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The Last of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw and the Burden of Greatness

Andy McCullough
Published by Hachette Books in 2024

The following was originally published in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on 05/18/2024

Works concerning how to succeed litter the shelves of almost any bookstore.

Often packaged in neat, formulaic titles such as “401 Ways,” “365 Ways,” “101 Ways,” “29 Ways,” “25 Ways,” “21 Ways,” the quantitative sweet spot for such advice seems to exist in the 20s.

Then again, who would want to consider 401 ways to succeed at whatever goal when 25 ways may suffice?

Searching those same shelves for advice when it comes to handling, managing or coping with success, however, will yield few if any titles. Reasons for that disparity are left to speculation.

A safe assumption may be that success achieved in whatever number of steps or ways automatically yields happiness or at least contentment. As a result, who would want to consult “401 Ways to Handle Success” when one previously spent time consulting “401 Ways to Achieve Success”?

Too often, though, stories of success have long, dark and often underexplored shadows.

In “The Last of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw and the Burden of Greatness,” Andy McCullough details how one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history succeeded as well as how he managed that success. McCullough’s book is thus “about what greatness demands of those who achieve it.”

Framed in a well-crafted story, baseball fans will undoubtedly find adding this title to their summer reading list worthwhile. Baseball fans as well as individuals who could not tell the difference between a curve and a slider, however, will find great value in a story that harbors insights drawn from the life of someone whose path to greatness was established well before turning 30.

“The Last of His Kind” follows the arc of Kershaw’s life from birth to the present day. In 23 concise chapters, McCullough recounts the needed details while also adding thematic layers concerning how Kershaw sought success and how, in turn, Kershaw sought to navigate it.

The details embedded in those layers are what, in turn, distinguish McCullough’s work from biographies of athletes that may otherwise beckon for one’s attention.

One theme McCullough unpacks is that Kershaw’s life is both complicated and routine.

As a child, Kershaw navigated a home life defined by his father’s battle with alcohol and, in turn, his mother’s battle with financial insecurity. Shortly after he began to perceive he possessed a gift when it came to pitching a baseball, Kershaw embraced a routine with near-religious fervor defined by the days between when he would pitch again.

That sense of discipline would serve him well on the field, while also providing him with a reprieve from the absence of routine he often experienced at home.

A second theme McCullough introduces is that relationships proved critical to Kershaw’s ability to achieve as well as navigate success.

Household instability understandably left Kershaw slow to trust. To this day, he keeps the same small circle of friends he had in high school.

One of those relationships, however, stands out more than any other: that with his wife, Ellen. The two began dating while in high school and managed the distance as well as any young couple could while Kershaw made his way to the majors and Ellen went to college.

Part of the support that fueled their relationship’s success came from Ellen’s parents, Jim and Leslie Melson, who treated Kershaw as a son. When Kershaw had almost nothing when he left for the minor leagues, Leslie outfitted him.

When Kershaw and his Dodger teammates eventually won a World Series, Kershaw repaid Leslie, who was battling pancreatic cancer at the time, by tearfully sharing with her “We did it.”

A third theme McCullough weaves into his book is the faith in Jesus Christ that Kershaw and Ellen share and that the Melsons sought to nurture.

While Kershaw’s faith nurtured his desire to succeed, it also helped him embrace a purpose that was greater than baseball. As a result, Kershaw “came to see his own growing athletic talent as a gift from above. His left arm was not just an appendage. It was an instrument. The ability thrust upon him, he decided, meant he owed something.”

Neither easy nor simple, navigating the burden that came with the greatness Kershaw achieved proved possible. In essence, his faith in Christ afforded him a context for success larger than baseball.

Finally, McCullough layers into his book how Kershaw’s faith in Christ compelled him to prioritize the leadership he was called to offer his growing family and his foundation.

When Cali, Kershaw’s oldest child, was born, McCullough noted the experience was a “game changer” for Kershaw, who committed himself to be as present in her life (and the lives of his next three children) as possible.

After a mission trip to Zambia, the couple established Kershaw’s Challenge, a foundation “aimed to aid children in Africa and the United States.” Major League Baseball would recognize Kershaw “with the Roberto Clemente Award, the sport’s top humanitarian honor. At twenty-four, Kershaw was the youngest winner in the four-decade history of the award.”

In “The Last of His Kind,” McCullough leaves Kershaw looking to determine when to retire. Regardless of when that day arrives, the burden of whatever future success may come will likely prove navigable.

Perhaps one day McCullough will tell that story in a subsequent volume. For now, McCullough has offered the story of one of the game’s greatest pitchers as well as insights that to date escape the paragons of self-help.