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.
Became a Dodger
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."'
Learned to Control Pitches
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.
Refused to Pitchon Yom Kippur
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.
Retired at Age 30
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."
American Jewish Biographies, Lakeville Press, 1982.
The Ballplayers: Baseball's Ultimate Biographical Reference, edited by Mike Shatzkin, Arbor House/William Morrow, 1990.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1987.
Hickok, Ralph, The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History, Facts on File, 1992.
Hickok, Ralph, A Who's Who of Sports Champions: Their Records and Stories, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995.
Karst, Gene, and Martin J. Jones, Jr., Who's Who in Professional Baseball, Arlington House, 1973.
Light, Jonathon Frasier, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, McFarland and Company, Inc., 1997.
Who's Who in America 1999, Marquis Who's Who, 1998.
Denver Post, May 2, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1990; July 15, 1999; October 25, 1999.
New York Times, August 23, 1980; May 7, 1988.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 1999.
Sports Illustrated, April 25, 1994; July 12, 1999. □
"Sandy Koufax." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404707616.html
"Sandy Koufax." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Retrieved September 25, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404707616.html
American baseball player
During his prime, Sandy Koufax dominated major league baseball with his powerful, yet fatally fragile left arm. From 1962 to 1966, Koufax pitched four no-hitters (including a perfect game) and struck out more than 1,400 batters, winning 111 games and losing only 34. What makes Koufax's story so marvelous, however, is his transformation. During his early years, Koufax struggled at times to get the ball near the plate. Yet in the end, Koufax tamed his fastball, prompting Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell to remark that hitting Koufax was like "trying to drink coffee with a fork." What Koufax is most remembered for, however, occurred off the pitcher's mound. Koufax became a hero for refusing to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. Koufax's dedication to his religion helped generations of American Jews take pride in their heritage. As quickly as Koufax's arm brought him into the spotlight, it also took him out. In the end, Koufax's arm proved to be as delicate as it was powerful. Arm pain forced Koufax into retirement in 1966 when he was only 30 years old and still at the top of his game.
Preferred Basketball as Youngster
Sandy Koufax was born Sanford Braun on December 30, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York, to Jack and Evelyn Braun, though his parents soon divorced. As a youngster, Koufax stayed with his Jewish grandparents, Max and Dora Lichtenstein, while his mother, an accountant, worked. When Koufax was nine, his mother married a lawyer named Irving Koufax. Young Sandy took his stepfather's last name and pretty much severed ties with his birthfather.
Growing up, Koufax's true love was basketball. At Brooklyn's Lafayette High School, the 6-foot-2 Koufax dominated the league. With his Herculean arm, Koufax could launch a basketball the length of the court to a teammate waiting under the basket.
Koufax was a shy kid who preferred staying out of the spotlight, yet his muscles continually drew him in.
In Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, author Jane Leavy recalled that a childhood friend noted that strangers at the beach gawked at the teenage Koufax's build, calling him "a Greek god."
Though Koufax loved basketball, he dabbled in baseball and played in a sandlot league. Legend has it that when Koufax pitched, his teammates sat down because they didn't expect any hits: Koufax either walked the batters with his wild pitches, or struck them out with his fastball.
Following high school, Koufax headed to the University of Cincinnati in 1953, hoping to study architecture. He made the basketball team and earned a partial scholarship from coach Ed Jucker. Jucker also coached the baseball team and by the spring of 1954, Koufax was on the roster. That season, Koufax had 51 strikeouts in 32 innings, coupled with 30 walks. Despite his wildness, the Brooklyn Dodgers saw potential and signed Koufax in 1954. Because Koufax received a large signing bonus, the Dodgers had to place Koufax on their roster. The rule was supposed to keep wealthy clubs from signing all the best prospects. Unfortunately for Koufax, who had pitched only one season of college ball, skipping the minor leagues proved disastrous.
