Remembering Sandy Koufax on his 83rd Birthday

“I never saw those old-timers, but he must have the greatest stuff of any pitcher in history.” – Phillies pitcher Ray Culp, talking about Sandy Koufax in 1964.

Today, Sandy Koufax will be celebrating his 83rd birthday. Considered not only one of the greatest Dodgers players ever, but one of the greatest players in baseball history, Koufax’s legacy still endures today. Many believe he’s the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time, and could have possibly been the greatest starting pitcher period if not due to a career cut short by injuries.

Fans can still spot Koufax at an occasional Dodgers game. He’s always interacting with players, particularly the guy who many see as a reincarnation of Sandy, Clayton Kershaw. In a franchise rich with great Hall of Fame players, Koufax’s name will appear at the top of most “Greatest Dodgers Ever” lists, and rightfully so.

So, what better time to reflect on Koufax’s outstanding career than on his 83th birthday?

“I can see how he won twenty-five games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.” – Yankees catcher Yogi Berra on Koufax’s 25-5 record in 1963.

Koufax’s five year stretch from 1962-1966 was one of the most dominant you’ll ever see from a starting pitcher. During that span, he compiled a 111-34 record, a 1.95 ERA, and 1,444 strikeouts. Just ridiculous numbers.

Koufax won the Cy Young award in 1963, 1965, and 1966, becoming the only pitcher to win the award unanimously three different times. He also won the pitchers Triple Crown (first in Wins, Strikeouts, ERA) in each of those three seasons, an MLB record. His 1963 year earned him the league MVP as well.

Keep in mind, before 1967, the Cy Young award was only given to one pitcher in baseball, not one in each league. Koufax wasn’t just winning those awards because he was the best pitcher in his respective league, but the best pitcher in the game. One could even argue that Koufax might have been the reason for the rule change considering he was winning the Cy Young year after year. Perhaps MLB thought if they didn’t change the rule, no other pitcher would have a shot to win while Koufax was around.

Koufax became the first pitcher (and still one of only two) to throw four no-hitters in his career, with one of them being a historic perfect game in 1965. He’s one of only four Hall of Fame pitchers with more strikeouts than innings pitched, and he was selected to six straight All-Star games. Opposing hitters have the lowest OPS against him than any other pitcher in the modern era, and when he retired, his 9.28 K/9 was tops in baseball history.

The accolades could go on and on.

Koufax was also clutch in the postseason, winning two World Series MVPs.  In 1965, he famously choose not to pitch in Game 1 of the World Series because it fell on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. Instead, he would go on to pitch games 2, 5, and 7, throwing 2 shutouts, including the game 7 clincher in which he gave up only 3 hits and struck out 10 – all while pitching on two days’ rest.

 “Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.” – Pirates 1st baseman Willie Stargell on facing Koufax.

One of the key aspects to evaluating Koufax’s career was how brief it was. Looking back at athletes who retired way too soon, his name tops almost any list. At only 30 years old, he developed severe tendentious in his throwing elbow was forced to retire after the 1966 season.

In his last year, Koufax started (41) and won (27) more games than he ever had in his career, and put up his lowest career ERA, at 1.73. He also led the league with a 2.07 FIP and 317 strikeouts. It was one of his best years ever, yet it would be his last.

Six years later, at 36 years old, Koufax would become the youngest player inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.

In his last few years, Koufax pitched through constant pain and discomfort. He had to receive regular cortisone shots to relieve the pain in his elbow. Before the start of his final season, he was told that his days were numbered due to his injury, but he still went out and had another typical Sandy Koufax year.

Who knows what an additional six or seven healthy seasons could have meant for Koufax’s career numbers. If they were anything like his last six though, the whole debate about possibly being the best pitcher to ever toe the rubber, might not be such a debate at all.

 “There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stoop up:  The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.” – Dodgers scout Al Campanis.

As someone who has seen the Sistine Chapel, and all of its magnificence, I still somehow suspect that above quote isn’t exaggerated all too much. Baseball history was forever altered when Sandy Koufax first put on a Dodgers uniform and took the mound. Fans of baseball everywhere should take a moment to celebrate his greatness, and remember all he has meant to the game.

Happy birthday, Sandy.

