Sandy Koufax: Five Years of Never Before Seen Greatness

Mandatory Credit: Los Angeles Times

On September 9, 1965 a 29-year-old left-hander from Brooklyn, New York hurled a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. It was the star pitcher’s fourth career no-hitter and his first and, of course, only perfect game. The pitcher’s name was Sandy Koufax and after struggling early on in his career he’d put up numbers during a stretch of five years that no one could possibly believe. As a 25-year-old, he signed a contract to the tune of a $14,000, clearly a representation of what the Brooklyn Dodgers saw in him. Koufax never spent a day in the minor leagues as he headed straight to Flatbush. While pitching under the New York City lights in Ebbets Field, he saw more failure than success.

The Dodgers would move to Los Angeles in 1958 and take their potential future star with them. But for next four years Koufax put up rather pedestrian numbers. In 154 games (110 starts) he owned just a 45-43 record, while owning a mediocre ERA at 3.93. He was selected to his first All-Star Game in 1961, but that was only a prequel to what would come. In 1962 Koufax would go 14-7, with a 2.54 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 28 games, earning a second All-Star appearance. Yet, the best was still ahead of him. The following year he won 25 games, losing just five, while posting a 1.88 ERA and striking out an astonishing 306 batters and tossing an even more impressive 11 shutouts in 40 starts.

In 1964 he put up a 19-5 record, striking out 223 with a 1.74 ERA. It was in 1965 that he pitched his perfect game, cementing his name in baseball immortality. Oh, and he’d also win 26 games to go along with a 2.04 ERA. That year he was awarded his second National League Cy Young Award, and help pitch the Dodgers to a World Series championship, the third of his career. The following season would be his greatest. In 323 innings, Koufax won 27 games, struck out 317 batters along with a career best 1.73 ERA (It also led the league). Koufax was once again awarded the Cy Young, his third and sadly, his final.

After the Dodgers were defeated by the Baltimore Orioles in the 1966 World Series, their ace pitcher made a shocking announcement. Despite becoming one of the most dominating forces anyone could remember and still being in the midst of his prime, Koufax decided to leave the game, announcing his retirement at just 30-years-old. Arthritis had done him in and he feared he would lose use of his arms. Despite multiple shots of cortisone, he pitched in constant pain until, in the fall of 1966, he decided he had thrown enough. He was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, his first year on the ballot and is consistently mentioned along with the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen.

What is so incredible about Koufax, is that he changed from a mediocre and underwhelming starter into one of the most electrifying pitchers of all time. For five years he was perhaps the greatest pitcher of generation. A generation which included the likes of Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Jim Kaat, Jim Bunning and Juan Marichal. Many see Koufax as having the best five-year stretch of anyone in history. It’s a feet that not even his modern day comparison, Clayton Kershaw, has not come close to replicating and likely never will. Sandy Koufax’s name is as synonymous with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers as Jackie Robinson, Tommy Lasorda or the great broadcaster, Vin Scully himself.

There are some, very little I should say, who believe Koufax to be rather overrated. A product of big market bias and sentimentality. But it is hard not see the greatness Koufax possessed, the skill which he harnessed to paint absolute masterpieces on the mound as though he was a Renaissance artist carefully crafting another original work. 50 years ago today, Sandy Koufax stifled the Chicago Cubs, placing his name forever in the history books and displaying the type of talent that made him one of the best pitchers ever to step on to.

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