Among NL pitchers with at least 2,000 innings pitched
who have debuted since 1913, he has the highest career winning percentage
(.655) and had the lowest career ERA (2.76) until surpassed by Tom
Seaver, whose NL career mark is 2.73. His 2,396 career strikeouts
ranked 7th in major league history upon his retirement, and trailed
only Warren Spahn's total of 2,583 among left-handers. Retiring
at the peak of his career, he became, at age 36 and 20 days, the
youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Koufax is also notable as one of the outstanding
Jewish athletes of his era in American professional sports. His
decision not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because game
day fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, garnered national
attention as an example of conflict between social pressures and
Koufax was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised
in Borough Park, Brooklyn. His parents, Evelyn and Jack Braun,
divorced when he was three years old; his mother remarried when
he was nine, and Koufax took the surname of her new husband, Irving.
Shortly after his mother's remarriage, the family moved to the Long
Island suburb of Rockville Centre. When he graduated from ninth
grade, they moved back to the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.
Koufax attended Brooklyn's Lafayette High School,
where he was better known for basketball than for baseball. When
he started high school, school sports were not available because
the New York teachers were refusing to supervise extracurricular
activities without monetary compensation. As an alternative to school
sports, Koufax started playing basketball for a local Jewish Community
Center team. After the labor action was settled, he played for the
high school basketball team. During his senior year, he became team
captain and ranked second in his division in scoring, with 165 points
in 10 games.
While attending high school, Koufax also played
baseball. In 1951, at the age of 15, Koufax began playing in a local
youth baseball league known as the "Ice Cream League".
He started out as a left-handed catcher, and the next year moved
to first base; he also played first base for the Lafayette High
School team. While playing for Lafayette, he was spotted throwing
the ball around the infield by Milt Laurie, the father of two of
Koufax's teammates and coach of the Coney Island Sports League's
Parkviews. Laurie recognized that Koufax might be able to pitch,
so he recruited the 17-year old Koufax to pitch for the Parkviews.
Koufax graduated from high school and attended the
University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship. In spring
1954, he made the college baseball varsity team. That season,
Koufax went 3–1 with 51 strikeouts and 30 walks, in 31 innings.
Bill Zinser, a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, sent the Dodgers
front office a glowing report that apparently was filed and forgotten.
After trying out with the New York Giants at the
Polo Grounds, Koufax went to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes
Field. During the tryout with the Pirates, Koufax's pitching
broke the thumb of his catcher, Sam Narron, the team's bullpen coach.
Branch Rickey, then general manager of the Pirates, told his scout
Clyde Sukeforth that Koufax had the "greatest arm [he had]
ever seen". The Pirates, however, failed to offer Koufax
a contract until after he was committed to signing with the Dodgers.
Dodgers scout Al Campanis learned about Koufax from
a local sporting goods store owner. After seeing Koufax pitch at
Lafayette High School, Campanis 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, "There are two times
in my life the hair on my arms has stood up: The first time I saw
the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy
Koufax throw a fastball." The Dodgers signed Koufax on
a $6,000 salary with a $14,000 signing bonus. Koufax planned to
use the signing bonus as tuition to finish his university education
in case his baseball career failed.
Early years (1956–60)
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. Lasorda would later joke that it took Sandy Koufax to keep
him off the Dodger pitching staff.
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, he struck
out swinging. Thomson had just become Koufax's first strikeout victim.
Koufax's first game as starting pitcher was on July
6. He lasted only 4 2/3 innings, giving up eight walks. He did
not start again 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 12 appearances
in 1955, pitching 41.7 innings and walking almost as many men (28)
as he struck out (30). His only other win in 1955 was also a shutout.
During the fall, he enrolled in the Columbia University
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 very different from 1955 for Koufax.
Despite the blazing speed of his fastball, Koufax continued to struggle
with control problems. He saw little work, pitching only 58.2 innings,
walking 29 and striking out 30; he 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 Koufax 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, 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 next day's start. Facing the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field,
Koufax struck out 13 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 45 days.
