Over the course of his 12-year career, Sandy Koufax became the personification of pitching grace and style, dominating the sport for much of the 1960s.
He also is a model for persevering and realizing potential despite many obstacles.
By the time his career ended prematurely after the 1966 season because of arthritis in the elbow, Koufax had amassed a number of incredible statistics, including 2,396 strike outs, four no-hitters and a perfect game.
In 1972, he won election into the Baseball Hall of Fame. At age 36, he was the youngest player ever elected to the hall.
The future baseball legend for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t play much baseball in his younger years.
Born Sanford Braun to Jack and Evelyn Braun, he grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. At the age of three his parents divorced. When Sandy was 9, his mother remarried to Irving Koufax, and the future star took his step-father’s last name.
While attending Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, Koufax played basketball. By his senior year he was team captain. According to the autobiography, “Koufax,” which Koufax wrote with Ed Linn, he didn’t try baseball until recruited to play in the “Ice Cream League,” a local youth baseball league.
Koufax eventually was asked to pitch and showed promise. When he attended the University of Cincinnati, he played both basketball and baseball. In his first season, he had 51 strike outs in 32 innings, according to “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy, the former sports writer for the Washington Post.
After one year of school, he joined the Dodgers, then playing in Brooklyn.
The Early Years
Koufax’s major league career started with a mediocre 1955 season for the Dodgers. He walked almost as many batters as he struck out and made only 12 appearances. But his two wins were both shutouts, a sign of the dominance to come.
In 1956, Koufax also struggled with his control. It reached the point where the manager would pull him if he walked two batters. According to Leavy’s book, legendary Dodger Jackie Robinson argued for Koufax to get more playing time, seeing his potential for greatness.
In 1957, he finally cracked the starting rotation but still had an up and down season. He did pitch the last balls ever for the Dodgers in Brooklyn, coming in for the last inning of the last game in 1957. In 1958, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.
Koufax still struggled to pitch well over the next few seasons. In 1958, he led the league in wild pitches. But he continued to flash brilliance, striking out 18 in one game in 1959. He also battled a series of injuries. By the end of the 1960 season, Koufax was thinking of quitting baseball.
In 1961, after six years in the major, it all came together for Koufax. Rather than quit, he had spent the off season getting in shape. “I decided I was really going to find out how good I can be,” he told Leavy.
The work paid off. Here is a rundown of some of the highlights of Koufax’s 1961 through 1965 seasons.
- He led the National League in strike outs in 1961 with 269, breaking a 58-year-old record
- On June 30, 1962, he threw the first of his four no-hitters against the New York Mets
- In 1963 he won the Triple Crown, leading the league in wins, strike outs and ERA.
- He threw 11 shutouts in 1963, which still stands as the record for a left-handed pitcher (Babe Ruth had held the record with nine for 50 years)
- In 1963, he was the first-ever unanimous selection for the Cy Young Award.
- On Sept. 9, 1965, Koufax became the first left-handed pitcher since 1890 to throw a perfect game
- In the 1965 World Series, he refused to pitch Game 1 because it fell on Yom Kippur, getting national attention (and some criticism) for his decision. However, he won both Game 5 and Game 7, earning his second World Series MVP and the Dodgers another title.
By 1966, doctors were advising Koufax to stop pitching after a series of issues with his arm. However, he continued to pitch, finishing the season with a 27-9 record and a 1.73 ERA. He announced his retirement at the end of the season.
Retirement and Legacy
Koufax is remembered to this day for his amazing numbers, his ability to win in big games and his decision to stick with his religious beliefs despite pressure to play in the World Series.
In retirement, Koufax has remained a very private person, making few public appearances. He had a 10-year contract with NBC on the baseball broadcast team, but quit after six years.
In 2010, Koufax was honored by President Barack Obama as part of Jewish American Heritage Month.
After an off-and-on relationship with the Dodgers over the years, he returned to the team in 2013 as pitching instructor. He also runs a charity that helps former professional athletes deal with hard financial times after exiting their sport.