Baseball's Knight 
June 26, 2001 

by Joe Sobran

     If you've read articles comparing Pedro Martinez, 
Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux favorably to Sandy Koufax, 
you might want to read a recent book by Edward Gruver. 
It's called, simply, KOUFAX (Taylor Publishing Company, 

     Did I say book? It's more like a hymn. In an age 
when iconoclasm doesn't spare the giants of sport, Gruver 
recounts one of baseball's most heroic careers.

     Sandy Koufax, a lanky Brooklyn southpaw, joined the 
Brooklyn Dodgers right out of college in 1955. He threw 
amazing fastballs that never found the plate 
consistently, so he spent his first few years struggling 
with his control and warming the bench.

     Then, during an exhibition game in which he was 
walking everyone, he took the simple advice of catcher 
Norm Sherry: "Why don't you take something off the ball 
and just let them hit it?" Koufax stopped throwing with 
all his might -- and struck out the side. At the end of 
the inning, Sherry told him: "You just now threw harder 
trying not to than when you tried to." Koufax pitched 
seven innings with eight strikeouts, giving up no hits.

     By letting up a little, Koufax found his control and 
became unhittable. His fastball approached 100 miles per 
hour; his curve dove with incredible sharpness. When 
healthy, he regularly led the league in wins, strikeouts, 
earned run average, and several other departments. He 
broke Bob Feller's record for strikeouts in a season and 
pitched no-hitters in four consecutive years. He pitched 
a perfect game and missed a second by one pitch.

     In the early 1960s, when the Dodgers had moved to 
Los Angeles, it became clear that Koufax was one of the 
game's all-time greats. He led the Dodgers in a four-game 
sweep of the mighty New York Yankees in the 1963 World 
Series. He won two of those games, handcuffing Mickey 
Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra -- sluggers who 
usually feasted on fastballs.

     By now some of Koufax's records have been broken, 
and today's stars may compile even more impressive 
statistical career marks. But Koufax was a workhorse, 
often pitching more than 300 innings in a season. Today's 
starting pitchers work every five days; Koufax pitched 
with three days' rest, or less. And he twice pitched 27 
complete games -- almost unthinkable today.

     But what really set Koufax apart was his courage. 
Almost as soon as he reached his peak, he suffered 
painful and dangerous injuries. First a finger nearly had 
to be amputated; then his pitching elbow became 
arthritic. During his greatest seasons he was pitching in 
constantly increasing pain that was bound to shorten his 
career. That left arm was destroying itself with its own 

     Through it all, he never complained. He was an 
absolute knight, who once pitched a whole season without 
hitting a batter. Old Dodgers still recall his kindness 
to them as rookies. What a man: modest, dignified, 
gracious -- and just so beautiful to watch!

     Gruver thinks Koufax's supreme feat was his 
performance in the 1965 World Series against the hard-
hitting Minnesota Twins. Koufax declined to pitch the 
first game, which fell on Yom Kippur: being a faithful 
son of Abraham meant more to him than being the greatest 
pitcher in the world. The Dodgers lost the first game, 
then he pitched and lost the second game. The Twins 
seemed on their way to a sweep.

     The Dodgers won the next three games, though, with 
Koufax pitching a four-hit shutout in the fifth game. 
Then the Twins tied it up, forcing a seventh.

     Would Koufax pitch the big one? The long season had 
left him exhausted. He had had only two days' rest. His 
arm was shot, his curve wasn't there, and the Twins, led 
by Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew, and Bob Allison, really 
loved fastballs, especially when they knew they were 
coming. The Dodgers also had another great pitcher in Don 
Drysdale, who was fresh and ready.

     Yet there was only one Koufax, and every lover of 
baseball wanted him to pitch. Choosing poetry over logic, 
manager Walter Alston gave him the job. So Koufax, 
without his incomparable curve, beat the Twins 2 to 0, a 
three-hitter with ten strikeouts. Afterward he admitted 
feeling a hundred years old.

     After the 1966 season, possibly his greatest, Sandy 
Koufax retired, only 30 years old. It was about the 
saddest news since Mozart died. 


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