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Sandy Koufax

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Template:Infobox baseball player

Sanford "Sandy" Koufax (born Sanford Braun on December 30, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York) is a former left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball who played his entire career for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1955 to 1966.

He is best known for his string of six amazing seasons from 1961 to 1966 before arthritis ended his career at the age of 31. A notoriously difficult pitcher to hit against, he was the first major leaguer to pitch more than three no-hitters, and the first to allow fewer than 7 hits per 9 innings pitched over his career. Among National League pitchers with at least 2000 innings pitched who have debuted since 1913, he owns both the highest career winning percentage (.655) and the lowest career earned run average (2.76); his 2396 career strikeouts ranked 7th in major league history upon his retirement, and trailed only Warren Spahn's total of 2583 among left-handers. Retiring virtually at the peak of his career, Koufax later became – at age 36 – the youngest person ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Contents

Pre-professional career

He was the first and only child of Jack Braun, a salesman, and Evelyn Lichtenstein, a CPA, both Jewish, who lived in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn. Koufax's parents divorced by the time he was three. Jack Braun had little contact with his son after the divorce and eventually stopped paying child support and alimony.

Sandy and his mother ended up living with his grandparents, Max and Dora Lichtenstein, next door to comedian Buddy Hackett. When Sandy turned nine his mother married Irving Koufax, a neighborhood lawyer; Irving had a daughter named Edie from a previous marriage. Although Irving never legally adopted Koufax, Sandy always referred to Irving as his father and took on his last name. Shortly after the marriage, the family moved to Rockville Centre, Long Island, and in June 1949 the family returned to Brooklyn, this time to the Bensonhurst neighborhood.

As a youth, Koufax's first love was basketball. In 1951 a coaches' strike shut down scholastic sports in public schools all over the city. Koufax and his friends joined the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst basketball team and led them to the first Jewish Welfare Board championship. Koufax's baseball career began with the Tomahawks in the "Pop" Secol's Ice Cream League; they already had a pitcher, so Koufax played catcher, using a right-handed glove turned inside-out because he was left-handed.

In 1953, Koufax's senior season at Lafayette High School, he was named team captain of the basketball team. During that same year, the New York Knicks scrimmaged the local high school teams in clinics sponsored by the Police Athletic League. On February 6, 1953 they played one such game against Lafayette High School. Koufax played center against future Basketball Hall of Famer, Harry "The Horse" Gallatin. Koufax did so well against the pros that they resorted to injuring him when he went for a rebound by "sandwiching" him between Gallatin and another future Hall of Famer, Dick McGuire.

Koufax, while playing first base for Lafayette, was spotted by Milt Laurie, the father of two of Koufax's teammates and coach of the Coney Island Sports League's Parkviews. Laurie got his sons to recruit Koufax to pitch for the Parkviews. Laurie would keep Koufax overnight in order to make sure he got to the baseball field on time and would take Koufax to the Lafayette High School field to work on his pitching control.

Despite his diverse athletic ability, Koufax started at the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 1953 without an athletic scholarship. He was a walk-on for the freshman basketball team, and a complete unknown to coach Ed Jucker. After watching him practice, Jucker got him awarded a work-study scholarship. Koufax lived off-campus and joined the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity.

The university's baseball team went to New Orleans and Florida during the spring break, which sounded better than spending it in Bensonhurst, so Koufax and his roommate, Norman Lefkowitz, decided to try out for the team. Koufax threw so hard during tryouts that two catchers, Bill Hall and Joe Miller, quit the team rather than catch for him. Finally, Danny Gilbert volunteered to catch for him; both Koufax and Gilbert made the 1954 varsity team. That season, Koufax went 3-1 with a 2.81 ERA to go along with fifty-one strikeouts and thirty walks, in thirty-two innings. Bill Zinser, a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, sent the Dodgers front office a glowing report which was promptly lost.

Koufax's first tryout was with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. Unfortunately, he forgot his glove and threw several pitches over the catcher's head. His next tryout was for the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field. During the tryout, Koufax threw so hard that he broke the thumb of his catcher, Sam Narron, the bullpen coach for the Pirates. Branch Rickey, then general manager of the Pirates, told his scout Clyde Sukeforth that Koufax had the "greatest arm I've ever seen".Template:Ref The Pirates offered Koufax $15,000, but he turned them down.

