Where Have You Gone, Sandy Koufax?


Sandy Koufax pitching for the Dodgers with his unique delivery.

I was 12 years old when Sandy Koufax retired from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of the 1966 season. I don’t remember much about Koufax’s career, except that I was a St. Louis Cardinals fan and my favorite player was Bob Gibson, one of the other dominating National League pitchers of the decade, and there were titanic struggles between them.

It is only in retrospect that I have come to appreciate the mastery of Sandy Koufax on the mound during that six year period between 1961 and his retirement. During those years he won 129 games, while losing only 47, dominating the league in strikeouts and earned run average. Along with the other overpowering Dodger pitcher of era, Don Drysdale, Koufax led the Dodgers to three National Leagues pennants and two World Series championships during the 1960s. If the 1948 Boston Braves relied on “Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain” to carry them to the National League pennant, the Dodgers in the first part of the 1960s relied on “Drysdale and Koufax, and pray for a day to relax.”

I have long been struck by this remarkable left-handed pitcher, a shy golden-armed baseball player whose fragility sparked his retirement at age 30 and a post-baseball life far outside of the spotlight but still overwhelmingly rewarding and honorable. When I think of Sandy Koufax I am reminded of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the Moon, who also has lived a positive life while shunning the glare of celebrity. I find both enormously attractive figures that accomplished great deeds in their respective areas of activity but were not defined by those deeds.

For me, there are three significant aspects the make Sandy Koufax such an engaging individual. And they have little to do with his exploits on the diamond.  First, Koufax’s Jewishness has always been center stage in his life, and while he did not say much publicly Koufax always accepted responsibility as a role model for other Jews. His decision not to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it would be played on Yom Kippur, the most holy of days on the Jewish calendar, resonated both with other Jews and the larger culture. It cemented his place as a steadfast hero far beyond his intention.

Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax

Second, his joint holdout with Don Drysdale before the 1966 baseball season, in which the two star pitchers insisted on negotiating their contracts with the Dodgers together, represented an innovative attempt to secure greater fairness in the distribution of the proceeds of an exceptionally lucrative business. It was a modest attempt at collective bargaining and it helped open the door for the coming of free agency in Major League Baseball (MLB). Koufax and Drysdale deserve recognition for their efforts along these lines, just as recognition has been granted to Curt Flood who refused a trade in 1969 because he did not believe he should be treated as a “piece of property to be bought and sold” and to Andy Messersmith/Dave McNally when they directly challenged the reserve clause binding players to their teams indefinitely.

Third, I have long been struck by the mythic quality of Sandy Koufax, and more should be done with this by historians of baseball. All of the ingredients of myth and legend are present but have been under-appreciated by those who care about the game. Koufax was a modern Achilles whose left arm could hurl thunderbolts but was susceptible to injury. He dominated the game as few others ever have and then suddenly, almost without warning, he announced his retirement from the Dodgers just when most players are reaching their peak years. Afterward, he aggressively guarded his privacy and many came to believe him a recluse. This is the stuff of legend and serious investigation of the public memory of this great ballplayer awaits further study.

Sandy Koufax in 2008.

The reality is that Sandy Koufax hasn’t gone anywhere. He is still very much with us and engaged in a variety of activities. He is anything but a recluse and he remains one of the most fascinating figures in the recent history of baseball. In this new age of the pitcher, when so many are dominating hitters in ways not seen since the 1960s, I would love to hear more from him.

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22 Responses to Where Have You Gone, Sandy Koufax?

  1. mark schultz says:

    As an 8 year old I saw Sandy’s last regular season loss, in September 1966 at Wrigley Field.
    Ken Holtzman was a 20 year old (Jewish) rookie who outdueled him and almost no hit LA.
    A witness to history; yeah that’s me.

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    • launiusr says:

      I’m so envious. I never saw Sandy Koufax pitch except for a couple of times on TV, and I was so young I didn’t appreciate his mastery. I wish I could say that I saw one of his performances.

      Like

  2. Dan Baker says:

    I was 8 when Kaufax retired, but i had baseball fans all around me, teaching me about the game and about Sandy Kaufax. I have very few memories from when I was 8. All of them are of Sandy Kaufax. As a Jew, I have grown to idolize him what he did for the game and for the Jewish community.

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  3. Joel says:

    His bio is a must read. I love my Phil’s pitchers – but nobody dominates like Sanford did for 6 years.

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    • launiusr says:

      I think you are talking about Jane Leavy’s biography of Koufax. It’s very good. I recommend it as a superb account of his life. In terms of Phillies, I thought they were tough last year and I fully expected them to go to the World Series. I commented on this on my blog at: http://launiusr.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/can-anyone-beat-the-phillies/. Alas, it did not happen in 2010, but they look really good this year as well. I’m excited by the prospect of a fascinating playoff this year with the Phillies very much in the thick of it.

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  4. Ted says:

    Holtzman couldn”t shine Sandy’s shoes. The best EVER!!!!!!!

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  5. Richard Ouellette says:

    I was three days old, I believe, when Koufax threw his perfect game. Needless to say, I have no firsthand memory of him, unfortunate as that is. But when I worked my way through the baseball biographies in my junior high school library in 1978, Koufax, Christy Mathewson, and Lou Gehrig were the lives that fascinated me the most. There seemed something so noble and so tragic in these brilliant ballplayers who lost their careers and/or lives so prematurely.

