Sandy Koufax doesn’t have the most wins in major-league baseball history, nor is he first in strikeouts, complete games, innings, or shutouts. And yet, a strong case can be made that he is the greatest pitcher since the end of World War II, and maybe the best ever.
At a time when prima donna hurlers like Roger Clemens asked the Houston Astros and New York Yankees permission to stay home when he didn’t pitch, Koufax, forced to retire after the 1966 season due to an arthritic left elbow, worked in an era when it was the goal of every pitcher to finish what he started.
In a 12-year career with the Dodgers, Koufax completed an astounding 54 games his final two seasons, and had 20 in 1963. Today, the entire National League won’t have that many.
Though his statistics are eye-popping, with Koufax, it’s not strictly about numbers. It’s that he so thoroughly dominated baseball like no pitcher before or since.
Beginning in 1962, Koufax tossed four no-hitters, including a perfect game in 1965 against the Chicago Cubs.
It took Koufax, a seven-time All-Star, six years to finally control his blistering fastball, after going 36-40. In order, Koufax went 18-13, 14-7, 25-5, 19-5, 26-8, and 27-9.
Along the way, he took home the Cy Young award in 1963, 1965, and 1966, and led his club into the World Series each season.
Al Campanis, a one-time Dodgers scout and general manager, once said the hair on the back of his neck stood up twice in his life: the first time he visited the Sistine Chapel, and the first time he saw Koufax throw a fastball.
Koufax fanned 300 or more three seasons, paced the league four times, and still holds the NL mark with 382.
From 1962 through 1966, Koufax was first in earned-run average, and finished with an ERA of 2.76.
Though young, I saw Koufax’s final appearance on television. He was matched with Baltimore’s Jim Palmer, and lost that World Series game due in large measure to center fielder Willie Davis making three errors in one inning.
When the frame concluded, Koufax went to Davis, put his arm around him, and said he did his best, and that he helped him win many games.
Whenever I’ve heard people say Koufax, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 at 36, was the best player on the team, he brushed it off. “I was just one player on a 25-man roster, and I did the best I could,” he said.
Humble, Koufax also owned a wicked curveball, and was best in big games. Two stand out: World Series Game 1 in 1963 against the Yankees when he fanned a then-record 15 batters, and Game 7 in 1965 when he shut out the Minnesota Twins.
When Don Drysdale, a longtime teammate was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1984, I made my way to the pre-celebration at Dodger Stadium that July afternoon knowing Koufax was going to be there. So I took along a children’s book of his life that my late father bought me.
I approached Koufax, who was part of four championship teams, and asked him to sign, which he did. It was a highlight, because I knew even then I was standing in the presence of greatness.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.