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.
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.
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.