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Sandy Koufax – A late bloomer to greatness

December 15, 2016

This week in 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Sandy Koufax for $6,000 and a $14,000 signing bonus. The Dodgers expected greatness right off the bat from Koufax- scout Al Campanis claimed that witnessing a Koufax fastball marked the second time the hair on his arms stood up. The first was seeing the Sistine Chapel.

Koufax showed potential but stumbled through his first six years in the majors, going 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA. He even considered stepping away from the game. He had, however, shown flashes of dominance, posting 173 strikeouts in 1959 and 197 in 1960, and decided try another season.

Koufax came into the 1961 season in better shape than he’d ever been. That season, he won 18 games and struck out a then-National League record 269 batters, previously held by the great Christy Matthewson. He posted another great performance in 1962, leading the league in ERA and striking out 216. He would lead the league in ERA in every season for the remainder of his career.

Koufax pitched his first no-hitter on June 30 against the expansion New York Mets at Dodger Stadium. It would be the first of four no-hitters for him.

In 1963, Koufax led the league in wins (25), ERA (1.88) and strikeouts (306), earning the pitcher’s Triple Crown and  shattering his own previous strikeout record. On May 11, he delivered another no-hitter against the rival Giants and was on his way to winning the season’s National League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. Koufax pitched two brilliant ballgames to help the Dodgers sweep the Yankees in the World Series, setting a Series record in game one with 15 strikeouts.

Injury soon plagued Koufax, however. On April 22, 1964, he hurt his arm. He returned to later toss his third no-hitter, this time against the Philadelphia Phillies, but jammed his arm in August and was diagnosed with traumatic arthritis. He still managed to finish the year with a 19-5 record and a 1.74 ERA, but play in pain for the next two seasons.

Before the 1965 season began, Koufax discovered that his arm had gone black and blue from hemorrhaging. Despite this, he led the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts once again. He also pitched his fourth no-hitter with a perfect game against the Cubs on Sept. 9 at Dodger Stadium. He helped pitch the Dodgers to pennant and the World Series. He refused to pitch in game one in order to observe Yom Kippur (Koufax was Jewish), but clinched the Series with a three-hit shutout of a Twins lineup that included Tony Oliva and 1965 American League MVP winner Zoilo Versalles. Koufax was awarded the Cy Young Award again and lost the MVP vote to Willie Mays. His 382 strikeouts stood as a major league record until Nolan Ryan broke it in 1973.

In his final season in 1966, Koufax won the pitching Triple Crown and Cy Young once more, but lost to Roberto Clemente in the MVP vote. Despite his dominance, Koufax announced on Nov. 18, 1966, that he was retiring from the game at age 30.

Sandy Koufax rose to stardom, and just as quickly whisked away from the game, a golden boy whose left-handed dominance in a brief period has perhaps never been seen before or since. Many believe the once wild lefty honed his control to become the greatest pitcher there ever was. At 36, he was the youngest player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.  But just imagine if had, in fact, decided not to come back to baseball in 1961…

“Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.” – Willie Stargell, member of the Baseball Hall of Fame

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