With the pennant races heating up, even though there are still around 135 games to play, baseball attention, especially around here, focuses more and more on pitching. The Cardinals lost their ace, Adam Wainwright, for the season. The Red Sox don’t seem to have a starter, except Rick Porcello, that can go more than five innings. How can the Yankees be in first place with that rotation?
Fifty years ago this year, one of the most remarkable pitching stories in the history of the game was playing out in Los Angeles. On May 5, 1965, Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitched a 9 hit, complete game shutout against the Cincinnati Reds, striking out 8 batters and walking just 1.
A complete game shutout is pretty big news today in baseball. For Koufax, it was just business as usual. After all, he threw 27 complete games and 8 shutouts that year. To put that number in perspective, two pitchers, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Diamondbacks Josh Collmenter, led the National League with 6 complete games each last year and, as of April 27, the Reds Mike Leake had the only complete game in the league so far this year. From 1963-1966, Koufax threw 89 complete games including 31 complete game shutouts.
Sandy Koufax pitched for the Dodgers from 1955 until 1966, when, at age 30, he was forced to retire because of traumatic arthritis in his elbow which threatened a permanent disability if he did not. He is believed by many to have been the greatest pitcher the game has ever seen.
From 1963 until 1966, the last four years of his career, he won an amazing 97 games while losing just 27. During that four year period, he had a total earned run average of 1.86, led the league in ERA each year, won the Cy Young Award 3 times, 1963, 1965 and 1966, was named MVP in the National League in 1963 and MVP in the World Series in 1963 and 1965.
In 1963, after Koufax won 25 and lost 5, Yogi Berra, according to the baseball Hall of Fame, said ‘ I can see how he won 25 games. What I don’t understand is how he lost 5.’
Forced to retire at 30, in his prime, one can only imagine what his final totals would have been. He won 53 and lost just 17 in his last two years and 165 and 87 for his 12 year career.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, he attended Lafayette High School there and went on to the University of Cincinnati where he earned a basketball scholarship as a walk on. He also played baseball there and was signed by the Dodgers in 1954. His first year with the Dodgers his salary, according to Bill James’ Historical Abstract, was $6,000. The most he made in his career was $125,000. in 1966, his last year.
His first 8 years in the majors, he had control problems and until he overcame those problems, he won just 68 and lost 60. He was a hard throwing left handed pitcher who was 6’2” tall and weighed 210 pounds. As a rookie, in 1955, there was no question about his velocity but, as Duke Snyder, his Hall of Fame teammate once said, ‘When he first came up he couldn’t throw a ball inside the batting cage.’
He overcame that wildness though and put together what may be the most productive four years ever in baseball. He threw 1192 2/3 innings during the regular season those four years, striking out 1,228 batters, 382 in 1965, and started 41 games in each of his last 2 seasons, 150 over the 4 year period. His total of 382 strikeouts in 1965 was only exceeded in the Modern Era by Nolan Ryan’s 383 in 1973.
In the 1965 World Series, against the Minnesota Twins, which the Dodgers won 4 games to 3, Koufax was named the MVP. After taking the loss in Game 1, although he went six innings, giving up just 1 earned run and striking out 9, he came back and shut the Twins out in game 5 and 7. On October 11, he gave up just four hits while going the route and, just three days later, gave up only three hits for his second straight complete game shutout and the World Championship.
In that series, he threw 24 innings, struck out 29 batters, and gave up just 1 earned run for an ERA of 0.38. In his post season career, he pitched in 4 World Series, appearing in 8 games, striking out 61 while walking just 11 and posting an ERA of 0.95.
He made his debut with the then Brooklyn Dodgers on June 24, 1955 and threw his last game on October 2, 1966 with the transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1972, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, at age 36 years and 20 days, the youngest player ever elected to the Hall.
He was the first major league pitcher to throw four no hitters including a perfect game on September 9, 1965. He was on four World Series winning teams in 1955, 1959, 1963 and 1965 and on 7 All Star teams.
Sandy Koufax did it all in a very short career. If not for the arthritis that forced him to retire at age 30, in his prime and seemingly getting better and better, there is no telling how many game he would have won. No wonder, at age 79, he is still a fixture in the Dodgers organization and still works with young pitchers in spring training.