Sandy – Baseball’s Reluctant Icon
” There are two times in my life when the hairs on my arms stood up : When I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.”
As said by Al Campanis, future Dodger General Manager, who at the time was a Dodger scout and gave Sandy a tryout. The Dodgers signed him to a $6000 salary and a $14,000 signing bonus. Koufax said he planned to use the signing bonus for tuition when his baseball career failed. To make room for Sandy on the Dodgers, a left hander named Tom Lasorda was optioned to the Montreal Royals of the International League. There are those who say the resentment from Lasorda remains to this day.
Koufax struggled in his first 6 years in the majors finishing his 1960 season with a 8-13 record. After the last game of the season he threw his glove and cleats into the trash (only to be retrieved by the clubhouse supervisor and returned to Sandy the following spring) and vowed to quit baseball and devote himself full time to an electronic business. Persuaded to give it one more year, a hitch was found in his delivery mechanics, and with that correction – the best 6 years of a pitching performance in Major League History was started.
His stats are unmatched in such a short period of greatness (2x World Series MVP, 4x World Series Champ, 3x Cy Young winner (all three were unanimous), 4 no hitters, 1 perfect game, Major League Baseball all Century Team, Major League Baseball All- Time Team, the youngest man ever inducted to the Hall of Fame, best post season ERA (an incredible o.95), but I think Sandy Koufax the Man is much more interesting.
Koufax is remembered for his decision to not pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Derided by many, “the Great Jewish Hope” as Walter O’ Malley called him, inadvertently made himself a religious icon and a reluctant celebrity. (When Senator Joseph Lieberman became the first Jewish American to be named to a national political ticket in 2000, he was dubbed ” the Sandy Koufax of politics.”) Just one year later, at the age of 30, he was gone from the game retiring at the peak of his career going 27-9 with a 1.73 era. Suffering from arthritis and concerned what continuing his baseball career might do to his body, he left on top. Words of wisdom that we all should follow. Sandy summed it up this way : ” I’ve got a lot of years to live after baseball and I would like to live them with complete use of my body.”
With Sandy’s retirement came the notion that he was a recluse. Because he chooses not to comment publicly on his life or to refute other’s impressions of it, he is labeled aloof. Sometimes these perceptions are hardened by a mistake, like when his absence at the 1999 All-Star game in Boston, when the top 50 living players of the 20th Century met (including a final appearance of Ted Williams), Sandy’s absence was cited as more evidence of his reclusiveness. In fact, he had never received an invitation. Often when he does show up at events and is asked about being a recluse, he frequently responds: ” My friends don’t think I’m a recluse.” He is someone who knows and values the difference between solitude and loneliness. He is offended by the right things: lack of civility, honesty, and kindness and as Walter O’Malley says of him “He wants to see the best in everybody.” The editors of Sports Illustrated named him their favorite athlete of the 20th Century with an article headlined “The Incomparable and Mysterious Sandy Koufax.” Fans were stunned to learn he hadn’t read the article. “I haven’t disappeared, I’m not lost, and I am not very mysterious.” The only subject matter that doesn’t interest him is himself. He is a genuine modest man who dismisses any talk of idolism with “The older I get, the better I used to be.” Dusty Baker, known as El Lizard in certain circles, ex Dodger, and current manager of the Cincinnati Reds , says” He’s one of the coolest dudes I’ve ever met, ever.”
On a magical night at Dodger Stadium on Sept.9th, 1965 Sandy threw a perfect game. (“2 and 2 to Harvey Kuenn…” the line uttered by Vin Scully that is etched in many of our minds.) It was the first perfect game thrown by a left hander since 1880. The game also featured a quality performance by the opposing pitcher, Bob Hendley of the Chicago Cubs, who pitched a one hitter that night. 35 years after the game Bob Hendley received a package with a note that read ,”We had a moment, a night, and a career. I hope that life has been good to you. -Sandy .” Inside was a signed ball with the inscription “What a game.” When Hendley showed the ball to his son Bart, he noticed it was signed by Warren Giles, the long dead National League president and that it was a ball from the era of the perfect game. It was the game ball of that magical night at Dodger Stadium. “I’ve been offered a lot of money for that ball and a lot of folks ask what was it like to be the other guy that night?, I tell ’em it’s no disgrace to get beat by class.”
” Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork” -Willie Stargell
” Pitching is the art of instilling fear” – Sandy Koufax
” Koufax throws a radio ball, a pitch you hear, but don’t see.” – Gene Mauch
” Koufax – he’ll never amount to much ” -Tom Lasorda