Dodgers scout Al Campanis had been told about Koufax from a local sporting goods store owner. After seeing Koufax pitch at Lafayette High School, Campanis immediately invited him to a try out at Ebbets Field. Dodgers manager Walter Alston and scouting director Fresco Thompson watched as Campanis assumed the hitter's stance while Koufax started throwing. Campanis later said that "the hair on my arms rose, and the only other time that happened was the first time I saw the Sistine Chapel".Template:Ref The Dodgers signed Koufax for $20,000 - a $14,000 signing bonus and a $6,000 salary. Koufax accepted this offer planning to use the signing bonus as tuition for architecture school just in case baseball did not work out.

Professional career

Early years

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SandyKoufax1955Card.jpg
Sandy Koufax's 1955 Topps rookie baseball card

Because Koufax's signing bonus was greater than $4,000, he was known as a bonus baby. That forced the Dodgers to keep him in the major leagues for at least two years before he could be sent to the minors. To make room for him on the roster, the Dodgers optioned their future manager, Tommy Lasorda, to the Montreal Royals of the International League.

Koufax made his major league debut on June 24, 1955, in the fifth inning against the Milwaukee Braves with the Dodgers trailing 7-1. Johnny Logan, the first batter Koufax faced, got a bloop single. He was followed by future Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. Mathews bunted and Koufax calmly fielded the ball and threw it into center field trying to get Logan on the force. Aaron then walked on four pitches to load the bases. Bobby Thomson was the next batter, and after working the count full, struck out swinging. Thompson had just become Koufax's first strikeout victim.

On July 6, Koufax got his first start. He lasted only 4 and 2/3 innings, giving up eight walks. He didn't get another start for almost two months, but he made the most of it when it did happen. On August 27, playing at Ebbets Field against the Cincinnati Reds, Koufax threw a two hit, 7-0 complete game shutout for his first major league win. Koufax made only twelve appearances in 1955, pitching 41.7 innings and walking almost as many men (twenty-eight) as he struck out (thirty). His only other win in 1955 was also a shutout.

During the fall, he enrolled in Columbia University's School of General Studies, which offered night classes in architecture. The Dodgers won the 1955 World Series for the first title in franchise history – but without any help from Koufax, who sat on the bench for the entire series. After the final out of the series, Koufax drove to Columbia to attend class.

1956 wasn't much different than 1955 for Koufax. He saw little work, pitching only 58.2 innings, walking twenty-nine and striking out thirty, and had a 4.91 ERA. Rarely was he allowed to work out of a jam. As soon as he threw a couple of balls in a row, Alston would have somebody start warming up in the bullpen. Jackie Robinson, in his final season, clashed with Alston on several different subjects, including Koufax. Robinson saw that Koufax was talented and had flashes of brilliance, and objected to his being benched for weeks at a time.

To prepare for the 1957 season, the Dodgers sent Koufax to Puerto Rico to play winter ball. On May 15, 1957, the restriction on sending Koufax down to the minors was lifted. Alston gave him a chance to justify his place on the major league roster by giving him the start the next day. Facing the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, Koufax struck out thirteen and earned a complete game win. It was his first complete game in almost two years. For the next two weeks, and for the first time in his career, he was in the starting rotation. Despite winning three of his next five, leading the league in strikeouts and having a 2.90 ERA, Koufax didn't get another start for forty-five days. In his next start, on July 19, he struck out eleven in seven innings, but got a no decision. On September 29, Koufax became the last man ever to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers before their move to Los Angeles, by throwing an inning of relief in the final game of the season.

Over the next three seasons, Koufax was in and out of the Dodger starting rotation due to injuries. He started the 1958 season out strong by going 7-3 through July, but ended up spraining his ankle in a collision at first base. He finished the season with an 11-11 record, leading the league in wild pitches. In June 1959 Koufax struck out sixteen Philadelphia Phillies to set the record for a night game. Two months later, he broke that record in Los Angeles, against the Giants, tying Bob Feller's major league record with eighteen strikeouts.

The Dodgers played the Chicago White Sox in the 1959 World Series. Game One was in Chicago and Koufax made his first World Series appearance, pitching two perfect innings of relief in an 11-0 loss. Alston gave him the start in game five. The game was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum in front of 92,000 fans. Koufax and the Dodgers lost 1-0 when Nellie Fox scored on a double play.

In early 1960, Koufax asked Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi to trade him because he wasn't getting enough playing time. By the end of 1960, Koufax was ready to quit baseball and devote himself to his electronics business. After the last game of the season, he tossed his gloves and spikes into the trash. Nobe Kawano, the clubhouse supervisor, took them out to give back to him the following year, or to somebody else if he didn't show up.

