Koufax, Sandy (1935—)

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Koufax, Sandy (1935—)

Sandy Koufax's dominance of the National League from 1962 to 1966 has led many baseball experts to name him the greatest pitcher of all time. Certainly the overpowering left-hander enjoyed the most impressive run at the top of his game of any hurler in the game's history. He added considerably to his mystique by retiring young and all but disappearing from public view.

Over the course of a twelve-year career, Koufax won 111 games, lost only 34, and collected 2,396 strikeouts. He threw four no-hitters, the last an unforgettable perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on September 9, 1965. Teamed in the starting rotation with the hard-throwing right-hander Don Drysdale, Koufax provided one half of a two-headed pitching colossus that led the Los Angeles Dodgers to three pennants and two world championships.

Born Sanford Braun in Brooklyn, New York, Sandy eventually assumed his stepfather's last name. He played both baseball and basketball in high school, where his strong left arm attracted the interest of scouts for the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1954, he signed with the club (which moved to Los Angeles in 1958). Koufax struggled in his early years with the team, but showed enough promise to maintain a spot on the roster every spring. Finally, in 1962, he put it all together. Only a circulation problem in his index finger—the first in a long line of arm ailments that would plague him over the course of his career—kept him from a 20-win season.

In 1963, Koufax established himself as baseball's best pitcher. He won 25 games against only five losses as the Dodgers roared into the World Series against the New York Yankees. There Koufax was dominant, winning two games as Los Angeles swept the four-game series. After the season, Koufax was voted the first of three Cy Young Awards.

Koufax battled arthritis to win 19 games in 1964. The next season he decided to give up throwing between starts to save wear and tear on his arm. The result was an overwhelming 26-8 performance in which he established a major league record of 382 strikeouts in 336 innings. He won two more games in the World Series as the Dodgers edged the Minnesota Twins. Again the Cy Young was his by acclamation.

Fresh off a world championship, Koufax and Drysdale used their considerable leverage against the notoriously stingy Dodger ownership. They held out in tandem from signing new contracts until the club agreed to meet their financial terms. The innovative negotiating ploy sent shockwaves around baseball and foreshadowed the power struggle that would eventually result in the establishment of free agency in the 1970s.

Koufax backed up his contract threats with a third Cy Young season in 1966. He posted a 27-9 record with a 1.79 ERA and 317 strikeouts. Again he led the Dodgers into the World Series, where they fell to the Baltimore Orioles. Despite this disappointing finish, Koufax seemed to be at the top of his game.

At the close of the season, Koufax stunned the sports universe by announcing his retirement from baseball. Still only 31, he explained that he did not want to risk permanent damage to his oft-injured left arm. Five years after hanging up his spikes, he became the youngest player ever to be enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame.

Like a baseball version of J. D. Salinger, Koufax shunned the public eye after his retirement. He worked briefly as a commentator on baseball telecasts, but his shy, diffident manner was ill-suited for TV. When he did make one of his rare public appearances, his every utterance was heeded with a gravity normally reserved for retired generals and ex-presidents. To millions of baseball fans worldwide, he remains one of the game's most enigmatic legends.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Shatzkin, Mike. The Ballplayers: Baseball's Ultimate Biographical Reference. New York, William Morrow, 1990.

Siegman, Joseph M. Jewish Sports Legends. New York, Jewish Publication Society, 1997.