Overcame Ball-Control Problem
The inexperienced pitcher struggled in the majors. At the end of the 1960 season, Koufax was a career-losing pitcher with a record of 36 and 40. His mediocrity gnawed at him; Koufax considered quitting, yet had a change of heart and reported to spring training in 1961 determined to take responsibility for his career. He began to sacrifice speed for accuracy. Slowly, Koufax gained control of his unruly fastball.
Koufax explained his transformation in John Grabowski's book, Sandy Koufax, saying that he became a good pitcher when he stopped trying to make batters miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.
Koufax ended the 1961 season 18-13 and made his first All-Star appearance. He also fanned 269 batters to break a National League strikeout record.
In 1962, Koufax pitched his first of four no-hitters, and by 1963 he was at the top of his game, ending the season 25-5, with 11 shutouts. At 1.88, his earned-run average (ERA) was the lowest posted in the National League in 20 years. Koufax also led his team to a 1963 World Series victory over the New York Yankees by winning two games in the series. Koufax's stellar pitching earned him his first of three Cy Young Awards, presented to the best pitcher in baseball. He was also named the World Series MVP and won the Hickok Belt, awarded to the top professional athlete.
|1935||Born on December 30 in Brooklyn, New York|
|1953||Enters college at the University of Cincinnati; makes basketball team|
|1954||Pitches only season of college baseball|
|1954||Signs with the Brooklyn Dodgers|
|1955||Makes major league debut on June 24 against the Milwaukee Braves|
|1959||Appears in World Series|
|1960||Nearly quits baseball due to poor record|
|1965||Arthritic arm plagues him during the season|
|1966||Appears in World Series|
|1966||Wins last major league game on October 2|
|1966||Announces retirement from baseball on November 18|
|1969||Marries Anne Heath Widmark on January 1|
|1972||Watches Dodgers retire his uniform number (32)|
|1979||Begins working as a pitching instructor for the Dodgers|
|1980s||Divorces wife in the early part of the decade|
|1990||Retires from work as Dodgers pitching instructor|
|1990s||Divorces second wife, Kim Koufax, in latter part of the decade|
|1990s||Appears in charity golf tournaments|
|2002||Continues to help coach various struggling pitchers|
Plagued with Sore Arm
The strain of throwing 90-mph fastballs, however, soon caught up with Koufax. His arm muscles tore and his elbow cartilage broke down causing inflammation. Koufax sat out part of the 1964 season, though he still pitched to a 19-5 record.
Koufax's arm continued to pester him during the 1965 season. To ease the painful swelling, Koufax marinated his body with a skin-searing ointment called Capsolin. He gobbled codeine along with an anti-inflammatory medicine used to treat thoroughbred horses. The medicines sickened Koufax and slowed his reaction time.
Koufax's 1965 stats obscured his pain. His record stood at 26-8 at the start of the World Series, when the Dodgers faced the Minnesota Twins. The first game was held on Yom Kippur, and Koufax refused to pitch, becoming a hero to legions of American Jews. In the end, he won two games in the series, helping the Dodgers secure the championship.
In 1966, Koufax pitched to a 27-9 record and shocked the world by announcing his retirement because he faced the prospect of losing the use of his arm if he kept pitching. Unfortunately, Koufax lived before laparoscopic surgery could have fixed his arm and kept him pitching for years to come.
Remembered as True Champion
Following his retirement, Koufax worked as a sports commentator for NBC, although that position didn't fit the reserved pitcher very well. On January 1, 1969, Koufax married Anne Heath Widmark; they divorced in the early 1980s. Koufax later married Kim Koufax, though they divorced in the late 1990s. He never had any children.
In 1972, when Koufax was 36, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the youngest player to receive such honors. In 1979, Koufax began working as a coach for the Dodgers, quitting in February 1990.
After leaving baseball, Koufax lived a reclusive, quiet life, making his home in Vero Beach, Florida, the off-season home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He refused to cash in on his fame, appearing rarely in public. Koufax is a modest man who has tried to be forgotten. He tells authors not to write about him. But the very fact that authors are still calling and fans are still clamoring to know him is a testament to the impact he made. Though more than three decades have passed since he hurled his last game, Koufax still enjoys working out at the Dodgers clubhouse, where he has a key.
