To remind us how good things can be despite baseball’s current turmoil, a tribute to my favorite athlete, Sandy Koufax.
One of the best pitchers ever, his story is almost a fairy tale, beginning with Humble Origins, The Talent, And The Trials. Born middle-class in Brooklyn, tall, handsome, athletic and studious, he was a college walk-on in basketball and baseball. He could throw harder than anyone else, but was wild. Still, he became a 19-year-old “bonus baby” with his hometown Dodgers in 1955. Struggling for six years, with flashes of brilliance, injuries and periods riding the bench, he quit at the end of 1960, throwing away his glove and spikes.
Then came The Turning Point. He decided to try once more and trained hard in the offseason for the first time. Starting a spring-training game, he walked the bases full on 12 pitches. Catcher Norm Sherry asked him to ease up on his pitches for better control, and being modest and coachable, he gave it a try. He struck out the next three batters, pitched a no-hitter, and knew that day that everything had changed.
The Courageous Hero: In 1961-66, Koufax had perhaps the best six-year performance of any pitcher ever, with records, awards and distinctions far too numerous to list here. He also suffered painful injuries, including traumatic arthritis in his pitching arm beginning in 1964 that worsened until he retired. He fought it with numerous pain-killers, prescription drugs, and regular ice baths for his arm — and barely avoided losing complete use of the arm from continuing to pitch while injured.
But more than performance, courage and statistics, there was His Character. He was as good a person as a pitcher — the main reason he is so revered. Before, during and after his playing days, he was likeable, but quiet and reserved; home-oriented, yet nomadic; a mentor. He was humble, decent, kind, generous and considerate to all (especially everyday folks), and authentic. A dedicated perfectionist in the things he did (even gourmet cooking). Fellow Dodger Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton said, “He was a star who didn’t feel he was a star.”
And The Moment of Truth: Dominating the game in 1965, he declined to pitch the opening contest of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. When you’re 16 and your hero does something like that, it leaves an indelible impression on you. It was his religion, not mine, but his resolve on principle and quiet dignity commanded respect. Then, he pitched the second, fifth and seventh games — the last on two days’ rest — for a final championship and the series’ Most Valuable Player award.
The Afterglow: After the 1966 series, he retired at 30, no longer able to take the pain and damage endangering his arm. In his last 26 days, he pitched seven times for five complete-game wins, a 1.07 earned-run average, and a pennant clincher on two days’ rest. Leaving at the top of his career after holding nothing back and giving the game his all, he assured that we’ll always remember him in his golden prime, as baseball’s best knight. In 1972, he became the youngest player ever elected to baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated named him its favorite athlete of the century. SI’s story showed he was not driven by money or fame — he could have had much more of each for the taking — but by love of the game and role-model instincts.
Ron Knecht is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.