Domination

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SandyKoufaxPitching2.jpg
Sandy Koufax pitching from the catcher's point of view

Koufax showed back up for the 1961 season in better condition than he had in previous years. Over the winter he decided to start working out and running more. Koufax also decided to find out just how good he could be. During a spring training trip to Orlando, Dodger catcher Norm Sherry told Koufax the same thing that many others had in the past: stop throwing the ball so hard. In the first inning of the game in Orlando, Koufax walked the bases loaded on twelve straight pitches. Again, Sherry told him to take something off the ball to get better control. Koufax finally listened and struck out the side. By the time he came out of the game after seven innings, he had struck out eight batters, walked five and gave up no hits.

Koufax finally broke into the starting rotation, permanently. On September 15, 1961, he surpassed the previous record of strikeouts by a left-handed pitcher in the National League with his 243rd strikeout. On September 27, Koufax broke the National League record for strikeouts in a season, surpassing Christy Mathewson's 58-year-old mark of 267 set in 1903. He finished the year 18-13 with 269 strikeouts versus 96 walks. During the two 1961 All-Star games, Koufax pitched two and one-third innings without giving up a run.

The Dodgers moved to Chavez Ravine, their new stadium, in 1962. It was designed to be a pitcher-friendly park, with large foul territories and a terrible background for hitting. In short, it was built to enhance Dodger pitching. Koufax lowered his home ERA from 4.29 to 1.75. On June 30 against the New York Mets, Koufax threw his first no-hitter; he would finish his career with a record four no-hitters. While batting against the San Francisco Giants on July 8, Koufax's index finger on his left hand was injured, but he didn't tell anybody. Koufax pitched in several more games while his finger slowly developed gangrene. After seeing a vascular specialist, it was determined that Koufax had a crushed artery in his palm. Luckily, ten days of experimental medicine successfully reopened the artery. Koufax finally was able to pitch again in September, but the Giants already had the pennant locked up.

Koufax came roaring back in 1963. On May 11 of that year, he carried a perfect game into the eighth inning against the powerful Giants lineup including future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. Koufax ended up walking Ed Bailey on a 3-and-2 pitch, but preserved the no-hitter, his second in as many years, by closing out the ninth. Koufax finished the year by winning the pitchers' Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (25), strikeouts (306) and ERA (1.88) while also throwing eleven shutouts. He won the NL MVP Award and the Cy Young Award (the first unanimous choice) as well as the Hickok Belt. The Dodgers faced the New York Yankees in the 1963 World Series where Koufax beat Whitey Ford in Game One and Game Four during a series sweep, and earned the World Series MVP Award for his performance. Yogi Berra, after seeing Koufax break the record for strikeouts in a World Series game with 15, was quoted as saying, "I can see how he won 25 games. What I don't understand is how he lost five".Template:Ref

The 1964 season started with great expectations, but on April 22, against the St. Louis Cardinals, during the first inning of Koufax's third start, he felt something "let go" in his arm. Koufax ended up getting three cortisone shots for his sore elbow, and missed three starts. On June 4, playing at Shibe Park against the Philadelphia Phillies, in the bottom of the fourth inning, Koufax walked Richie Allen on a very close full-count pitch. Allen, who was thrown out trying to steal second, was the first and last Phillie to reach base. With his third no-hitter in three years, Koufax became only the second pitcher of the modern era (after Bob Feller) to pitch three no-hitters. On August 8, Koufax jammed his pitching arm while diving back to second base to beat a pick-off throw. He managed to pitch, and win, two more games, but the morning after his nineteenth win, a shutout in which he struck out thirteen, he couldn't straighten his arm. He was diagnosed by Dodgers' team physician Dr. Robert Kerlan with traumatic arthritis. Koufax finished the year with an impressive 19-5 record.

Playing in pain

The 1965 season started off badly for Koufax. On March 31, the morning after pitching a full game during spring training, Koufax awoke to find that his entire left arm was black and blue from hemorrhaging. Koufax returned to Los Angeles to consult with Kerlan. Kerlan told Koufax that he'd be lucky to be able to pitch once a week and told him that he would eventually lose full use of his arm. Together, they mapped out a schedule where Koufax would only pitch every fifth day instead of his customary every fourth day. To get himself through the games he pitched in, he resorted to cortisone shots in the elbow, Empirin with codeine for the pain (which he took every night and sometimes during the fifth inning), and Butazolidin for inflammation. He would also apply Capsolin, or as baseball players called it, "atomic balm", before each game and then soak his arm in ice and drink three beers after each game.

