My Other Sandy
Sandy. That would be Koufax. Ive written about him before. Outstanding left-hander. For five magical years, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was the best.
Not quite perfect, maybe, except the night of September 9, 1965, against the Chicago Cubs. That night the losing pitcher, Bob Hendley, was nearly perfect too, giving up only one hit and one (unearned) run. The Dodgers werent exactly sluggers that year, hitting just 69 home runs, 6 of them by their second-best pitcher, big Don Drysdale, who won 23 games (to Sandys 26).
Fourteen strikeouts Sandy got that night, in his fourth no-hitter in four years and the only perfect game of his short career. Short, but peerless. He had to quit pitching at age 30 in 1966, his arm destroyed by its own cruel power, and I never really followed major-league baseball after that. The name Koufax would never appear in another box score.
A new season is about to begin, so the other day I grabbed Jane Leavys Sandy Koufax, which turned out to be the most thrilling baseball book Ive ever read, even better than Michael Lewiss wonderful Moneyball. It kept me laughing with a lump in my throat. I was young and joyful again. Still am, until further notice. Until this books spell wears off. Sooner or later it has to, a little.
Never mind the awesome stats. Leavys book is about other things. The short list would include grace; loyalty; physical and moral courage; humor and wit; above all, honor. A man made complex not by his dark side (Koufax just doesnt seem to have one) or inner demons, but by the sheer multiplicity of his qualities. He reminds me of my best friend, but he pitched better.
As an extremely promising young southpaw, Koufax agreed to sign with the Dodgers (still in Brooklyn then) for a modest $14,000 bonus. Even allowing for inflation, he turned out to be worth every penny. Other teams offered far more money, and he must have known he was worth far more; but he politely declined, for no better reason than that hed already given his word. And the quietly proud Jewish kid loved Brooklyn. Love and a handshake. Thats Koufax.
Leavy interviewed more than 400 people who knew him, but found nobody with a bad word to say about him. On the contrary, everyone seemed to have sweet and funny memories of his acts of kindness, both to raw, lonely rookies and to old and dying teammates. When he was a huge star, he went out of his way to look up old friends who assumed hed long forgotten them. Of all the perks of superstardom, the one he loved most was giving joy. He is still adored as even the enormously loved Babe Ruth could never be.
Koufax was as subtly analytical about throwing a ball as Ted Williams was about hitting one. He saw his whole body as a catapult, and he refined his delivery until it was mechanically perfect. He had a brain to go with that arm.
His fastball was nearly invisible, his curve Satanic. When, after his 25 and 5 season in 1963, an awed Yogi Berra wondered, How the hell did he lose five? Maury Wills, Koufaxs teammate, explained, He didnt. We lost them for him. True. To judge by the way the Dodgers hit when he took the mound, there should be a warning in future editions of the Talmud that the goyim wont score runs for a Jew.
Consider the fate of another fine Jewish lefty, Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On May 26, 1959, before Koufax achieved stardom, Haddix pitched a perfect game against the Milwaukee Braves, whose lineup included three of baseballs greatest sluggers: Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Adcock. But the Pirates failed to score even one run. So Haddix pitched three more perfect innings! An all-time record! And still the Pirates failed to score!
Finally, in the thirteenth inning, the Pirates committed an error, Haddix walked Aaron intentionally, and Adcock belted one over the fence. Game over. Losing pitcher: Haddix.
If Koufax had enjoyed a longer career, we can only guess how many more no- hitters and perfect games he might have pitched; on the other hand, given Dodger hitting, he might have met Haddixs fate once or twice.
Which brings me to the only flaw I can find in Sandy Koufax: his tendency to wilt under pressure. Want proof? Well, his lifetime batting average was .097. But in his eight World Series games, it dipped to an anemic .053.
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