In his next start, on July 19, he struck out 11 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
Over the next three seasons, Koufax was in and out
of the Dodger starting rotation due to injuries. He started the
1958 season 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 16 Philadelphia Phillies to set the record for
a night game. On August 31, 1959, he broke that record and tied
Bob Feller's major league record for strikeouts in one game with
18 strikeouts, (and broke the modern NL record of 17, by Dizzy Dean
in 1933), pitching in Los Angeles against the Giants.
In 1959 the Dodgers won a close pennant race against
the Milwaukee Braves and the San Francisco Giants and went on to
face the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. The opening game
of the series was in Chicago, and Koufax pitched two perfect innings
in relief, though they came after the Dodgers were already behind
11–0. Alston gave him the start in the fifth game, played at the
Los Angeles Coliseum in front of 92,706 fans. He allowed only one
run in seven innings, but was charged with the loss in the 1–0 game
when Nellie Fox scored on a double play. However, the Dodgers came
back to win the Series in Game 6 in Chicago.
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, after going 8–13, Koufax was thinking about quitting
baseball to devote himself to an electronics business that he'd
invested in. After the last game of the season, he threw his gloves
and spikes into the trash. Nobe Kawano, the clubhouse supervisor,
retrieved the equipment to return to Koufax the following year (or
to somebody else if Koufax did not return to play).
Koufax decided to try one more year of baseball
and showed up for the 1961 season in better condition than he had
in previous years. Years later he recalled, "That winter was
when I really started working out. I started running more. I decided
I was really going to find out how good I can be." One
evening during spring training, Dodger scout Kenny Myers was talking
with Koufax and catcher Norm Sherry and asked Koufax to demonstrate
his windup. He discovered a hitch in Koufax's windup: he'd rear
back far enough that, in his release, his vision was obstructed
and he couldn't see the target.
The next day, Koufax was pitching for the "B
team" in Orlando. His teammate, Ed Palmquist, missed the flight,
so Koufax was told he would need to pitch at least seven innings.
In the first inning, Koufax walked the bases loaded on 12 straight
pitches. Sherry told him, as he'd been told before, 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, Koufax had struck out eight batters, walked five and given
up no hits.
Koufax finally broke into the starting rotation
permanently. 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. Koufax finished the year 18–13, with 269
strikeouts and 96 walks. During the two 1961 All-Star games,
Koufax pitched two innings without giving up a run.
In 1962, the Dodgers moved to their new ballpark,
Dodger Stadium. In contrast to the Los Angeles Coliseum, where Koufax
had difficulty pitching due to the 250' left field line, Dodger
Stadium was a pitcher-friendly park with large foul territory and
a poor hitting background. Pitching in this park, 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 then-record four no-hitters. In the first inning of the 5-0
win over the Mets, Koufax struck out three batters on nine pitches
to become the sixth National League pitcher and the 11th pitcher
in Major League history to accomplish the nine-pitch/three-strikeout
half-inning. With the no-hitter and a 1.23 ERA for June, he was
named Player of the Month.
That same season, Koufax's pitching hand was injured.
In a batting appearance in April, Koufax had been jammed by a pitch
from Earl Francis. Soon a numbness developed in Koufax's index finger
on his left hand, and the finger became cold and white. Koufax was
pitching better than ever before, however, so he ignored the problem
hoping that it would clear up. By July his entire hand was becoming
numb and he had to leave some games early. In a start in Cincinnati,
his finger split open after one inning. A vascular specialist determined
that Koufax had a crushed artery in his palm. Ten days of experimental
medicine successfully reopened the artery. Koufax finally was able
to pitch again in September, when the team was locked in a tight
pennant race with the Giants. Trying to get back into shape after
the long layoff, Koufax was ineffective in three appearances as
the Giants caught the Dodgers at the end of the regular season,
forcing a three-game playoff.
The night before the National League playoffs began,
Manager Walter Alston asked Koufax if he could start the first game
the next day. With an overworked pitching staff, there was no one
else, as Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres had pitched the prior two
days. Koufax obliged. Koufax later said, "I had nothing at
all." He was knocked out in the second inning, after giving
up home runs to Hall of Famer Willie Mays and Jim Davenport. After
winning the second game of the series, the Dodgers blew a 4–2 lead
in the ninth inning of the deciding third game, losing the pennant.
