Monday, March 28, 2011

Sandy Koufax: A Dodger True and Blue

Great Legends of Sport

The game has a cleanness. If you do a good job, the numbers say so. You don't have to ask anyone or play politics. You don't have to wait for the reviews.
Sandy Koufax

The only time I really try for a strikeout is when I'm in a jam. If the bases are loaded with none out, for example, then I'll go for a strikeout. But most of the time I try to throw to spots. I try to get them to pop up or ground out. On a strikeout I might have to throw five or six pitches, sometimes more if there are foul-offs. That tires me. So I just try to get outs. That's what counts - outs. You win with outs, not strikeouts.
Sandy Koufax, My Greatest Day in Baseball by John P. Carmichael

There is among us a far closer relationship than the purely social one of a fraternal organization because we are bound together not only by a single interest but by a common goal. To win. Nothing else matters, and nothing else will do. 
Sandy Koufax, What Baseball Means to Me by Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax, in 1961, was a big fan of spring training: "People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball."
Photo Credit: Baseball Digest, front cover, October 1961 issue
Source: Wikipedia

One of the greatest pitching battles in professional baseball took place between Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers and  Bob Hendley of the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium on September 9, 1965, before 29,139 fans, undoubtedly the vast majority rooting for the Dodgers that evening. The fans weren't disappointed, witnessing a pitching classic on both sides they soon wouldn't forget.

Bob Hendley of the Cubs pitched a masterful game, allowing only one hit and two batters to reach base. Hendley had a no-hitter going until the seventh inning. Usually, that would have been good enough for a victory. Unfortunately for Hendley and the Cubs, Koufax was perfect that night, throwing 113 pitches, facing 27 batters and retiring all of them—striking out the last six batters.

In all, Koufax struck out 14 batters, the most recorded for a perfect game. The Dodgers beat the Cubs 1-0, scoring an unearned run (see boxscore).Sandy Koufax became the sixth pitcher of the modern era, and eighth overall, to throw a perfect game, the first by a left-hander since 1880. The game was Koufax's fourth no-hitter, setting a Major League Baseball record (later only broken by Nolan Ryan).

If there were any doubt about Koufax's abilities, that game at the tail end of his career established Koufax among the greatest pitchers of all time. Called "the man with the golden arm," he struck out batters with uncanny regularity. He pitched with a straight overhand motion, which differed from the traditional three-quarters arm motion of pitchers. In terms of body mechanics, such a delivery style would later wear out his arm prematurely.

Although his pitching arsenal consisted mainly of two pitches: a four-seam fastball that had a rising motion due to its underspin, and a curveball that dropped as much as two feet, Koufax became a pitching legend. Even though hitters could guess which pitch was coming, they still couldn't hit it.  "Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork," Willie Stargell, a slugger with the Pittsburgh Pirates, once said.

Initially in his career, Koufax pitched wildly and erratically, trying too hard to overpower hitters, But when catcher Norm Sherry in 1961 advised Koufax to take a little off his fastball, he settled down and became one of professional baseball's greats. He struck out fourteen batters twice in his career: (in 1959 and 1962). Koufax played his entire career with the Dodgers (1955-1966), first in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles to where the team moved in 1958.

In twelve seasons with the Dodgers, the six-foot-two, two hundred and ten pound lefthander compiled a career 165-87 won-loss record a stellar 2.76 earned run average (ERA) and had 2,396 strikeouts in 2,324.4 innings pitched, an average of about one strikeout per inning. He currently ranks 38th on the list of the most strikeouts by a pitcher, which Nolan Ryan leads with 5,714 strikeouts in 27 years as a player.

No 32 for the Dodgers: Koufax had a straight over-the-top pitching motion.

A Man of Principles

He won the Cy Young Award as baseball's best pitcher three times: 1963, 1965 & 1966. He was on four World Series championship teams and played in seven All-Star games. In four World Series, he had a cumulative 4-3 record, a 0.95 ERA, 61 strikeouts, and two shutouts. (For a full list of his stats, go here.)