Despite the constant pain in his pitching elbow, Koufax finished the year by winning his second pitcher's Triple Crown by leading the league in wins (26), ERA (2.04) and strikeouts (382). His strikeout total obliterated the previous record of 348 set by Bob Feller in 1948 and lasted until 1973, when Nolan Ryan struck out 383 batters. Koufax and the Dodgers won the World Series again, while he captured his second Cy Young Award (again unanimously). In the Series, Koufax was widely praised for refusing to pitch Game One due to his observance of Yom Kippur, but was hit hard in Game Two as the Minnesota Twins took an early 2-0 lead. The Dodgers fought back, with Claude Osteen, Don Drysdale, and Koufax picking up vital wins to force a seventh game. Starting on only two days rest, Koufax took the ball and, despite not having good command of his curveball and pitching through tiredness and arthritic pain, threw a three hit shutout to clinch the Series. The performance was enough to win him his second World Series MVP award. Also in 1965, he won the Hickok Belt a second time, the first (and only) time anyone had won the belt more than once. He was also awarded Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsman of the Year" award.

Perfection

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Koufax4Balls.jpg
Koufax holding four baseballs representing his four no-hitters

On September 9, 1965, Koufax became the sixth pitcher of the modern era to throw a perfect game. Koufax had not won in three weeks; not since Juan Marichal hit Koufax's catcher, John Roseboro, in the head with a baseball bat; not since the Watts riots started. The Dodgers were playing at home against the last place Chicago Cubs. Bob Hendley, the pitcher for the Cubs, was just up from the minor leagues and had a 2-2 record.

Koufax retired the first batter he faced, Donald Young, a late season call-up, on a pop-up on the second pitch of the game. Glenn Beckert, another rookie, struck out looking at a curveball after hitting a line drive down the third base line just barely foul. The third batter, Billy Williams, also struck out looking at curve ball. In the second inning, Ron Santo fouled out to catcher Jeff Torborg, Ernie Banks struck out on a forkball, and Byron Browne, during his first major league at-bat, lined out to center fielder Willie Davis. Koufax got Chris Krug to line out to center field to start off the third inning. Following him, Don Kessinger flew out on an 0-2 pitch and Hendley struck out. In the fourth inning Koufax got Young to line out to center field and Beckert to fly out to right. Koufax then struck out Williams a second time.

By the top of the fifth inning, neither team had reached first base. That changed when Hendley walked Lou Johnson on a three and two pitch that could have gone either way. Ron Fairly dropped a sacrifice bunt that Hendley bobbled, leaving his only play at first base. On the first pitch to Jim Lefebvre, Johnson stole third base. The Cubs' catcher, Krug, threw the ball over Santo's head and into left field, which allowed Johnson to score. The Dodgers had scored a run without an official at-bat. In the bottom half of the inning the Cubs went three up, three down with Santo flying out, Banks striking out for the second time in the game, and Brown grounding out.

The bottom of the order came up in the sixth inning for the Cubs. Krug grounded the ball to shortstop Maury Wills, who threw it in the dirt to first baseman Wes Parker. Parker managed to dig the ball out to save the play and Koufax's perfect game. Kessinger hit a dribbler down the third base line, but Junior Gilliam was playing shallow to guard against the bunt and threw him out by half a step. Hendley, who still had a no-hitter going of his own, struck out on three pitches.

Koufax's nerves started to get to him a little in the seventh, when he threw one pitch that sailed past Young and went all the way to the backstop. Koufax recovered and struck Young out. Up next was Beckert, who flew out to right field. Williams started out with three straight balls. Koufax's next two pitches were fastballs right down the middle. Williams let the first one go and fouled off the second one. Williams ended up hitting a pop fly to left field on the next pitch. During the bottom of the seventh inning, Johnson broke up Hendley's no-hitter with a bloop hit behind the second baseman. By the time Banks reached it, Johnson was on second base. Hendley got Fairly to ground out to second, stranding Johnson on second base.

The heart of the Chicago order came up in the eighth inning and Koufax struck all three of them out. Banks, who struck out for the third time, never made contact the entire game. The Dodgers went three up and three down in the bottom half of the inning. Koufax again struck out the side in the ninth inning, striking out the final two hitters on six straight curveballs, "big balloons" as called by Vin Scully, the Dodgers long time play-by-play announcer. The final out was made by Harvey Kuenn, the same man who made the final out of Koufax's 1963 no-hitter. In the end, Johnson's hit was the only one by either team; the combined total of 1 hit for the entire game is a major league record.

Hold out

Before the 1966 season began, both Koufax and Drysdale went to Dodger GM Buzzie Bavasi to negotiate their contracts for the upcoming year. Bavasi used to use Koufax and Drysdale against each other in contract negotiations, saying to Koufax, "How could you ask for so much when Drysdale is only asking for ..." Template:Ref He would do the same thing to Drysdale, telling him that Koufax was asking for much less. Finally, Drysdale's first wife, Ginger Drysdale, suggested that they work together to get what they wanted. They demanded $1 million dollars, divided equally over the next three years, or $167,000 each for the next three seasons. Koufax was represented by an entertainment lawyer, J. William Hayes. When the hold out started, Drysdale's lawyer had a conflict of interest, so Hayes started advising them on their collective negotiations.

