Sandy Koufax: Baseball's Enigmatic Participant

O

ver the past century, America has seen an eclectic parade of personas march through the diamonds and fields of Major League Baseball.

There have been those who boldly strutted down that parade route like thundering drums keeping the beat for a big, loud, brassy band and those who simply tipped their hats while concentrating on the walk. Some served as the parade's playful clowns, while others diligently went about amazing the masses with their skills like jugglers, acrobats and unicyclists. There were those who put on an over-the-top show of style as if they were one of Pasadena's floating floral creations. Others took on roles similar to those who drive the vehicles – keeping the pace and getting the job done while receiving none of the glory.

Koufax

In the parade of professional baseball, we have seen diplomats and politicians. We have seen wagon pulling workhorses and prancing show horses. We have seen those who performed as the magnificent towering balloons of Macy's on Broadway, and we have seen those who have stalled like a '56 Chevy from a Nowheresville car club that is pulled out of mothballs for it's once a year trek down Main Street. We have seen the brass-adorned color guards that have majestically gotten things started, and the broom-wielding sweepers who have quietly wrapped things up.

For the most part, each man that has donned the uniform of a Major League club, whether he was a Hall of Fame legend or a forgotten bench warmer, has fit into some known category – with the exception of one – Sanford Braun Koufax.

Koufax

In baseball's parade, Sandy Koufax was an enigmatic participant. He graciously marched with precision as if the compositions of his beloved Mendelssohn were playing in his head. He acknowledged the crowds with reserve and a subtlety that was neither totally amicable nor totally aloof. And, when the parade was over, he simply took off his uniform, hung up his marching shoes, and went away.

He was born in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, New York on December 30, 1935. His birth name was Sanford Braun, a moniker he retained until his second birthday when, after his parents divorced, his mother remarried attorney Irving Koufax. Shortly after the marriage, the Koufax family moved to Rockville Centre on Long Island where young Sandy grew up playing sports in Jewish community clubs and schoolyards.

Koufax

In the fall of 1949, right after he graduated from ninth grade, the Koufax family returned to Brooklyn where they lived in a three-story garden apartment adjacent to the Belt Parkway. At Lafayette High School, Sandy's talents on the baseball field came up short. What he did excel in was basketball. He had quick moves, a keen eye for the basket and was an outstanding ball handler.

In his senior year, he was named the captain of the Lafayette basketball team, scored 165 points, and was named All-City. He garnered the attention of quite a few college scouts and finally accepted a scholarship with the University of Cincinnati where he planned on studying architecture. As a freshman, Koufax averaged 9.7 points a game on the court and decided to give baseball a try once more. He couldn't hit worth a darn, and had very little control over his pitches. What he could do, however, was throw a ball hard. In fact, he was capable of delivering the horsehide with such velocity and speed that Brooklyn Dodgers scout Al Campanis suggested that the franchise give him a chance.

Koufax

Koufax bit at the offer, lured mostly by a signing bonus. He figured it was a good way to get some quick cash that the family desperately needed, play a little basketball on the side, and still hopefully have a shot at the NBA if baseball didn't work out. By the beginning of the season, the Dodgers had to trim their roster. They did so by cutting a pitcher by the name of Tom Lasorda and keeping Koufax.

Under the prevailing bonus rules, Koufax had to remain on the team's major league roster for at least two years that denied him the pitching and hitting practice he would have received in the minors. The Dodgers won pennants in both of those years, 1955 and 1956, but it was with no thanks to Koufax who only pitched 100 1/3 innings.

Koufax

When he did pitch, it was with that overpowering force that caught batters off guard quite a bit. His fastball had a unique rise to it, making it ride up and away from hitters. His curveball was deadly, leaving stunned batters swinging at air as it drooped.

Still, despite the arsenal of pitches, he did little to distinguish himself as anything other than a guy who could throw a ball right through a catcher. By the end of his sixth season, he was 36-40 and had walked 405 batters in 691 2/3 innings.

