“Take the Grunt out of the Fastball”

koufaxfree (2)By Glen Sparks

Sandy Koufax hurled his baseball glove and spikes into the trash can at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on the last day of the season, Oct. 2, 1960. He ended the year 8-13, in frustration.

The 24-year-old left-hander gave up 100 walks in 175 innings. Over his first six seasons in the majors, Koufax mustered a 36-40 won-loss record with a 4.10 ERA. He gave up a whopping 405 free passes in 691.2 innings. What did the 683 strikeouts even matter?

Koufax paid the price for being a so-called bonus baby. Dodgers signed him for a $6,000 salary, plus a $14,000 signing bonus. Because Koufax’s bonus exceeded $4,000, he could not be sent to the minor leagues for at least two years. He couldn’t develop his incredible skills.

So, the hard-throwing prospect, playing in his hometown of Brooklyn, sat on the bench and waited. And waited. He pitched 41.1 2 innings in 1955, 58.2 in 1956. Manager Walt Alston didn’t trust Koufax, according to many reports. Other Dodger players resented that Koufax took up a roster spot and rarely saw any action. Sandy Koufax festered.

This says something about early Koufax: He made his first career start July 6, 1955 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He lasted 4.2 innings and walked eight (On the upside, he gave up just one run and three hits in the 4-1 loss.) He didn’t make another start until Aug. 27. On that day, he tossed a complete-game, two-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds for his first major league win. He struck out 14 and walked five.

Koufax threw hard. And harder. He reached back for something extra. If that didn’t work, he reached back again for something more. He threw wild high, wild outside, wild everywhere. Several years into his career, even as the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Dodgers following the 1957 season, Koufax continued to struggle with his control.

Midway through the 1960 season, Koufax pleaded to Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi.

“Trade me.” Please.

Bavasi said in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy that he never came close to dealing the team’s struggling young pitcher. But, would Koufax simply quit baseball? He did own an electronics store. What did it mean when he tossed away that glove and those shoes? Was he really through?

Well, Koufax didn’t like selling stuff, according to the Leavy book. Instead, he worked hard in the offseason to get into great shape and reported to spring training in Florida with a new commitment.

He began warming up with Dodgers catcher Norm Sherry. Stop trying to throw the blasted ball through a wall of steel, Sherry said. Just trying getting it over the plate. Don’t throw harder, throw easier.

“Take the grunt out of the fastball,” Sherry advised, according to Leavy.

Soon enough, Koufax discovered the strike zone. He fired heat at the edge of the zone. He broke off some of the most mind-boggling curveballs in big-league history. A legend was being made.

Over the final six seasons of his career (1961-66), Koufax went 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA. He struck out 1,713 batters in 1632.2 innings and walked only 412. In his 211 starts, Koufax completed 115 games and threw 35 shutouts.

The Hall Famer (1972, first ballot), won three Cy Young awards and hurled four no-hitters. He led the Dodgers to three National League pennants and two World Series championships.

And that glove and those spikes that he dumped? Equipment manager Nobe Kawano fished them out of the trash can. He figured that Koufax would be needing them.

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