Though Koufax quit as a Dodgers pitching instructor in 1990, he still coaches players intermittently from time to time. In February 2002, during spring training, Koufax tutored then-Dodger Terry Mulholland on his curveball. Likewise, Koufax has worked wonders with Texas Rangers hurler Chan Ho Park and New York Mets pitcher Al Leiter.
Perhaps former teammate Don Sutton said it best when he told Sports Illustrated, "He was a star who didn't feel he was a star. That's a gift not many people have."
|Bk. D: Brooklyn Dodgers; LA D: Los Angles Dodgers (the team relocated from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958).|
|Pitched in four World Series (1959, 1963, 1965, 1966) for a total of four wins (two of them shutouts) and three losses.|
SELECTED WRITINGS BY KOUFAX:
(With Ed Linn) Koufax. New York: Viking Press, 1966.
Grabowski, John. Sandy Koufax. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.
Gruver, Edward. Koufax. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Co., 2000.
Leavy, Jane. Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2002.
Sanford, William R. and Carl R. Green. Sandy Koufax. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1993.
"The Left Arm of God." Sports Illustrated (July 12, 1999): 82.
"Sandy Koufax's Career Pitching Statistics." Baseball Hall of Fame. http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers%5Fand%5Fhonorees/hofer_stats/Pitching/koufax_sandy.htm (November 1, 2002).
Sketch by Lisa Frick
Awards and Accomplishments
|Koufax retired in 1966 with 165 wins to 87 losses.|
|1961-66||Selected for National League All-Star game|
|1962||Pitched no-hitter against the New York Mets on June 30|
|1963||Pitched no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants on May 11|
|1963||Struck out 15 Yankees on October 2, setting a new World Series strikeout record|
|1963||Won two games in the World Series against the New York Yankees to help team clinch the championship|
|1963||Named National League Most Valuable Player (MVP), World Series MVP, Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, United Press International Player of the Year, Sporting News Player of the Year, Fraternal Order of Eagle Man of the Year, and Southern California Athlete of the Year; also earned Cy Young Award and the Hickok Belt|
|1963, 1965||Won World Series ring|
|1964||Pitched a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 4|
|1965||Pitched in National League All-Star game on July 13, coming away the winning pitcher|
|1965||Pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on September 9|
|1965||Ended season with 382 strikeouts, a new National League season record|
|1965||Won two games, including a shutout, in the World Series against the Minnesota Twins to help his team clinch the championship|
|1965||Named World Series MVP, Sporting News Player of the Year, Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year; also won Cy Young Award and the Hickok Belt|
|1966||Won a record fifth consecutive ERA title and received third Cy Young Award|
|1972||Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame|
|1999||Named Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Century|
|1999||Named to the ESPN Top 50 Athletes of the Century|
|1999||Named to the Major League Baseball Team of the Century|
Frick, Lisa. "Koufax, Sandy." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900307.html
Frick, Lisa. "Koufax, Sandy." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Retrieved September 25, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900307.html
Sandy Koufax (Sanford Koufax) (kō´făks), 1935–, American baseball player, b. New York City. A superb pitcher, he played (1955–66) with the Dodgers, remaining on the team when the franchise was moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Los Angeles. Three times he received the Cy Young Award for his outstanding pitching (1963, 1965, 1966), and he pitched in four World Series (1959, 1963, 1965–66). A left-hander with overwhelming speed and a brilliant curve, Koufax struck out 2,396 batters between 1955 and 1966, when he was forced into premature retirement by an arm ailment at the peak of his career (he won 26 and 27 games his last two seasons). In 1972 he became the youngest player ever elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
See his autobiography (1966); biographies by E. Gruver (2000) and J. Leavy (2002).
"Koufax, Sandy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-Koufax-S.html
"Koufax, Sandy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved September 25, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-Koufax-S.html