Koufax

The turning point came in 1961. According to the team's backup catcher, Norm Sherry, Sandy's major league career changed during a routine ride on the team bus to a spring training exhibition game. Sherry suggested that Koufax concentrate more on simply throwing the ball over the plate rather than putting so much power behind his pitches. He also recommended that he be more varied and selective with his pitches.

"Sandy, you could solve your control problems if you'd just try to throw the ball easier," Sherry told Koufax. "Just get it over the plate. You've still got enough swift on it to get the hitters out."

Sherry's advice was nothing new for Koufax, so why it resonated at that time is fodder for lore and legend, but Koufax himself has said that it was that conversation that hit home for him. "In the past I'd go out there and (try to throw every pitch) harder than the last one," Koufax once told a reporter. "(But) from then on I tried to throw strikes and make them hit the ball. The whole difference was control. Not just controlling the ball, but controlling myself too."

Koufax

And so, in his seventh season, a star was born. His delivery had taken on an easier rhythm and he relied more on that devastating curve that was once described as being like a chair whose legs suddenly collapse out from under it. He went 18-13 with a 3.52 ERA, walking 96 in 255 2/3 innings. He also broke Christy Mathewson's strikeout record that had stood for 58 years.

Over the following five seasons, he chalked up his second 18-strikeout game and pitched a no-hitter in 1962. By the middle of the 1962 season, Koufax began to suffer numbness in his left index finger. Put under a doctor's care, he was diagnosed with having circulatory problems and was sidelined for the rest of the season with the exception of a few non-eventful appearances very late in the year.

Koufax

By spring training of the following season, Koufax had regained his health and came out strong in 1963, earning what would be the first of his three pitching triple crowns. The following year he slammed his left elbow into the ground in an attempt to dive back to second base. The pain was excruciating but he continued to play. He even started two games following the injury and chalked up wins with each. But the pain finally did him in leaving him with a season record of 19-5 and 1.74 ERA.

By 1965, arthritis had begun to form in Sandy's left arm. Still, despite the pain, he went 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA to win his second Cy Young and help see the Dodgers through the playoffs and into the World Series.

The first game of the Series fell on Yom Kipper, the holiest day of the year for Jews, and instead of an appearance on the mound, Koufax made an appearance in the synagogue. He pitched the following day and lost and then came back to blank the Minnesota Twins in Games 5 and 7 to give the Dodgers the Series.

Koufax

Koufax came back in 1966 and proved that he still had power and control in his arthritic arm. After staging a holdout with fellow pitcher Don Drysdale, Sandy finally signed to play and ended up with a 27-9 record, a 1.73 ERA and his third Cy Young Award.

In the winter of 1966-67, the pain in Koufax's arm continued to escalate and doctors warned him that if he continued to pitch he might completely lose use of the arm.

With a career record of 165-87, 2.76 ERA and 2, 396 strikeouts in 2,324 1/3 innings, Koufax decided to hang up the uniform and take off the marching shoes... the parade was over.

Koufax

The great sports writer Larry Schwartz once wrote that:

Koufax was the J.D. Salinger of baseball. He was an elegant craftsman, brilliant to the extreme in the exercise of his talent, but an obsessively reluctant celebrity, less comfortable in the limelight than in the hermit-like world he fashioned for himself off the pitcher's mound.

Schwartz's observation was as on target as a Koufax pitch. As with the work of Salinger, who authored the classic book The Catcher in the Rye, Koufax received public adulation for only a brief time. But, in that brief time, he proved over and over to be a performer so true to himself that, in the end, he refused to let money change him or make him linger. At the age of 30, realizing that he was damaged goods, he passed up a guaranteed salary and simply walked away from baseball.

Koufax

The baseball career of Sandy Koufax is as much an enigma as the man himself. For much of his first six seasons the 6' 2', 210-pound southpaw languished on the bench or in the bullpen. Then, almost without warning, he sparked in 1961 and burned brightly for what would be his final five seasons.

