Koufax, Sanford ("Sandy")

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KOUFAX, Sanford ("Sandy")

(b. 30 December 1935 in Brooklyn, New York), left-handed pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Los Angeles Dodgers. In a five-year span of excellence, he led the National League in strikeouts for four years, threw a then-record four no-hitters, including a perfect game, and earned three Cy Young awards.

Koufax was the son of Jack and Evelyn Braun. His parents divorced when he was three years old, and his mother re-married six years later to Irving Koufax, a New York attorney. Adopted by his stepfather, Koufax attended Lafayette High School, where he starred as a guard on the basketball team and was a starting first baseman and backup pitcher on the baseball team. His basketball skills earned him a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where he majored in architecture his freshman year.

Koufax started as a forward on the Bearcats' freshman basketball team and decided to try out for the baseball team when he learned of the team's travel plans to New Orleans. Despite being an uncontrollably wild pitcher at times, Koufax impressed major league scouts with the speed of his fastball, which allowed him to strike out 51 batters in 32 innings.

On 14 December 1954 the eighteen-year-old Koufax was signed to a major league contract by Brooklyn Dodgers team president Walter O'Malley. Because he had received a substantial $14,000 signing bonus, Koufax was kept on the Dodgers' twenty-five-man major league roster and never pitched in the minor leagues. From 1955 to 1958 he pitched sporadically, and because he had pitched sparingly in high school and during his lone season at the University of Cincinnati, Koufax was placed in the unenviable position of having to learn his craft against major league hitters.

His rising fastball, estimated by scouts to range between 95 and 100 miles per hour, allowed him to post impressive strikeout totals even in his formative seasons. But his wildness also led to high walk and hit totals, and his inconsistency in his early years is best reflected by his mediocre winning percentage. When the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, Koufax responded to the change in scenery by going 8–6 in 1959 and registering 173 strikeouts in 153.1 innings, an average of 10 strikeouts per 9 innings. On 31 August Koufax struck out 18 San Francisco Giants to tie Bob Feller's major league record, helping the Dodgers to the World Series against the Chicago White Sox.

In 1961, on the advice of Dodgers catcher Norm Sherry, Koufax altered his mental approach to pitching by not trying to overthrow and strike out every hitter. He also fine-tuned his pitching mechanics, working with Dodgers pitching coach Joe Becker and scout Kenny Meyers to tighten his delivery to get a better view of home plate. Koufax responded to this coaching by going 18–13 in 1961 and leading the National League in strikeouts with 269. He was named to the National League's All-Star Team for the first time, beginning a span of six straight seasons he would be so honored.

In 1962 Koufax threw his first no-hitter, a 5–0 win over the New York Mets on 30 June, and the 1963 season saw Koufax become the dominant pitcher in baseball. Relying on a rising fastball and sweeping curveball, he led the National League with a 25–5 record, a 1.88 earned run average (ERA), and 306 strikeouts in 311 innings. On 11 May he threw his second no-hitter when he beat the San Francisco Giants 8–0. Koufax earned his first Cy Young award that season, as the best pitcher in both leagues. Leading the Dodgers to the National League pennant, Koufax was named the game one starter in the World Series against the two-time defending world champion New York Yankees. Opposing Yankees ace Edward "Whitey" Ford in Yankee Stadium, Koufax established a then-Series record with 15 strikeouts in a 5–2 victory. Koufax also beat Ford in game four, allowing the Dodgers to sweep the Yankees and earning himself Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors in the process. At the end of the season, Koufax was named Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press and baseball's Player of the Year by the Sporting News.

In 1964 injury kept Koufax from winning twenty games for the second time in three seasons, but despite the onset of arthritis in his pitching arm, he threw his third no-hitter, a 3–0 win in Philadelphia on 4 June. In 1965 Koufax embarked on one of the greatest pitching campaigns in major league history, when he went 26–8 with a 2.04 ERA and a National League record of 382 strikeouts in 335.2 innings. He threw a perfect game on 9 September against the Cubs, winning 1–0. Teamed with right-handed ace Don Drysdale in a one-two pitching combination unmatched in major league history, Koufax helped carry the Dodgers to another National League pennant.

Koufax made national headlines when he refused to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins due to his observance of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur. Koufax's religious stand transformed him in the eyes of many from a great pitcher to a great man. After losing game two, Koufax recorded shutout wins in games five and seven, leading the Dodgers to their second Series win in three years and again earning himself the World Series MVP award. He was also named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, and baseball's Player of the Year by the Sporting News. Koufax continued this mound dominance in 1966. Ignoring his increasingly painful arthritis, he posted career-best marks with 27 wins and a 1.73 ERA. Both marks were again league bests, and he led the National League in strikeouts for the fifth straight time, posting 317. He was voted the Cy Young Award winner for the second time in three seasons and the third time since 1963.

With Drysdale suffering a subpar season, Koufax shouldered the burden of leading the light-hitting Dodgers to a second straight league pennant and into another World Series. No one knew at the time, but game two of the series, on 6 October 1966, marked Koufax's final mound appearance in the major leagues. He was scheduled to start game five in Baltimore, but the Orioles swept the Dodgers in four straight.

On 18 November Koufax stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement due to arthritis. Over his final five seasons, he had gone 111–34 with 100 complete games and 33 shutouts, and pitched 4 no-hitters, including a perfect game. He became the first pitcher to strike out 300 batters in three different seasons and twice struck out 18 hitters in a game. He set another major league record by leading the league in ERA for five straight seasons. Despite the presence of such all-time greats as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Roberto Clemente, Koufax was named Player of the Decade in the 1960s.

Koufax celebrated his thirty-first birthday by signing a lucrative ten-year contract to serve as a major league baseball analyst for NBC. After years as one of pro sports' most eligible bachelors, the thirty-three-year-old Koufax married twenty-three-year-old Anne Widmark, the daughter of actor Richard Widmark, on New Year's Day, 1969. The couple moved from Los Angeles to a farmhouse in North Ellsworth, Maine. (They were divorced in the 1980s, and Koufax subsequently married and divorced a second time.) Koufax left NBC following the 1972 season but returned to baseball in 1979 as a pitching coach for the Dodgers. He remained with the Dodgers through 1982 and then left the team to serve as a volunteer coach in various major league camps.

Shy and retiring, Koufax avoided the media glare in his retirement years. Rarely granting interviews, he developed an aura of mystery and intrigue. In 1972 he became the youngest man ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was inducted at the age of thirty-six. That same year he was honored at Dodger Stadium in a special ceremony retiring his uniform number, thirty-two. In 1999 Koufax was named to baseball's All-Century Team as one of the 100 greatest players in major league history. Koufax was also named by ESPN as one of the top fifty athletes of the century, the only baseball pitcher to be so honored.

Koufax teamed with author Ed Linn to write his autobiography, Koufax (1966). Koufax's life and career has also been the subject of several books: Arnold Hano, Sandy Koufax: Strikeout King (1964); George Vecsey, The Baseball Life of Sandy Koufax (1968); and Ed Gruver, Koufax (2000). Some magazine articles featuring Koufax are Sports Illustrated (4 Jan., 4 Apr., and 28 Nov. 1966); Newsweek (28 Mar., 8 Aug., and 28 Nov. 1966); Life (1 Apr. 1966); and Time (9 Sept. and 25 Nov. 1966). Of particular help in understanding Koufax is Tom Verducci, "The Left Arm of God," Sports Illustrated (12 July 1999).

Edward Gruver