Many consider Sandy Koufax (born 1945) to be one of the best left-handed pitchers of all time. He had six exemplary seasons in the 1960s. After a slow start, his baseball career was cut short by problems with his pitching arm. Still, his accomplishments on the field led to his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Koufax was born Sanford Braun on December 30, 1945, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of Jack (a salesman) and Evelyn (an accountant) Braun. His parents divorced when Koufax was three years old. Six years later, his mother married Irving Koufax, an attorney. Jack Braun had also remarried, and soon stopped calling his son and paying child support. Koufax took his stepfather's name. Irving Koufax encouraged his stepson in all pursuits, including baseball and other sports.
Koufax preferred basketball to baseball as a youth. When he did play the latter, in sandlot games or in Brooklyn's so-called "Ice Cream League," he was usually the first baseman. He did not pitch his first game until he was 15 years old. Koufax spent much of his time playing basketball at the Jewish Community House. While attending Lafayette High School, a coach tried to convince Koufax to play football as well, but Koufax was not interested.
After graduation, Koufax entered the University of Cincinnati, studying architecture on a basketball scholarship. During his first year, he averaged ten points a game. He also tried out for the school's baseball team on a whim. In 32 innings pitched, Koufax struck out 51 hitters. His tenure at Cincinnati was brief, only a year or two. As early as high school, he had been scouted, initially by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and later the Dodgers and Milwaukee's team.
In 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed the 19-year-old Koufax to a contract worth about $20,000, with a $14,000 bonus. Roger Khan of the Los Angeles Times quoted Al Campanis, who worked in the front office of the Dodgers organization, as saying, "Only two times in my life has the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck. Once was when I saw Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel. The other time was when I first saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball." Because of the bonus, league rules dictated that Koufax had to stay on the Dodgers roster for at least two years. Thus, Koufax never played in the minor leagues, but had to develop in the spotlight of the majors.
This situation was difficult because Koufax was a very wild pitcher. While he threw the ball hard and had a speedy fastball, he often lacked control. When he did have control of his pitches, it was inconsistent. It was said that left-handed pitchers took longer to develop, but some speculated that Koufax might have had a confidence problem as well. Koufax admitted he was initially in awe of his team-mates. In his first two seasons with the Dodgers, 1955-56, Koufax only appeared in 28 games, posting a record of four wins and six loses. Though he won only two games each season, he showed flashes of his future brilliance. In one 1955 game, his second career start, Koufax threw a two-hit shutout. Koufax threw the ball hard in that game, and believed that he had to throw it that way for it to work. This belief hindered his development for six years.
During the 1957 season, Koufax pitched more often and turned his first winning season record, five wins and four losses. He pitched a total of 104 2/3 innings. After the season ended, Koufax remained with the Dodgers when they moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. He continued to be used in more games and demonstrated enough talent that the Dodgers did not give up on him. He posted an 11-11 record on the season. This trend continued in 1959. Koufax tied the new major league record for most strikeouts in a two-game period with 31, 13 in one, than 18 against the San Francisco Giants. Though the Dodgers went on to win the World Series against the Chicago White Sox, Koufax lost in the one game he pitched, 1-0.
Koufax's 1960 season was a similar combination of highs and lows. Though his record was eight wins and 13 losses, he struck out 197 batters in 175 innings. He was disappointed with himself, and was not sure if the Dodgers would keep him on the team, for good reason. In his first six seasons, his record was only 36-40. In the 691 2/3 innings he pitched, he struck out 684 and walked 405. He told Joseph Durso of The New York Times, "I have a terrible temper. After the final game that season, I threw all my baseball stuff away, left the clubhouse and didn't think I'd ever come back. I even went into business, but wasn't crazy about it. Then I decided I hadn't worked hard enough, so next spring I reported to Vero Beach. Our clubhouse man, Nobe Kawano, handed me the gear and said, 'I took all your stuff out of the garbage."'
Before the beginning of the 1961 season, Koufax talked to his team's general manager, Buzzie Bavasi, and asked that he be allowed to pitch on a more regular basis. Koufax believed that if he had too many days off in between starts, it was detrimental to his arm. Bavasi granted his request, and Koufax finally learned to control his fastball, in part because of advice from catcher Norm Sherry. During a game with the Chicago White Sox, Koufax got himself into trouble, with the bases loaded and nobody out. Sherry told him that he would have better control if he eased up on the ball and did not always throw it so hard. Koufax followed Sherry's advice, and got the next three batters out. With the help of Sherry and a pitching coach, Koufax also developed a strong curveball and a change-up, though he did not have complete confidence in the latter. As Bruce Jenkins of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote "Koufax had the greatest fastball of his day (maybe ever) and the best curveball. He didn't need anything else." Koufax's career was transformed.