Koufax pitched an NL record four no-hitters, including a perfect game. Twice he fanned 18 batters in a game, and in 1965 he whiffed 382, a major league record that stood until Nolan Ryan came along. In 1963, he won the MVP with a 25-5 record and, in the World Series, he beat Whitey Ford twice in five days as the Dodgers swept the New York Yankees. "I can see how he won 25 games," Yankees catcher Yogi Berra said after that Series. "What I don't understand is how he lost five."

Through all of his success, few ever really got to know Koufax who always seemed to hide behind what his autobiographer Ed Linn has called his "wall of amiability". Perfectly polite and accommodating to everyone including the press and fans, he kept everyone at arm's length during his playing days. He revealed very little about himself as an active player and has become even more of a recluse since.

Koufax

He seemed to never do anything in excess. He smoked a cigarette now and then, wasn't adverse to an occasional drink and wasn't above cursing when he was displeased with his performance. He was never a part of a clique. He did play a little golf, but never during the baseball season. He squired gorgeous women, but never talked about any of them to his teammates. He was polite to the sportswriters but shunned publicity. On road trips, he always brought along an attaché case that converted into a stereo, allowing him to relax in his hotel room to the music of Mendelssohn.

And, after that relaxation, he went out on the mound and threw baseballs like few others have before or after him. In 1972, when, at the age of 36, Koufax became the youngest player ever voted into Baseball's Hall of Fame, the late Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell said that trying to hit a Koufax pitch was one of the most frustrating things he had ever tried to do. "Hitting against him is like eating soup with a fork," said Pops.

When it comes to cards and collectable items pertaining to Sandy Koufax, the demand is at top levels. The reasons for this high demand are perhaps threefold. First, simply because it's Koufax who, once he came into his own, completely dominated the pitching game of the era. Secondly, in the vain of Joe Jackson and Roberto Clemente, Koufax's career was cut short leaving generations to come with the never-to-be-answered question of what might have been have been. And, thirdly, they will always be fascination with him because he was not just a Dodger, but a member of the legendary Dodger team that made the transition from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

Koufax

The most sought after of the Koufax cards is of course the 1955 Topps #123, his rookie card. A beautiful card with a striking yellow background, the Topps #123 is, relatively speaking, not that that difficult to find in high grades. In PSA 9 Mint or PSA Gem Mint 10 it does get more difficult being as that there were some production problems associated with the set. Centering is an issue and, due to the bright yellow background, ink specking tends to be a problem. Still, despite the fact that this card is very possible to obtain, its availability has done nothing whatsoever to diminish its desirability.

Other highly desirable Koufax offerings include the 1957 Topps #302, the 1962 Topps #5 and the 1963 Topps #412. He also appeared on many "league leader" cards being as that he was such a dominating force and is included on a few regional issues from the early 1960s. Perhaps one of the most difficult Koufax cards to find in very high grades is the 1966 Topps #100. This was his last major card of his career and, as with any player's final card, it is desirable due to the fact that it carries his total career stats. This card also had big centering problems, which makes it difficult to find in the high grades.

Koufax jersey

As for authentically signed items, they are out there but they do command premium prices. A willing signer during his playing days, Koufax has rarely appeared at events, shows or signings until very recently, when he has participated in a few. While Koufax cards and signed items are obtainable, his game-used uniforms and equipment rarely surface and, when they do, they command top prices. His game used jerseys are extremely rare and, with the exception of Mickey Mantle, fetch higher prices than any of the era. When a 1963 Koufax jersey surfaced a few years back it sold for over $46 thousand dollars and a Brooklyn Dodgers home jersey worn in 1955 brought in over $82 thousand dollars.

Koufax bats are also exceptionally rare and highly desirable despite the fact that he, as most pitchers, left much to be desired when it came to their hitting prowess. Bats associated with pitchers are not exactly plentiful to begin with, so when you combine the scarcity with the fact that Koufax used them, one can see why they are coveted. In recent years, one Koufax bat sold for nearly $35,000 at auction and another, reportedly, sold in a private transaction for over $60,000.