“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 in 1964.
Today, Sandy Koufax will be celebrating his 83rd birthday. Considered not only one of the greatest Dodgers players ever, but one of the greatest players in baseball history, Koufax’s legacy still endures today. Many believe he’s the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time, and could have possibly been the greatest starting pitcher period if not due to a career cut short by injuries.
Fans can still spot Koufax at an occasional Dodgers game. He’s always interacting with players, particularly the guy who many see as a reincarnation of Sandy, Clayton Kershaw. In a franchise rich with great Hall of Fame players, Koufax’s name will appear at the top of most “Greatest Dodgers Ever” lists, and rightfully so.
So, what better time to reflect on Koufax’s outstanding career than on his 83th birthday?
“I can see how he won twenty-five games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.” – Yankees catcher Yogi Berra on Koufax’s 25-5 record in 1963.
Koufax’s five year stretch from 1962-1966 was one of the most dominant you’ll ever see from a starting pitcher. During that span, he compiled a 111-34 record, a 1.95 ERA, and 1,444 strikeouts. Just ridiculous numbers.
Koufax won the Cy Young award in 1963, 1965, and 1966, becoming the only pitcher to win the award unanimously three different times. He also won the pitchers Triple Crown (first in Wins, Strikeouts, ERA) in each of those three seasons, an MLB record. His 1963 year earned him the league MVP as well.
Keep in mind, before 1967, the Cy Young award was only given to one pitcher in baseball, not one in each league. Koufax wasn’t just winning those awards because he was the best pitcher in his respective league, but the best pitcher in the game. One could even argue that Koufax might have been the reason for the rule change considering he was winning the Cy Young year after year. Perhaps MLB thought if they didn’t change the rule, no other pitcher would have a shot to win while Koufax was around.
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 historic 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. Opposing hitters have the lowest OPS against him than any other pitcher in the modern era, and when he retired, his 9.28 K/9 was tops in baseball history.
The accolades could go on and on.
Koufax was also clutch in the postseason, 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 on facing Koufax.
One of the key aspects to evaluating Koufax’s career was how brief it was. Looking back at athletes who retired way too soon, his name tops almost any list. At only 30 years old, he developed severe tendentious in his throwing elbow was forced to retire after the 1966 season.
In his last year, Koufax started (41) and won (27) more games than he ever had in his career, and put up his lowest career ERA, at 1.73. He also led the league with a 2.07 FIP and 317 strikeouts. It was one of his best years ever, yet it would be his last.
Six years later, at 36 years old, Koufax would become the youngest player inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.
In his last few years, Koufax pitched through constant pain and discomfort. He had to receive regular cortisone shots to relieve the pain in his elbow. Before the start of his final season, he was told that his days were numbered due to his injury, but he still went out and had another typical Sandy Koufax year.
Who knows what an additional six or seven healthy seasons could have meant for Koufax’s career numbers. If they were anything like his last six though, the whole debate about possibly being the best pitcher to ever toe the rubber, might not be such a debate at all.
“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.
As someone who has seen the Sistine Chapel, and all of its magnificence, I still somehow suspect that above quote isn’t exaggerated all too much. Baseball history was forever altered when Sandy Koufax first put on a Dodgers uniform and took the mound. Fans of baseball everywhere should take a moment to celebrate his greatness, and remember all he has meant to the game.
Happy birthday, Sandy.