Koufax came roaring back in 1963. On May 11, 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 walked 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 11 shutouts (only Bob Gibson
has pitched more shutouts in a season since then) and leading the
Dodgers to the pennant. He won the NL MVP Award, the Cy Young Award
(the first unanimous choice), and the Hickok Belt.
The Dodgers faced the New York Yankees in the 1963
World Series, where Koufax beat Whitey Ford 5 to 2 in Game 1 and
struck out 15 batters, breaking Carl Erskine's record of 14 in the
1953 World Series (Bob Gibson would break Koufax's record by striking
out 17 Detroit Tigers in Game One of the 1968 World Series). Yogi
Berra, after seeing Koufax's Game 1 performance, was quoted as saying,
"I can see how he won 25 games. What I don't understand is
how he lost five." In Game 4, he completed the Dodgers'
series sweep of the Yankees with a 2 to 1 victory over Ford, earning
the World Series MVP Award for his performance.
The 1964 season started with great expectations.
On April 18, Koufax struck out three batters on nine pitches in
the third inning of a 3-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, becoming
the first (and currently only) pitcher to accomplish the nine-strike/three-strikeout
half-inning twice in the National League. On April 22, however,
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 he
missed three starts. On June 4, playing at Connie Mack Stadium 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. However, the morning after his
19th win, a shutout in which he struck out 13, he could not straighten
his arm. He was diagnosed by Dodgers' team physician Robert Kerlan
with traumatic arthritis. Koufax finished the year with an impressive
Playing in pain (1965–66)
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, who advised Koufax that he would be lucky to be able to
pitch once a week. Kerlan also told Koufax that he would eventually
lose full use of his arm. Koufax agreed not to throw at all between
games—a resolution that lasted only one start. To get himself through
the games he pitched in, Koufax resorted to Empirin with codeine
for the pain (which he took every night and sometimes during the
fifth inning) and Butazolidin for inflammation. He also applied
capsaicin-based Capsolin ointment (called "atomic balm"
by baseball players) before each game, and then soaked his arm in
a tub of ice.
Despite the constant pain in his pitching elbow,
Koufax pitched 335? innings and led the Dodgers to another pennant.
He finished the year by winning his second pitchers' Triple Crown,
leading the league in wins (26), ERA (2.04) and strikeouts (382;
the second highest modern day total). His strikeout total set a
modern (post-1900) record that lasted until 1973, when Nolan Ryan
struck out 383 batters. He held batters to 5.79 hits per nine innings,
and allowed the fewest base runners per 9 innings in any season
ever: 7.83, breaking his own record (set two years earlier) of 7.96.
Koufax had 11-game winning streaks in both 1964 and 1965. Koufax
captured his second Cy Young Award (again unanimously).
Koufax and the Dodgers faced the Minnesota Twins
in the World Series. Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 due to his
observance of Yom Kippur; with Drysdale pitching, his team was hit
hard. In Game 2, Koufax pitched six innings, giving up two runs,
but the Twins won the game 5–1 and took an early 2–0 lead in the
series. The Dodgers fought back, with Claude Osteen, Drysdale, and
Koufax claiming vital wins to take a 3-2 lead back to Minnesota.
In Game 5, Koufax pitched a complete game shutout, winning 7–0;
however, the Twins won Game 6 to force a seventh game. Starting
Game 7 on only two days of rest, Koufax pitched through fatigue
and arthritic pain, throwing 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 awarded
Sports Illustrated magazine's Sportsman of the Year award.
Main article: Sandy Koufax's perfect game
On September 9, 1965, Koufax became the sixth pitcher
of the modern era to throw a perfect game. The game was Koufax's
fourth no-hitter, setting a Major League record (subsequently broken
by Nolan Ryan). Koufax struck out 14 batters, the most recorded
in a perfect game. The game also featured a quality performance
by the opposing pitcher, Bob Hendley of the Cubs. Hendley pitched
a one-hitter and allowed only two batters to reach base. Both pitchers
had no-hitters intact until the seventh inning. In one of baseball's
great statistical and score-keeping anomalies, this has been the
only nine-inning major league game where both teams combined for
one hit. The game's only run, scored by the Dodgers, was unearned.
