Koufax, Sandy : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Koufax, Sandy

Sanford Braun

Arguably the greatest pitcher who ever lived, Koufax threw four no-hitters, dominated the major leagues in the 1960s, broke numerous strikeout records, led the league in ERA for an unprecedented five consecutive years, and refused to pitch on Yom Kippur. After facing Koufax in the World Series, Mickey Mantle said, "Everything they were writing about him is true." Casey Stengel, who had seen them all, remarked, "the fella is positively amazing and it almost takes a miracle to beat him." Willie Mays said, "Sandy would strike me out two or three times a game and I knew every pitch he was going to throw: fast ball, breaking ball. I knew it. He would let you look at it and still I could not hit it." Willie Stargel may have summed it up best, though, when he said, "hitting against him is like eating soup with a fork."

The youngest player ever elected to the Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 1972 (arm problems caused him to retire at 31), Koufax led the National League in ERA for the final 5 years of his career and his lifetime ERA was a dazzling 2.76. From 1962-66, he had the most dominant span ever seen in baseball and his won-lost records were 14-7, 25-5, 19-5, 26-8, and 27-9, while leading the league in strikeouts 4 times (3 of those years, he fanned over 300). His lifetime winning percentage was .655 (165-87), and over his entire career, he averaged more than a strikeout per inning. The great southpaw pitched a staggering total of 27 complete games in each of his last two seasons. In 4 World Series, he had a cumulative ERA of 0.95, 61 strikeouts, and 2 shutouts.

It was through his refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur against the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series that gained him his greatest respect and admiration among many Jews. The day after Yom Kippur Koufax received a visit in his St. Paul hotel room from Rabbi Moshe Feller, regional director of the Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch (educational arm of the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement). Feller congratulated Koufax for not playing on Yom Kippur and for "the great assist he gave Rabbis and Jewish educators the world over." Rabbi Feller also brought Sandy a pair of Tefilin (which must be worn on the weaker arm), although he said, "Since you bat right and throw left, I couldn't figure out what type to get you. But considering what your left arm has accomplished I decided that your right arm was weaker, and so we got you the type you put on your right hand." Koufax accepted the Tefilin humbly and thanked Rabbi Feller for visiting. When asked why he brought Tefilin to Koufax, Feller said, "Could you think of a better way to honor a person for enhancing Jewish values than by presenting him with a Mitzva article, one which the Talmud says is representative of all the Mitzvos?"

Birth and Death Dates:
b. December 30, 1935

Career Highlights:
Although Koufax became possibly the most dominant pitcher in history, he excelled in basketball as a schoolboy. A star at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, Sandy only began playing baseball because he had so many friends playing the sport. After graduating from high school in 1953, he attended the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship with the intention of studying architecture. He said, "The last thing that entered my mind was becoming a professional athlete. Some kids dream of being a ballplayer. I wanted to be an architect. In fact, I didn't like baseball. I didn't think I'd ever like it." After averaging 9.7 points per game for the freshman basketball team, he joined the varsity baseball team as a walk-on. In a two-game span, Koufax struck out 34 opponents and, "That's when big league scouts started to watch me." In the summer of 1954, Koufax signed with his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers and his basketball and architecture careers were over.

Part of Koufax's contract with the Dodgers included a $14,000 bonus. Under the rules at the time, he was considered a "bonus baby" and had to remain on the Dodgers' roster for two years, meaning he could not pitch in the minors. So, Koufax made his major league debut in 1955 at the age of 19 -- his first game was on June 24 and he pitched two scoreless innings -- but with the Dodgers' strong staff, he did not pitch much. That year, he appeared in 12 games with a 2-2 record and a 3.02 ERA (he had five starts with 2 complete games and 2 shutouts) as the Dodgers won their first-ever World Series. Koufax received a ring but did not appear in the postseason that year. The Dodgers returned to the World Series the following year, losing to the New York Yankees in seven games, but Sandy did not pitch in the postseason that year either. In his first two major league seasons, Koufax only appeared in 100.1 innings and had a 4-6 record.

In 1957, his third year in the majors, Koufax finally got a chance to pitch regularly and he appeared in 34 games, although only 13 were starts. The following year, he started 26 games (appeared in 40) and went 11-11, but led the National League with 17 wild pitches and walked 105 batters (second most in the NL). In 1959, he went 8-6 and put himself in the record books for the first time, tying the major league record with 18 strike outs in one game (against the San Francisco Giants). That year, he also made his first appearance in the World Series. After pitching two scoreless innings in relief of a 11-0 loss in Game 1, Sandy started Game 5 and allowed 1 run in 7 innings, but lost the game, 1-0. The Dodgers won the Series, 4-2 over the Chicago White Sox with teammate Larry Sherry the World Series MVP. Koufax struggled again in 1960, with a 8-13 record and 100 walks. Following the season, Sandy was on verge of quitting in frustration, but decided to give it one more shot at spring training in 1961.