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  1. Brian,
    Kudos on your essay. Sandy Koufax is my favorite Dodger and athlete of all time, but I never got to talk to him, despite living in Vero Beach from 2003-04 and visiting Dodger Town almost every day during spring training those years.
    I have written to him since then, asking for an autographed photo but did not receive a response. Any suggestions?

    • Yes, write to him again and say you’re a little boy and your grandpa told you stories of the great Koufax and that you want to be just like him and you pitch like him in little league and struck out your first batter doing it

    • Having met Mr. Koufax several times, I can only say that he is even nicer in person : soft-spoken, generous with his time, and willing to please. When you speak of “Dodger class”, Sandy Koufax is the epitome of that phrase.

  2. Koufax had two halves of his career. The first six was not as productive. He showed signs of brilliance, but was a disappointment. After his sixth season, he threw his glove in the garbage and said he was not returning.

    The equipment manager pulled it from the trash in case Sandy changed his mind. He did. But, he changed two things into his mechanics and it made all of the difference in the world. He was told that he needed to focus his eyes on his target as he was throwing and to slow down his pitches so he was more accurate.

    From that point on it was lights out for opposing batters. The last six years was awesome. Those six years compared to other athletes in sports is legendary.

    What made the difference? Was it really the mechanics? Yes, because Sandy always had the drive to be great. He was just missing a few things. That is the key.

  3. Happy Birthday to the greatest of them all!!!! I was fortunate enough to see Mr. Koufax pitch many times in New York : he was an artist with the baseball. And, today, he is still as classy as they get!!!!!

  4. I saw my first Dodger game at the Coliseum, but one of my fondest memories is a game at Dodger Stadium when I was ten years old in 1964. Dodgers were holding a 3-1 lead against the Phillies (a very good team in ’64) when, late in the game, the bullpen gate swung open and a lanky fella with a satin Dodger blue jacket draped over his left arm came strolling in to face the heart of their lineup. Women in the crowd squealed, kids stood on their seats to get a better glimpse of their hero, Koufax was being used in a “tune-up” after missing a couple of starts with an injury. He threw an immaculate inning. Nine pitches, three strikeouts. He returned to the rotation a couple of days later and threw a complete game shutout (vs. Houston, I believe). Sandy pitched in a four-man rotation and threw nine innings, as did Drysdale and other pitchers of the day. He pitched through horrible pain and over-use. He was a warrior as well as a Master. If there was ever a better left-handed pitcher, I never saw him … and I saw ’em from all Sphan to Randy Johnson. When people talk about guys like Bumgarner for their post-season heroics … I have to chuckle … look at what Koufax did in the World Series … especially in 1965 and tell me MadBum was “the best ever.” Yeah, Sandy Koufax is the greatest pitcher I ever saw, and only Kershaw has come anywhere near being as dominant.

  5. Happy Birthday Mr Koufax never saw you pitch live <but watched you on TV Flowered you from Brooklyn to LA love the Dodgers you are the greatest gave me a lot of thrills Enjoy your 83 Birthday I’m 82 and read every thing I see about you one great pitcher one classes guy

  6. I attended Koufax’s perfect game with my dad and 2 brothers. What made this especially unique was that it was the only game in major league history ( till this day ) that both teams ( Cubs) combined for only one hit and only 2 base runners. In addition, this was a one game series. Not a rain-out make up game. The Cubs had played the Dodgers in LA earlier with 2 each 4 game series. Then, 5 days later, Sandy’s next start was In Chicago against the Cubs and Bob Hendley again !
    I saved my ticket stub and prox 30 years later Koufax was at a card show in San Francisco and I had him autograph it. Favorite memorabilia piece of all time !

  7. I attended his perfect game with my dad & 2 brothers. This was the only game in major league history ( to this day ) that both teams ( Cubs) combined for only one hit and two base runners. In addition, very strange, but this was a one game series, not a rain-out make up game. The Cubs had placed the Dodgers twice earlier in the year, each a 4 game series. Then , for his next start 5 days later, Koufax faced the Cubs and Bob Hendley again in Chicago. I save my ticket stub and prox 30 years later Sandy was at a card show in San Francisco and he autographed it. My most cherished memorabilia item.