Sandy Koufax

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Sanford Koufax pitched 12 big league seasons for the Dodgers, first in Brooklyn and later in Los Angeles. In the second half of his career, he was the most dominant left-hander in the history of baseball.

Born Sanford Braun in Brooklyn, New York, on December 30, 1935, his parents divorced when he was three. Six years later, his mother married Irving Koufax, an attorney, and the family briefly lived on Long Island before returning to the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, where Koufax attended Lafayette High School. His first love was basketball, serving as team captain for the Patriots while finishing second in the league in scoring and averaging over 16 points per game. At 15, he pitched and played first base in a local “Ice Cream League” and later joined Fred Wilpon—current majority owner of the New York Mets—on the high school team. Koufax accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where he was coached by the legendary Ed Jucker, who would later lead the Bearcats to back-to-back NCAA titles [Daily Dose, November 24]. Junker also coached the freshman baseball team and invited Koufax to try out. Koufax went 3-1 with 51 strikeouts and 30 walks in 32 innings pitched. In 1954, Koufax tried out for the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose general manager, Branch Rickey, told a scout that Koufax had, “the greatest arm I’ve ever seen.” He also tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers after being discovered by Al Campanis, who would later become the team’s GM. Campanis said, “There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stood up. The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and when I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.” The Dodgers signed Koufax to a $ 6,000 [$53,000 today] salary with a $ 14,000 [$123,000 today] signing bonus. Koufax was considered a “bonus baby” [signing bonus greater than $ 4,000], requiring him, under MLB rules, to remain on the big-league roster for a least two years before a team could send him to the minors. To make room on the roster, the Dodgers sent future Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda to the Montreal Royals of the International League.

Sandy Koufax made his major league debut in 1955. He was 19 years old and had poor control, walking 28 while striking out 30 in just over 41 innings of work. The next year was no different. Koufax could throw hard—he set a record with 31 total strikeouts in two games–but permitted baserunners and was benched for weeks at a time. Over his first six seasons, Koufax was 36-40, allowed nearly 13 baserunners per nine innings and had the second-worst ERA of all the pitchers who had thrown a comparable number of innings. He contemplated quitting baseball to go into the electronics business but decided to give it one more year. During a spring training game in 1961, Koufax walked the bases loaded on 12 straight pitches before Dodger catcher Norm Sherry visited the mound and advised his erratic lefty to throw easier in order to improve his control. Koufax struck out the side and went on to pitch seven no-hit innings.

Nineteen sixty-one was a breakout year for the 6’2”, 210 pound portsider. He went 18-13 and his league-leading 269 strikeouts broke Christy Mathewson’s 58-year-old NL mark. The following year, he went 14-7 with a 2.54 ERA and was named to the All-Star team for the second year in a row. In 1963, Sandy Koufax was nearly flawless, going 25-5 with 11 shutouts, a 1.88 ERA and leading the league with 308 strikeouts. Koufax joined former Dodger great Don Newcombe as the only two players in history to win the Cy Young Award and MVP in the same year. Yogi Berra said, “I can see how he won 25 games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.” Arm troubles began to affect Koufax in 1964, forcing him to receive cortisone shots before every start. Despite missing the final month of the season, he went 19-5 and posted a 1.74 ERA. He returned the following season to lead the league in wins, going 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA en route to his second unanimous Cy Young Award while leading the Dodgers to the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. Koufax was scheduled to start Game 1 but decided not to pitch because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. He returned to pitch a complete game shutout in Game 5 before returning on two days’ rest to toss a three-hit, complete-game shutout in Game 7, earning his second World Series MVP award and being named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.

Koufax had been diagnosed with traumatic arthritis in his pitching elbow during the 1964 season. He had pitched over 335 innings in 1965 despite constant pain, which he treated by taking Empirin with codeine before and during each start. To treat inflammation, he added Butzolidin and Capsolin ointment and soaked his arm in a tub of ice after each outing. In April of 1966, Dodger’s team physician Robert Kerlan notified Koufax that it was time to retire and that his arm could not take another season. Koufax kept Kerlan’s advice to himself and went out every fourth day to pitch. No athlete, other than Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, has ever put on a final-season display quite like Sandy Koufax did in 1966. He went 27-9, struck out 317, threw 27 complete games in 41 starts, tossed five shut-outs, posted the lowest ERA of his career [1.73] and led the Dodgers to the World Series, where they were swept by the Baltimore Orioles. After winning the third Triple Crown [wins, strikeouts, ERA] and Cy Young Awards of his career, Sandy Koufax retired. “I’ve got a lot of years to live after baseball, and I would like to live them with complete use of my body.”

Baseball analyst Tom Verducci wrote, “Sandy Koufax was the kind of man boys idolized, men envied, women swooned over and rabbis thanked.” He threw four career no-hitters—including a perfect game in 1965—to surpass Bob Feller [Daily Dose, November 3 ] for most of all time. Koufax pitched in eight World Series games, recording 61 strikeouts against 11 walks and 0.95 ERA. He led the league in ERA five straight times, strikeouts four times and wins three times. Koufax led the Dodgers to three pennants, four World Series titles and was a three-time Cy Young Award winner at a time that MLB only named one for both leagues. Only four pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame have more career strikeouts than innings pitched: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan and Koufax. In 2015, Sandy Koufax was named the greatest Dodger of all time and one of MLB’s four greatest living ballplayers [Mays, Aaron, Bench]. From 1963 to 1966, Sandy Koufax went 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA. In his last ten seasons, opponents batted .203 against him. The debate rages on around who is the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history—Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson—but there is no debating the fact that, from 1961 to 1966, Sanford Koufax was the most dominant southpaw the game has ever seen.

On this date in 1972, Sandy Koufax became the youngest player ever voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, entering on the first ballot at age 36.