Sandy Koufax – How May I Retire You Down Today?

12 Dec

Sandy Koufax was one of those unique players in the game of baseball not only in regards to talent, but also in how much he achieved in what would be considered a relatively short career in comparison to most Hall of Fame pitchers, or players in general regardless of era. Over twelve seasons with the Dodgers, Sandy Koufax set benchmarks many though may never broken, and in certain terms that may be true and is always up for debate. What isn’t up for debate however is that for a five year period Koufax may have been the best pitcher on the planet.

Sandy Koufax was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on December 30, 1935. His early life wasn’t the easiest to cope with as his parents divorced when he was three and his mother Evelyn raised him as a single parent until he was nine and she re-married a man named Irving Koufax whom adopted Sandy and gave him his name. Even then the family moved on a fairly regular basis. While Sandy was regarded as an excellent athlete by the time he entered High School, it was basketball he was known for, not baseball which was considered by most his second best sport. Even when he did begin playing organized baseball which wasn’t until he was 15, he wasn’t a pitcher, but rather a catcher and then a first baseman where being left-handed was to his advantage defesively.

With High school ended Sandy accepted a full scholarship to play basketball at the University of Cincinnati in 1953, but he was still somewhat fixated on baseball and made the varsity squad as a walk on and was promptly slated into the role of pitcher. While he wasn’t overwhelming, he was certainly promising enough to gain the attention of Dodgers scout Bill Zinser who gave him glowing reports the Dodgers quickly dismissed as no other teams scouts were raving about this unknown skinny southpaw.

Koufax was determined to make it in baseball and didn’t let the Dodgers brush him and off stop him from trying. He tried out for the New York Giants who summarily dismissed him, and then for the Pirates who despite the urging of two scouts and general Manager Branch Rickey saying Koufax had the greatest arm he had ever seen, failed to offer him a contract and seemingly lost track of him. Actually the Pirates did eventually offer Sandy a deal, but so much time had elapsed that Dodger scout Al Campanis had heard of Koufax finally from a sporting goods store owner and inked him to a $6,000 deal with a $14,000 signing bonus which left Pittsburgh empty handed.

Under MLB rules at the time any player signed to a contract that paid out more than a $4,000 bonus had to be placed on the teams roster for two years before they could be optioned to the minor leagues. This was where the term “Bonus Baby” came from as that was what the clause was casually referred to as. In order to make room for Koufax future Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda was optioned back to the minors. What many people often forget about Koufax is he spent those first two seasons (’55-’56) working out of the bullpen and only making limited starts. It is also forgotten he wasn’t really considered all that good having major control issues and a propensity to work himself into trouble issuing far too many walks.

Truth be told, Koufax wasn’t even considered the best or even third best pitcher on the team as he continued to split time starting and pitching in relief until 1960. During that stretch he did start more games, however due to the differences in travel and scheduling during that era of baseball, Koufax was the pitcher who had his spot in the starting rotation skipped whenever possible which generally translated to about 12 fewer starts per year than the rest of the rotation. Through this time period Kofak had only registered double digit wins once going 11-11 in 1958 with a 4.48 ERA, hardly a start to what anyone thought would be legendary career.

It was 1961 when Koufax turned the corner going 18-13 in his first full season as a primary starter. Across the board every aspect of his game seemed to improve whether it be strikeouts, fewer walks, or ERA. Koufax credits the change to catcher Norm Sherry who did nothing more than remind him to take a little something off the velocity of his pitches to gain better control. Koufax tried it and lo and behold it worked as Koufax threw seven innings of no hit ball in a split B-Squad spring training game. Still as good a season as Koufax had, his career mark only edged to 54-53 which shows how completely pedestrian he had been through his first seven seasons.

In 1962 the world of baseball changed for Koufax. With a little more confidence and a season of honing his skills Koufax seemingly came out of nowhere going 14-7 with his first no-hitter in an injury shortened season. While his play was limited there was no doubt Koufax had finally arrived. This season began what is considered by many the greatest 5 year span of continued excellence any pitcher has ever had.

From 1962 through 1966 Koufax did the amazing. He threw four no-hitters, never had an ERA above 2.54 (Four times posting a mark of 2,04 or better), and piled up 111 wins with only 34 losses. He also posted single season totals of 14, 19, 25, 26, and 27 wins during this period with 33 shutouts. He also compiled more than 300 strikeouts three times including an amazing 382 whiffs which has only been surpassed by Nolan Ryan. When all was said and done and Koufax retired due to severe arthritic problems after the 1966 season he had compiled an impressive but not stellar set of career totals. His final record read as: 165-87 with a 2,76 ERA, 40 shutouts, 2,396 strikeouts, and a career Whip of 1.106.

Koufax will always be remembered as not just a great baseball player as was reflected in his 1972 Hall of Fame induction, but for his declining to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series so that he could observe Yom Kippur. Sandy was the first pitcher to ever win multiple CY Young Awards, is still the only to do so by unanimous vote on all three occasions, and was the youngest player ever inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He worked as a pitching instructor with the Dodgers minor league system until 1990 when then Dodgers owner Ruppert Murdoch allowed one of his newspapers (The NY Post) to print an article which questioned his sexual orientation. Once Frank McCourt purchased the Dodgers in 2004 Koufax returned and continues to work as a special adviser Koufax was and still is to this day known as one of the great gentlemen of the game and continues to be a great inspiration to many.

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