The Dodger run was scored without a recorded at bat—Lou Johnson
walked, reached second on a sacrifice bunt, stole third, and scored
when the throw to get him out at third went wild.
Before the 1966 season began, Koufax and Drysdale
met separately with Dodger GM Buzzie Bavasi to negotiate their contracts
for the upcoming year. After Koufax's meeting, he met Drysdale for
dinner and complained that Bavasi was using Drysdale against him
in the negotiations, asking, "How come you want that much when
Drysdale only wants this much?" Drysdale responded that
Bavasi did the same thing with him, using Koufax against him. Drysdale's
first wife, Ginger Drysdale, suggested that they negotiate together
to get what they wanted. They demanded $1 million, divided equally
over the next three years, or $167,000 each for the next three seasons.
Both players were represented by an entertainment lawyer, J. William
Hayes, which was unusual during an era when players were not represented
by agents. At the time, Willie Mays was Major League Baseball's
highest paid player at $125,000 per year and multi-year contracts
were very unusual.
Koufax and Drysdale didn't report to spring training
in February. Instead, they 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. Meanwhile, the Dodgers
waged a public relations battle against them. After four weeks,
Koufax gave Drysdale the go-ahead to negotiate new deals for the
both of them. Koufax ended up getting $125,000 and Drysdale $110,000.
They rejoined the team in the last week of spring training.
In April 1966, Kerlan told Koufax it was time to
retire, that his arm could not 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. Since then, no left-hander has had more wins, nor a lower ERA,
in a season (Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton did match the 27 win
mark in 1972). In the final game of the regular season, the Dodgers
had to beat the Phillies to win the pennant. In the second game
of a doubleheader, Koufax faced Jim Bunning in the first ever match-up
between perfect game winners. Koufax, on two days rest, pitched
a complete game, 6–3 victory to clinch the pennant. While he
started 41 games (for the second year in a row), only two left-handers
started as many games in any season over the ensuing years through
The Dodgers went on to face the Baltimore Orioles
in the 1966 World Series. Game 2 marked Koufax's third start in
eight days. Koufax pitched well enough—Baltimore first baseman Boog
Powell told Koufax's biographer, Jane Leavy, "He might have
been hurtin' but he was bringin'"—but three errors by Dodger
center fielder Willie Davis in the fifth inning produced three unearned
runs. Baltimore's Jim Palmer pitched a four-hitter and the Dodgers
ended up losing the game 6–0. Alston lifted Koufax at the end of
the sixth inning with the idea of getting him extra rest before
pitching a potential fifth Series game. It never happened; the Dodgers
were swept in four, not scoring a single run in the last three.
After the World Series, Koufax announced his retirement due to his
In his 12-season career, Koufax had a 165–87 record
with a 2.76 ERA, 2,396 strikeouts, 137 complete games, and 40 shutouts.
Koufax and Juan Marichal are the only 2 major league pitchers in
the post-war era (1946-date) to have more than one season of 25
or more wins; each posted 3 such seasons during their careers. In
his last ten seasons, from 1957 to 1966, batters hit .203 against
Koufax, with a .271 on base percentage and a .315 slugging average.
They batted .189 in games that were late and close, and .186 in
tie games. His World Series record is just as impressive: a
4-3 won-lost record but a 0.95 earned run average in four World
Series. 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, with the All-Star
Game having returned to one game per year in 1963). 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; in fact, all
three Cy Young Awards he won were by unanimous vote. More impressive
yet, through Koufax's career there was only one such award given
out annually. In 1967, the year after Koufax retired, Cy Young Awards
began to be given to pitchers in both the National and American
Whereas many left-handed pitchers throw 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 his velocity came from his
strong legs and back, combined with a high kicking wind-up and long
forward stretch toward the plate. Throughout his career, Koufax
relied mostly on two pitches: his four-seam fastball had a "rising"
motion due to underspin, and not only appeared to move very late
but also might move two or three distinct times; his overhand curveball,
spun with the middle finger, dropped vertically 12 to 24 inches
due to his arm action. He also occasionally threw a changeup and
knew every pitch he was going to throw and still I couldn't hit
— Willie Mays