Beginning in 1961, Koufax was chosen to play in the All-Star game every year until the end of his career. He also led the league in at least one category each season. In 1961, Koufax posted an 18-13 record, and led the league in strikeouts with 269, a new record. Beginning in 1962, through his retirement in 1966, Koufax had the league's best earned run average (ERA) and pitched at least one shutout per year. In 1962, his ERA was 2.54, and he posted a record of 14-7, striking out 216 batters in 184 1/3 innings. However Koufax did not pitch for half of the season because he developed circulatory problems in his pitching arm he after a wild pitch had accidentally hit him. This injury would eventually shorten his career.
Koufax had a dominant season in 1963, and had much to show for it. He led the league in wins, with a 25-5 record; ERA, with 1.88; strikeouts, with 306; and shutouts, with 11. The Dodgers won the World Series against the New York Yankees. Koufax pitched two complete games, winning them both by allowing only 12 and 3 earned runs. He set a record by striking out 23 batters in 18 innings. For his season, Koufax was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. He also won the Cy Young Award, given to the league's best pitcher.
In 1964, Koufax had a shortened season due to another injury to his pitching arm, which led to chronic arthritis. Koufax would spend the rest of his career in pain, pitching only after he had received cortisone shots. Despite missing the last month of the season, Koufax had a 19-5 record, had the league's best ERA (1.74) and winning percentage (.792), and led the league in shutouts, with seven. Koufax posted similar numbers in 1965. With a record of 26-8, he had the league's best ERA (2.04) and set a new record with 382 strikeouts. Koufax also won his second Cy Young Award. But these were not Koufax's best accomplishments of the season.
Koufax pitched a perfect game on September 9, 1965. He retired all 27 batters, the last six on strikeouts. Koufax told Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times, "Earlier in the game, I didn't have great stuff. I was just getting people out. But the last two innings were probably as good as I ever pitched." This game was later named one the best moments in the history of the Dodgers by its fans.
Koufax became a hero to many of his fellow Jews by refusing to pitch in the first game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur, the high holy day. Koufax was criticized by some because the Dodgers lost that game. However, he went on to pitch in three of the next six games. He lost the first, but won the last two, including the deciding seventh game, 2-0.
At the beginning of the 1966 season, Koufax and another Dodgers pitcher, Don Drysdale, held out at the beginning of the season for several weeks in a salary dispute. They hired an agent to negotiate for them, which was unheard of at the time. This marked the beginning of a trend in Major League baseball because it worked for them. Koufax signed a contract worth $130,000 for the season, a big salary in that era. He earned his pay by posting a 27-9 record. He led the league in strikeouts (317), had the league's best ERA (1.73), and won his third Cy Young Award. The Dodgers appeared in the World Series again, but lost to the Baltimore Orioles in four games. Koufax pitched in one game, and lost.
Koufax thought he might retire all season long, and did so after the conclusion of the 1966 season. He did not want to risk permanent damage because of his injuries. According to Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times, at the time he said, "I've got a lot of years to live after baseball. And I would like to live them with complete use of my body." His teammates were unprepared for the announcement because Koufax had not told them in advance. He was known throughout his career for being rather aloof. In retirement, Koufax would guard his privacy even more. He moved to Maine, using that as his home base for many years. To make a living, Koufax signed a ten-year contract with NBC to be a baseball broadcaster in 1966. While was good at the job, he was not always comfortable on camera. He quit before the start of the 1973 season.
Baseball had not forgotten Koufax's contributions. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in the first year that he became eligible. At 36 years of age, he was the youngest inductee, and one of only six to be elected in their first year of eligibility. Koufax remained close to the game by serving as a guest pitching coach in various training camps, including the Dodgers and New York Mets. He also spent 11 years, 1979-90, working as a roving minor league pitching instructor in the Dodgers' system.
Koufax enjoyed his anonymity. He was twice married, first to Anne Widmark, daughter of the famous actor, Richard Widmark. They divorced in the early 1980s. He was remarried to a woman named Kim, but they also were divorced in the late 1990s. Of his life and career, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote, "Koufax was the kind of man boys idolized, men envied, women swooned over and rabbis thanked, especially when he refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. And when he was suddenly, tragically done with baseball, he slipped into a life nearly monastic in its privacy."
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