Koufax and Drysdale both signed to appear in the movie Warning Shot starring David Janssen. Drysdale was going to play a TV commentator and Koufax was going to play a detective. They were photographed sitting on the set in director's chairs that had their names on the back. Dodger management started leaking allegations about dissension between Koufax and Drysdale, trying to drive a wedge between them. That spring, union activist Marvin Miller made the rounds of the spring training camps in his bid to become executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Everywhere he went, all the players were asking him about Koufax and Drysdale. Koufax finally gave Drysdale the go-ahead to negotiate new deals for the both of them. Koufax ended up getting $125,000 and Drysdale $110,000.

In April 1966, Kerlan told Koufax it was time to retire, that his arm couldn't take another season. Koufax kept Kerlan's advice to himself and went out every fourth day to pitch. He ended up pitching 323 innings and had a 27-9 record with a 1.73 ERA. In the final game of the regular season, the Dodgers had to beat the Phillies to win the pennant. Koufax faced Jim Bunning in the first ever match up between perfect game winners. The Dodgers won and went on to face the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Game Two marked Koufax's third start in eight days. Koufax didn't perform well and the Dodgers ended up losing the game 6-0. The last man to face Koufax was Andy Etchebarren who hit in a double play to end the sixth inning. The Dodgers were swept in four games, not scoring a single run in the last three. After the World Series Koufax announced his retirement due to his arthritic condition.

In a 12-season career, Koufax had a 165-87 record with a 2.76 ERA, 2396 strikeouts, 167 complete games, and 40 shutouts. He is on the very short list of pitchers who retired with more career strikeouts than innings pitched. Koufax was selected for seven All-Star games (twice in 1961 when there were two games played, and once in each year from 1962 to 1966 when there was only one game played). Koufax was the first pitcher to win multiple Cy Young Awards, as well as the first pitcher to win a Cy Young Award by a unanimous vote (all three Cy Young awards he won were by unanimous vote). Making this achievement more impressive is the fact that there was only one award given out to both leagues until 1967, when the rules were changed so that there would be a Cy Young Award winner in each league.

Post-playing career

Koufax led a quiet life after baseball. In 1969, he married Anne Widmark, daughter of movie star Richard Widmark; they divorced in 1982. He remarried and divorced again in the 1990s. In 1971 he signed a 10-year contract with NBC for $1 million to be a broadcaster on the Saturday Game of the Week. Koufax never adapted to being in front of the camera, and quit before the 1973 season.

In 1972, Koufax was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Elected just weeks after his 36th birthday, he was five months younger than the youngest previous inductee, Lou Gehrig, had been. On June 4 of that same year, his uniform number 32 was retired alongside Dodger greats Roy Campanella (39) and Jackie Robinson (42).

The Dodgers hired Koufax to be a minor league pitching coach in 1979. He resigned in 1990, saying he wasn't earning his keep, but most blamed it on his uneasy relationship with manager Tommy Lasorda. In 2003, he ended his longtime relationship with the Los Angeles Dodgers when the New York Post, which like the Dodgers was then part of Rupert Murdoch's business empire, published a story reporting rumors about his sexual orientation.

Mechanics

Whereas most left-handed pitchers throw – to some degree – with a three-quarter or sidearm motion, Koufax threw with a pronounced over-the-top arm action. This may have increased his velocity, but reduced the lateral movement on his pitches, especially movement away from left-handed hitters. Most of the velocity, however, came from his deceptively strong legs and back, combined with a high kicking wind-up and long forward stretch toward the plate. Throughout his career he relied on two pitches: his four-seam fastball had a "rising" motion due to underspin and appeared to move very late; the overhand curveball, spun with the middle finger, dropped vertically ("12-to-6") due to his arm action. He also occasionally threw a changeup and a forkball.

At the beginning of his career, he worked with coaches to eliminate his tendency to "tip" pitches (i.e. give away which pitch was coming due to variations in his wind-up). Late in his career, and especially as his arm problems continued, this variation (usually in the position he held his hands at the top of the wind-up) was even more pronounced, and good hitters were rarely unsure what pitch was coming. It usually did not matter.

References

Notes

  1. Template:Note Leavy p. 54
  2. Template:Note Leavy p. 55
  3. Template:Note Template:Web reference
  4. Template:Note Leavy p. 204

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