”33

High honors continued for Koppett following Cooperstown. He received the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994 and was posthumously inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. Columbia posthumously named him one of its 250 greatest alumni in 2004 (#156). In 2019 Koppett was named a Henry Chadwick Award winner by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

Koppett was a longtime member of SABR’s Lefty O’Doul (Bay Area) Chapter and a frequent and popular speaker at its meetings.34 He and sportswriter Mark Purdy are credited with naming the water beyond the AT&T Stadium right-field wall “McCovey Cove” for San Francisco Giants slugger Willie McCovey.35

The acclaimed sportswriter and author died suddenly of a heart attack June 22, 2003, while attending a concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. His daughter gave birth to his first grandchild the next day. Leonard Koppett was 79.

“I believe he would insist, in keeping with his love of great music and literature and for journalistic detail and for baseball, that we note here that the concert he was attending the day of his death began a Wagner and Weill festival,” Burgin wrote. “And that’s Richard Wagner, not Honus.”36

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Jan Finkel and fact-checked by Steve Ferenchick.

 

Sources

The author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com. He worked with and for Leonard Koppett while reporting for the Peninsula Times-Tribune, 1980-1983.

 

Notes

1 Government and military records and his earliest bylined articles spell Koppett’s original last name “Kopeliovitch,” with a “t,” which is frequently omitted in present-day accounts.

2 Megan McCaslin, “Leonard Koppett,” Palo Alto Weekly, May 1, 1996: https://www.paloaltoonline.com.

3 Leonard Koppett, The Rise and Fall of the Press Box (Toronto: Sport Classic Books, 2003), 53 — 54.

4 Len Kopeliovitch, “Baseball Kept Indoors,” Columbia Spectator, March 20, 1941: 3.

5 Leonard Koppett, “Letters to the Editor: WKCR’s Beginnings,” Columbia College Today, November 2001: http://www.college.columbia.edu.

6 Bill Levinson, On the Sidelines, Columbia Spectator, March 24, 1941: 3. The item was picked up two days later by Herbert Allan, College Sports, New York Post, March 26, 1941: 20.

7 Harry Jupiter, “Thinking Fan’s Guide,” San Francisco Examiner, August 7, 1967: 48.

8 Hugh Fullerton Jr., Sports Round Up, Albany Knickerbocker News, October 30, 1942: B8.

9 Leonard Kopeliovitch WWII Army Enlistment Record, https://www.ancestry.com.

10 Fred Russell, Sideline Sidelights, Nashville Banner, August 3, 1943: 10.

11 Leo Mabel, On the Sidelines, Columbia Spectator, April 29, 1948: 3.

12 Tom FitzGerald, Open Season, San Francisco Chronicle, June 24, 2003: https://www.sfgate.com.

13 Leonard Koppett, “Hal Schumacher subject of Herald Tribune Feature; Sells Bats for Livelihood,” Gloversville (New York) Herald, January 4, 1950: 8. Reprinted from New York Herald Tribune, January 1, 1950.

14 Milton Gross, Speaking Out, New York Post, October 8, 1958: 35.

15 Leonard Koppett, Working Press, New York Post, June 5, 1957: 80.

16 Leonard Koppett, “Monteverdi, Stravinsky Make Perfect Pair,” New York Post, October 23, 1962: 22.

17 Earl Wilson, It Happened Last Night, New York Post, April 24, 1964: 16.

18 Leonard Koppett, “The Old Numbers Game,” New York Times, April 17, 1965: 23.

19 “Jim Roach’s team started spring training at the usual time this year,” advertisement, Tarrytown (New York) Daily News, February 9, 1966: 17.

20 Arthur Daley, Sports of The Times, New York Times, August 21, 1967: 40.

21 Bill Veeck, “Runaway Makes News in National,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 13, 1967: 11.

22 Leonard Koppett, “Carrying Statistics to Extremes,” The Sporting News, February 11, 1978: 4.

23 David Shaw, “Literacy Finds a Home in Sports Pages,” Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1975: 3.

24 McCaslin, “Leonard Koppett.”

25 McCaslin, “Leonard Koppett.”

26 Murray Olderman, “The Musings of Aging Athletes,” Santa Ana (California) Register, March 24, 1976: E4.

27 Judy Miller led a Miami Herald team that won for investigative reporting in 1999. Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich received the prize for commentary in 2012.

28 Mary Schmich, “Sportswriter’s insight went beyond games,” Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2003: 2-1.

29 Leonard Koppett, A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball (New York: Dutton, 1967), 82.

30 Leonard Koppett, Sports Illusion, Sports Reality (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 12.

31 National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum video, “Leonard Koppett 1992 J G Taylor Spink Award Speech,” January 6, 2015: https://www.youtube.com.

32 George Robinson, “Baseball ’93: Let Us Now Praise Famous Managers,” Washington Post, April 4, 1993: WBK1.

33 Bill James, “The Nine-Inning Manager,” New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1993: 22.

34 The article’s fact-checker, a member of the Chapter, affirms Koppett’s popularity and remembers him sharing stories and signing books long after one meeting had ended.

35 Maria Guardado, “The Origins of McCovey Cove, Splash Hits,” MLB News, November 20, 2020: https://www.mlb.com.

36 David Burgin, “A Briefcase of Koppett Treasures,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 7, 2003: https://www.sfgate.com.

Full Name

Leonard Koppett

Born

September 15, 1923 at Moscow, (Russia)

Died

June 23, 2003 at San Francisco, CA (USA)

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