By Glen Sparks
Sandy Koufax won 27 games in 1966, struck out 317 batters, and posted a career-low1.73 ERA. In his final start for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he gave up one earned run in six innings, in Game 2 of the ’66 World Series.
Soon after, he called a press conference for Nov. 18. One of the greatest left-handed pitchers in baseball history announced his retirement, six weeks shy of his 31st birthday. His elbow hurt like the devil, arthritis had kicked in, and he wanted to play golf.
Flashbulbs popped at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, reporters scribbled notes, and Koufax said, “I have taken too many pills and too many shots.” … “I’ve got a lot of years to live after baseball, and I would like to live with the complete use of my body.” No one from the L.A. front office attended the press conference.
Koufax, nicknamed the “left arm of God,” retired with a 165-87 won-loss record, a 2.76 ERA and 2,396 strikeouts. He quit at the top of his game. Koufax put together the greatest final season in the history of major professional sports. (The other contender is another No. 32, Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns’ running back, who left football for Hollywood after rushing for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns in his last campaign. His best movie? The Dirty Dozen. His second best? … 1,000 Rifles?)
The baseball writers elected Koufax to the Hall of Fame in 1972, in his first year on the ballot. To this day, he gets his just due as a baseball legend. He is bigger than life, just like Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and Hank Aaron.
The one criticism, of course, is that he did not last as long as some of his contemporaries. The argument goes something like this: “Koufax only pitched 12 seasons. … He was only dominant in the second half of his career. For the first half, he was so wild he couldn’t hit the broad side of a peanut salesman from three rows away.”
OK, but. Did Koufax need to win another Cy Young Award? He was the first to win three. Did he need to throw another no-hitter? He was the first to toss four.
Take a quick look at more Koufax career highlights:
- He set a National League record with 382 strikeouts in 1965.
- He led the N.L. in ERA five straight seasons (1962-66).
- He topped the circuit in strikeouts four times, WHIP four times and wins three times.
- He won the MVP in 1963 and was runner-up in ’65 and ’66.
- He threw a perfect game Sept. 9, 1965, against the Chicago Cubs.
- In World Series action, he posted a .095 ERA in 57 innings (61 strikeouts and allowed just 36 hits, a 0.825 WHIP).
Koufax also inspired some pretty good quotes, both from the competition and from the Dodgers.
Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell said, “Trying to hit Koufax was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”
Dodger executive Al Campanis said, “There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stood up. The first time I saw the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.”
Of course, the Koufax legend is built around the 1961-66 seasons. He went 129-47 during that run with a 2.19 ERA. He struck out 1,713 batters in 1,632.2 innings. Not surprisingly, Koufax made the All-Star team in each of those six years.
Fans still marvel at the numbers Koufax put up in his prime. Ballplayers marveled that he ever lost. The infielder Harvey Kuenn made the last out in Koufax’s 1963 no-hitter against the Giants and in the perfect game. A reporter once asked Kuenn, “What was the difference between the two games?”
Kuenn: “About two years.”
Koufax didn’t need to do anything more than he already did in his amazing career. He did more than enough.
Two good books about Koufax:
Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy
Koufax by Edward Gruver
And one for the kids:
You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter (author) and Andre Carrilho