One of the most memorable moments came later on in 1965, this time testifying to his religious beliefs. As a Jew, Koufax decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series between the Dodgers and the (Minnesota) Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement.

Koufax said that personal beliefs took precedent over professional obligations, and it was not a surprise, he recounted in his 1966 autobiography: "There was never any decision to make…because there was never any possibility that I would pitch…the club knows that I don’t work that day.”

His choice, a natural by-product of who he was, not only made national news, but it fleshed out the conflict between personal belief and societal norms—very much in evidence today. The decision didn't affect his performance. Koufax pitched two complete game shutouts in Games 5 and 7, and the Dodgers won the Series four games to three.

The Early Years

Sandford Braun was born in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, New York to Evelyn Braun (nee Lichtenstein) and Jack Braun on December 30, 1935. It was a middle-class Jewish neighborhood.

When Sandy was three, his parents divorced, and his father abandoned the family. His mother, Evelyn, moved in with her parents, Max and Dora Lichtenstein, who instilled a sense of Jewish culture in the young boy. Sandy's mother worked long hours as an accountant to support her family. When Sandy was nine, his mother married Irving Koufax, a lawyer, and Sandy took his name. The family moved to Long Island's Rockville Centre, a suburban enclave with lots of parks and green space.

In his new family Sandy got a sister, Edie. Of greater importance for a young boy, he grew close to his stepfather, whom he fondly considered his father and role model. As Matt Doeden wrote in Sandy Koufax: "When I speak of my father, I speak of Irving Koufax, for he has been to me everything a father could be."  His father was there for the young boy and encouraged him.

Before tenth grade, Koufax's family moved back to the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, where Koufax attended Lafayette High School. Koufax initially preferred basketball to baseball.  When he did play sandlot baseball in Brooklyn, he initially played as a first baseball, only taking up pitching when he was fifteen. Koufax spent much of his time playing basketball at the Jewish Community Center in Bensonhurst.

After graduation, Koufax attended University of Cincinnati, studying architecture, on a basketball scholarship. In the spring  of 1954, he made the college baseball varsity team. He compiled a 3-1 record with 51 strikeouts and 30 walks in 31 innings, a pattern that would continue for the first years of his professional career.

That year, Koufax tried out with the New York Giants, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

No hits: Sandy Koufax pitched four no hitters in his twelve-year career with the Dodgers.
Signs with the Hometown Dodgers

He signed with his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers in the summer of 1954 for $6,000 a season and a $14,000 signing bonus, a contract worth $20,000. Koufax, 19, played his first game a year later on June 24, 1955. In his first game, Koufax pitched two scoreless innings against the Milwaukee Braves. His first start was July 6, where he pitched only 4 ⅔ innings, giving up eight walk.

That year, he appeared in 12 games, pitching  41.7 innings. He had five starts with a 2-2 record, with two complete games and two shutouts and a 3.02 ERA. The Dodgers won their first-ever World Series in 1955. Koufax received a ring, but did not participate in post-season play.

The next year was similar, and Koufax still struggled to find a regular place on the rotation as he struggled to control his blazing fastball. Koufax made the regular rotation in 1957, his third year in the majors, but as was his record in the earlier years, it was still marred by control problems, erratic outings and wild pitches. Although he had a blazing fastball and he could strike out batters, he had problems controlling it. For example, in 1957, Koufax led the National League with 17 wild pitches and 105 walks.

In 1958 the team left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, after historic Ebbets Field became unsuitable for the ball-club, and  Walter O'Malley, the team's owner, couldn't come to an agreement for a new stadium in Brooklyn with the city of New York's politicians, including city planner Robert Moses.

Gaining Control

Out west, Koufax's pitching woes continued. Koufax, a pitcher with great promise, was not living up to his potential. It finally came together in Koufax's mind after he had a talk with Norm Sherry, the Dodgers backup catcher during spring training in 1961:
Entering the 1961 season, Koufax had a record of 36-40 and had walked 405 batters in 691.2 innings in his first 6 seasons. At spring training, it seemed that like nothing had changed as Koufax still had a blazing fast ball, but little control.