Entering the 1961 season, Koufax had a record of 36-40 and had walked 405 batters in 691.2 innings in his first 6 seasons. At spring training, it seemed that like nothing had changed as Koufax still had a blazing fast ball, but little control. Then, Sandy had a conversation with backup catcher Norm Sherry (brother of the Dodgers' 1959 World Series MVP), who told him, "Sandy, you could solve your control problem if you'd just try to throw the ball easier. Just get it over the plate. You've still got enough 'swift' on it to get the hitters out." Although he had heard that advice before, for some reason, Koufax listened this time and said, "In the past I'd go out there and, every pitch I threw, I'd try to throw harder than the last one. From then on, I tried to throw strikes and make them hit the ball. The whole difference was control. Not just controlling the ball, but controlling myself, too." Yet, when Koufax tried to allow opposing batters to hit his pitches, they couldn't. In 1961, he had a record of 18-13, a 3.52 ERA and 269 strikeouts, breaking the NL record set by Christy Mathewson in 1903 (267). That season was just a prelude of the greatness to come.

Over the next five seasons, from 1962-1966, Koufax was the most dominant pitcher baseball has ever seen. He began 1962 with a record of 14-4 and 209 strikeouts (he also pitched the first of four career no-hitters) when he injured his left index finger while batting -- he was diagnosed with a rare circulatory problem. Although he attempted to pitch towards the end of the season with the Dodgers were in a pennant race (they lost a 3-game playoff for the NL crown to the Giants), Koufax was put under doctor's care and ended with a 14-7 record and 2.54 ERA (tops in the NL). The following year, he returned to full strength and was magnificent. Sandy went 25-5 and led the league in wins, ERA (1.88), and strikeouts (306 -- a new NL record). He won the NL MVP, Cy Young Award (the top pitcher in the majors, not just the league), and eventually the World Series MVP. The Dodgers faced the New York Yankees for the championship and Koufax dominated, beating Whitey Ford twice in five days as Los Angeles swept the series, 4-0. In Game 1, Sandy struck out the first 4 Yankees and a then-record 15 for the game. Yankee catcher Yogi Berra spoke for the entire team, when he said, "I can see how he won 25 games. What I don't understand is how he lost five."

After a solid 1964 start, he was 19-5 with a 1.74 ERA (again leading the league) before injuring his elbow in August and ending his season prematurely, Koufax returned to the top of his game in 1965. He won his second Cy Young award, going 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA, and pitched his fourth no-hitter (a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs). In the World Series, Koufax, who had been a hero to Jewish sports fans, gained the respect and admiration of Jewish non-fans. Facing the Minnesota Twins, Game 1 fell on Yom Kippur and Koufax refused to pitch, but this was nothing new to the Dodgers. In 1961, manager Walter Alston scheduled Koufax to pitch on Yom Kippur and was criticized. He quickly made a change and the Dodgers lost the game. Every year after that, Alston kept a Jewish calender on his desk and scheduled the pitching rotation so as not to conflict with the Jewish holidays. Koufax explained, "It's nothing new. I've done it every year since 1955 when former Brooklyn Dodger coach Jake Pitler told me to do it if I felt strongly enough about it." Koufax lost Game 2, but when on to shut out the Twins in Games 5 and 7 and was named World Series MVP.

Before the 1966 season, which proved to be his final one, Koufax held out with Don Drysdale. Although the two great pitchers did not receive the amount they wanted, Sandy signed for $125,000 and many believe the action of Koufax and Drysdale was the first step towards an organized players union. Koufax won his third Cy Young in 1966, going 27-9 with a career-best 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts. All this despite pain in his left elbow which was excruciating and caused him to retire at age 31 following the season. Warned that he risked losing the use of his arm if he continued to pitch, Koufax said, "I don't regret for one minute the 12 years I've spent in baseball, but I could regret one season too many." Five years later, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame -- at the age of 36, the youngest player ever and only the fifth voted in on their first ballot. He finished his great career with a record of 165-87 and a 2.76 ERA.

Koufax is also a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, New York.

Career Dates:
Koufax pitched with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, 1955-1966.


Physical description:
6'2", 210 pounds
Threw left-handed, batted right-handed

Career Statistics:
Wins: 165
Losses: 87
Winning pct.: .655

ERA: 2.76

Games: 397
Games Started: 314
Complete Games: 37

Innings Pitched: 2324.1
Hits Allowed: 1786
Bases-on-Balls: 817
Strike Outs: 2396

Shut-outs: 40

At-bats: 776
Hits: 60
Home Runs: 2
Batting Average: .097

Fielding Statistics
Put-outs: 64
Assists: 228
Errors: 14
Double Plays: 13

Total Chances per Game: 0.8
Fielding avg: .956

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Also, read a chapter from Jewish Baseball Stars by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow
encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
The Baseball Encyclopedia: Tenth Edition (New York: McMillan, 1996)
American Jewish World, (November 19, 1965 -- page 11)

http:// www.baseball-reference.com/