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Baseball’s Knight

June 26, 2001

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, Dallas).

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.

[Breaker quote: The one and only Koufax] 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 miracles.

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.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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