Then, Sandy had a conversation with backup catcher Norm Sherry (brother of the Dodgers' 1959 World Series MVP), who told him, "Sandy, you could solve your control problem if you'd just try to throw the ball easier. Just get it over the plate. You've still got enough 'swift' on it to get the hitters out."

Although he had heard that advice before, for some reason, Koufax listened this time and said, "In the past I'd go out there and, every pitch I threw, I'd try to throw harder than the last one. From then on, I tried to throw strikes and make them hit the ball. The whole difference was control. Not just controlling the ball, but controlling myself, too."
During the next six seasons, 1961 to 1966, Koufax was without argument the best pitcher in baseball. He won 129 games against 47 losses, and striking out 1,713 batters. In 1961, he posted an 18–13 record, and led the league with 269 strikeouts, breaking Christy Mathewson's 58-year-old National League mark of 267.

In 1963, Major League baseball extended the strike zone, which helped reduce the total number of walks by pitchers. In that year, Koufax won the pitchers' Triple Crown, leading the league in with 25 wins, 306 strikeouts and a 1.88 ERA.  In the World Series, The Dodgers swept the Yankees in four games. Koufax was the Series MVP.

In 1965, Koufax played most of the season with pain, his arm suffering from traumatic arthritis. He took painkillers and soaked his arm in ice after each start. Despite this, Koufax led the Dodgers to another pennant, pitching 335⅔ innings. He won another pitcher's Triple Crown, leading the league with 26 wins, a 2.04 ERA and 382 strikeout. Despite not pitching the first game of the World Series for religious observance of Yom Kippur, Koufax led the team to another victory against the Minnesota Twins, and again was Series MVP.

The Later Years & Post Retirement

But his arm couldn't continue taking the punishment from pitching, which team physician, Robert Kerlan, had told Koufax at the beginning of his last season. In his last year, Koufax pitched 323 innings, compiling a record of 27 wins and nine losses (27-9). After the 1966 World Series, which the Baltimore Orioles swept the Dodgers in four games, Koufax, 30, announced his retirement due to his arthritic condition.

His last game was on October 2, 1966. His over-the-top pitching style took a lot out of his arm. As Koufax said in his famous retirement speech: "I've got a lot of years to live after baseball and I would like to live them with the complete use of my body."

In Baseball Digest (May 1985), Koufax said that although the perfect game was important, it was not the highlight of his career.  His last regular season game in 1966, in which the Dodgers beat the Phillies 6-3, was:
Really the highlight of my career was the last game of 1966. We were playing a doubleheader in Philadelphia. We needed to win one of the two to clinch the pennant and I knew it was my last year. We won and it meant an awful lot to me to win the last one.
Rightfully, many honors followed such a great player. Koufax was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, his first year of eligibility, the youngest inductee at age 36, five months younger than the Yankee great Lou Gehrig. In 1999, The Sporting News placed Koufax at number 26 on its list of "The 100 Greatest Baseball Players." That same year, he was named as one of the 30 players on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

Sandy Koufax married Anne Widmark, daughter of movie star Richard Widmark, on January 10,1969, in a civil ceremony at the home of actor Richard Windmark in West Los Angeles. He was 33; she was 23.The couple divorced in the early 1980s. He then remarried and divorced his second wife in what has been described as a brief marriage. He has no children, Koufax is an intensely private man who wants his baseball exploits to speak for themselves. He is also known as a decently nice individual.

Koufax lives in Vero Beach, Florida,  a few miles from Dodgertown, where the Dodgers held spring training for sixty years until they moved to Glendale, Arizona, a few years ago. As for his fairly short career, due in large part to his pitching style, Koufax offered the following in the same 1985 Baseball Digest interview: "Maybe my ability to throw hard might have brought my career to an end. Maybe if I have saved myself it would have affected my pitching. I don't know. But I have no regrets."