    I’m a diehard Giants fan, but Koufax probably captures my imagination like no other pitcher. To think that Matty’s NL strikeout record of 267 stood for an astonishing 58 years before Koufax broke it with 269 in 1961, only to obliterate it with 306 in 1963 and 382 in 1965. That’s almost a Ruthian jump in strikeouts.

    I listened to a SABR panel on arm injuries last year, and someone remarked that the great regret of Frank Jobe, the inventor of Tommy John surgery, was that he didn’t come up with the procedure in time to save Koufax’s elbow. Even if he had, I’m not so sure that Sandy would have taken him up on it, such was his perspective on baseball and life.

    A most enjoyable post. Thank you, Dr. Launius.

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    • launiusr says:

      This is a great response to my post. I very much appreciate your thoughts on Koufax, and especially for your telling of Frank Jobe’s comment.

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  6. Loren Kantor says:

    I’m a woodcut artist living in Los Angeles.
    I recently carved an original woodcut inspired by Sandy Koufax.
    Here’s a link to my blog:

    http://woodcuttingfool.blogspot.com/2012/04/sandy-koufax.html

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  7. rich rehfield says:

    I remember those years very well. I was 13 in 1961 and in awe of all things baseball. I remember listening to Vince Scully and Jerry Doggett on my sputnik transistor radio. To be honest Drysdale was my favorite, but time stood still in L.A. whenever Sandy pitched. I was at a game in I think it was 63 in chavez ravine when Koufax faced off against Juan Marichal. talk about a pitchers dual. Mcovey won the game with a solo home run in the 8th…..1-0. I don’t think there was but 3 or 4 hits between both teams. What a great time to grow up loving baseball….truly the golden era.

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  8. ross poteat says:

    I too grew up idolizing Koufax and to this day will argue with anyone over who was the most dominating pitcher in their prime. Alot of legendary pitchers in that era…Gibby, Marichal, Seaver, Drysdale, but to me Sandy was the end all be all. I must of went through a truckload of batteries listening to Vinnie and Jerry on my transistor radio as i had the game on next to my pillow and fell asleep before the game was over. In those days I was 7-12 years old and had a 9:00 bedtime but I was allowed to listen to the game as long as I was “lying down”. The words I dreaded the most, and I can still hear them to this day, is Scully announcing…”two outs, bases loaded, and here comes BIG WILLIE MCCOVEY!!!

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    • launiusr says:

      Great comment. Sounds like we are about the same age. I lived in the East and could not hear those West Coast games, except when the Dodgers were on the road. McCovey always scared me too.

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  9. steve, "Sandy" andy Anderaon says:

    In kindergarden my gym teacher McGuire was our schools baseball coach. My older brother, already called “Andy”, coach called me, “SAndy, ” ..”no, Sandy..sandy Koufax Anderson. I was a little league catcher for 4-years as, “SANDY”

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  10. Randy Gold says:

    Just discovered your story. Really enjoyed reading it, brought back a flood of great memories! I was 10 years old when The Dodgers moved to L. A. and my grandpa started taking me to games in The L. A. Coliseum. I too went to sleep at night with my transistor on my pillow listening to the one and only Vin Scully bring the game alive. Sandy was and is still today my favorite player of all time. I remember back in his glory years, it didn’t matter where you were or what you were doing, if Sandy was pitching you had to have the radio on, because you didn’t want to miss another no hitter or shut out. Besides being at a game, some of my best memories are of laying on the beach with my radio next to me listening to Vin Scully call the game with Koufax on the mound.

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  11. Cindy Hockenberry says:

    I may be the only female responding…but i too have fantastic memories of Mr. Koufax, a true baseball hero. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 60’s and loved the Dodgers, in spite of my parents’ grumbling about taxes to build Dodger Stadium. Sandy and Don on the mound, Roseboro behind the plate…Gilliam, Lefebvre & Wills in the infield and Crawford, Tommy and Willie in the outfield…OMG! And we got to watch Maury run the bases and listen to Vinny & Jerry call the games. Baseball has never been as magical!! (Well……Kurk Gibson starts to surface through the fog….LOL) Personal asides: My 7th grade teacher, Sister Veronica, had once taught Jim Lefebvre…so when the Dodgers were in the World Series, we were allowed to bring a tv into the classroom (black and white!) to watch the games together as a class…what a thrill! And in 1964, I proudly trick or treated in my neighborhood as #32….in my homemade costume….as Sandy Koufax :O)

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  12. pablo zebra del mundo says:

    I too am of this generation (a 49er) from ny, was (still am) a huge yogi fan. (trolley-dodger fans, brooklyn, will recall that the amazing amaros catch in left field came off yogi’s bat–typically way hi n outside, think he jumped to hit it… outfield all pulled way to the right, etc.)… but sandy was off the chart. frank robinson said of gibson, drydale, marical: “kileed ‘em”–of sandy: “killed him–oh wait, did u say koufax–nobody killed him; n if they said they did, they’re lying.” pops said it best in my view. stragell’s famous comment on asked about hitting a koufax curve: “like drinking coffee with a fork”–gotta love it. lastly, that poor ump (4got his name now) who called a bases on balls fairly early in the game, cause sandy was unhittable, n the pitch right on the corner… later apologized to koufax: he may have been the only pitcher to throw 2 perfect games, if not for that gift call. the ump said, “sandy, i didn’t know. it was early in the game…”

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