“I never saw those old-timers, but he must have the greatest stuff of any pitcher in history.” – Phillies pitcher Ray Culp, talking about Sandy Koufax, 1964.
Often times I’m asked who my favorite Dodgers player of all-time is. For any of my favorite teams in other sports, that answer would be someone who I grew up watching and rooting for. But for the Dodgers, my answer has always been, and probably always will be, Sandy Koufax. Although he played before my time, and I never got to see him in-person, I always found his greatness intriguing.
Today, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, Dodgers and baseball fans alike should take a moment to celebrate him, and appreciate all he has meant to the game.
I’m sure most Dodgers fans would love to believe that Koufax’s legacy is not lost on anyone. And so would I. But the fact is, as time passes, the more and more things tend to get forgotten. I’m sure it’s a lot more common today to find people who have never listened to Paul McCartney than it was 25 years ago. I just spent this past Christmas with someone who had never seen It’s a Wonderful Life. And I’m sure there are casual baseball fans out there who know Koufax by name alone, but may not understand the true significance of his achievements.
So, what better time to reflect on Koufax’s outstanding career than on his 80th birthday?
“I can see how he won twenty-five games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.” – Yankees catcher Yogi Berra.
Many consider Koufax to be not only the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time, but possibly the greatest starting pitcher period. Although his overall stats won’t stand up to some of the other greats in the game due to a career cut short by injury, his five year stretch from 1962-1966 was probably the most dominate you’ll ever see from a starting pitcher.
He won the Cy Young award for three of those years (63’, 65’, & 66’), along with the pitchers triple crown in each of those seasons as well. He was also named the league MVP in 63’. Koufax became the first pitcher (and still one of only two) to throw four no-hitters in his career, with one of them being a perfect game in 1965. He’s one of only four Hall of Fame pitchers with more strikeouts than innings pitched, and he was selected to six straight All-Star games.
The accolades could go on and on.
Koufax was also clutch in the postseason for the Dodgers, winning two World Series MVPs. In 1965, he famously choose not to pitch in Game 1 of the World Series because it fell on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. Instead, he would go on to pitch games 2, 5, and 7, throwing 2 shutouts, including the game 7 clincher in which he gave up only 3 hits and struck out 10 – all while pitching on two days’ rest.
“Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.” – Pirates 1st baseman Willie Stargell.
One of the key aspects to evaluating Koufax’s career was how brief it was. Even after another dominate season in 1966, injuries finally took their toll, and elbow arthritis forced him to retire at only 30 years old. Clayton Kershaw will be 28 to start next season. Imagine having him in the rotation for only two more years before he hangs it up, right at the peak of his career. Scary thought, right? That was the unfortunate reality for Koufax and the Dodgers.
Who knows what 5+ more healthy seasons could have meant for Koufax’s career numbers. If they were anything like his last 5 though, the whole debate about possibly being the best pitcher to ever toe the rubber, might not be such a debate at all.
Dodgers history was forever altered when Sandy Koufax first took the mound back in 1955. Those that got to see him first hand will always remember that. Others, like myself, have to make due with only old videos, articles, and stories from their father. Either way, his legacy lives on in Dodgerland, and hopefully, everywhere in baseball.
“There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stoop up: The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.” – Dodgers scout Al Campanis, who discovered Koufax.
As someone who has seen the Sistine Chapel, and all of its magnificence, I still somehow suspect that quote isn’t exaggerated.
Happy birthday, Sandy.