Glancing Back, and Remembering Sandy Koufax
No superlative can do justice to the performance of Sandy Koufax in his prime. In a decade dominated by overpowering pitchers, none was more dominating or overpowering than the Dodgers’ hard-throwing southpaw.
With the 1960s version of Koufax, every start was probably going to be a victory, possibly going to be a shutout, and potentially going to be a no-hitter. (He pitched four.) Most pitchers never experience even a single 20-win season. In his last five years (1962-1966), Koufax won 25 games or more three times; in the other two years, he was on track to win at least 25 games when injuries cut short both seasons – just as they would later abbreviate his career.
Of his four no-hitters, the last one – on September 9, 1965 – was a perfect game. Koufax beat the Chicago Cubs 1-0 that night, striking out 14. He needed only 1:43 to complete his pitching gem.
A career-long Dodger (who never played in the minors), Koufax was mediocre at best in his first six seasons. A great arm and inconsistent control led to a 36-40 record, with season ERAs consistently above 3.00 and often higher than 4.00.
The change over the last six years of his career couldn’t have been more dramatic. On the verge of retiring out of frustration, Koufax worked in the 1960 off-season to re-engineer his pitching mechanics. Something clicked, and his walks per nine innings declined steadily from near 6.0 to as low as 1.7 in 1965. His numbers for hits and strikeouts per nine innings remained pretty much the same. The key for Koufax was control. Once he mastered it, there was no stopping him.
His break-out year was 1961, when he won 18 games with his best ERA up to that point, a respectable 3.52. Koufax led the majors in strikeouts for the first time (269) and pitched 15 complete games. The 1962 season turned out to be a prophetic one for the remainder of Koufax’s career. He started fast, winning 14 games by the All-Star break. Yet injuries brought his season (and for all intents and purposes, the Dodgers’ pennant hopes) to a halt as Koufax didn’t win another game the rest of the year. Even with his shortened season, Koufax led the league with a 2.54 ERA. From this point until the season following his retirement, no one else would lead the National League in earned run average.
The Koufax era of dominance began in earnest in 1963. With the benefit of a complete and healthy season, Koufax racked up a 25-5 record with 306 strikeouts and a 1.88 ERA. He led the majors in all three of those pitching categories, as well as topping all major league pitchers with 11 shutouts. He won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards for 1963. And in the 1963 World Series against the Yankees, Koufax spearheaded the Dodgers’ four-game sweep with two victories, with a 1.88 ERA and striking out 23 batters in 18 innings.
In 1964, Koufax was leading the league in nearly every pitching category when he injured his pitching elbow while sliding into base. The injury ended his season with six weeks still remaining. He finished 19-5 (good for fourth in victories). Despite missing a month and a half, Koufax ended up fourth in strikeouts with 223, only 27 behind league-leader Bob Veale. Koufax led the majors in ERA (1.74) and shutouts (seven).
The elbow Koufax damaged in 1964 continued to bother him for the next two years, but you wouldn’t know that from his statistics. In 1965, he went 26-8, with a 2.04 ERA, a major league record 382 strikeouts in 335 innings, and 27 complete games – leading the majors in all of those categories. He was even better in 1966, going 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts in 323 innings, with 27 complete games and five shutouts – again leading the major leagues in all of those categories. He was the unanimous Cy Young award winner both seasons.
Having Koufax available to pitch full seasons meant a National League pennant for the Dodgers in both 1965 and 1966. Koufax won two games as the Dodgers defeated the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series. He lost in his only appearance in the 1966 World Series as the Baltimore Orioles swept the Dodgers.
That 6-0 loss to the Orioles (and to a 20-year-old future Hall of Famer named Jim Palmer) marked Koufax’s last major league appearance. He retired in November of 1966 as a consequence of continued arthritic deterioration of his left elbow. He was only 30. In 1972, Koufax at age 36 became the youngest man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.