June 26, 2001
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.
Its called, simply, Koufax (Taylor Publishing Company,
Did I say book? Its more like a hymn. In
an age when iconoclasm doesnt spare the giants of sport, Gruver recounts
one of baseballs 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 dont 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
Fellers 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 games
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
By now some of Koufaxs
records have been broken, and todays stars may compile even more
impressive statistical career marks. But Koufax was a workhorse, often pitching
more than 300 innings in a season. Todays 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 Koufaxs 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 wasnt 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