Sanford “Sandy” Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball, was referred to as the “man with the golden arm.” He established one record after another as he went through an 11-year career as a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Koufax was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Evelyn and Jack Braun. His mother divorced his father when he was young and remarried Irving Koufax, a lawyer who played an important role in raising Sandy and his stepsister, Edith. He took the children to the Yiddish theater in New York City and he was very supportive of Sandy’s participation in baseball and basketball in Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School.
Koufax, who loved to play basketball, was constantly at the Jewish Community Center shooting baskets or playing with a team. When he was 15, he pitched for a team in the Baseball Ice Cream League, where baseball scouts watched him with great interest. After completing high school in 1952, he went on a basketball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. However, the baseball scouts were still after him and finally he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954.
Because Koufax’s signing bonus was greater than $4,000 ($38,000 today), he was known as a bonus baby. This forced the Dodgers to keep him on the major league roster for at least two years before he could be sent to the minors. Koufax made his major league debut on June 24, 1955.
During the fall, he enrolled in the Columbia University School of General Studies, which offered night classes in architecture. The Dodgers won the 1955 World Series for the first title in franchise history, but Koufax did not appear in the series. After the final out of Game Seven, Koufax drove to Columbia to attend class
The first three years were hectic for Koufax, who had trouble controlling his fast ball. At times, he would walk two or three batters before getting the next man out.
In 1959, the Dodgers won a close pennant race against the Braves and the Giants, then beat the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. Koufax pitched two perfect relief innings in the Series opener, though they came after the Dodgers were already behind 11–0. Starting the fifth game, Koufax allowed only one run in seven innings, but lost the game 1-0. The Dodgers won the sixth game and the Series.
In early 1960, Koufax asked Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi to trade him because he was not getting enough playing time. By the end of 1960, after going 8–13, Koufax was thinking about quitting baseball to devote himself to an electronics business that he had invested in. After the last game of the season, he threw his gloves and spikes into the trash.
Koufax convinced Dodger management to let him pitch more often. Under the guidance of pitching coach Joe Becker and Norm Sherry, a Jewish catcher, he learned to throw more curve balls and change-ups. The 1961 season brought him 18 wins; he struck out 269 batters for a league record. But the following year, 1962, was almost a disaster for Koufax. He developed a blood clot in his arm that almost cost him his index finger, but he managed to pull through. He pitched his first no-hitter against the New York Mets on June 30, 1962.
In 1963, Koufax won two games against the Yankees in the World Series. In game 1, he struck out 15 batters, breaking Carl Erskine’s decade-old record of 14 (Gibson would break Koufax’s record by striking out 17 Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series opener). For his performance, he won the Series MVP Award.
Koufax pitched a no-hitter and won the pitchers’ Triple Crown that year, leading the league in wins (25), strikeouts (306) and earned run average (1.88). Koufax threw 11 shutouts, setting a new post-1900 record for shutouts by a left-handed pitcher that stands to this day. Only Bob Gibson, a right-hander, has thrown more shutouts (13). Koufax won the National League MVP Award and the Hickok Belt, and was the first-ever unanimous selection for the Cy Young Award.
In 1964, Koufax suffered several injuries, but still managed to pitch his third no-hitter in three years and finish with a 19-5 record.
Despite the constant pain in his pitching elbow, Koufax pitched 335⅔ innings and led the Dodgers to another pennant in 1965. When a World Series game fell on Yom Kippur, Koufax requested that he not pitch on this holy day. Many criticized Koufax and maintained that his personal beliefs outweighed his professional beliefs.
Starting Game 7 on just two days of rest, Koufax pitched through fatigue and arthritic pain and threw a three-hit shutout to clinch the Series. The performance earned him his second World Series MVP award. Koufax also won the Hickok Belt a second time, the first time anyone had won the belt more than once.
He finished the year by winning his second pitchers’ Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (26), earned run average (2.04) and strikeouts (382; the highest modern-day total at the time). Koufax captured his second unanimous Cy Young Award. Koufax held batters to 5.79 hits per nine innings, and allowed the fewest base runners per 9 innings in any season ever: 7.83, breaking his own record (set two years earlier) of 7.96. On September 9, 1965, Koufax became the sixth pitcher of the modern era, and eighth overall, to throw a perfect game – also his fourth no-hitter.
Before the 1966 season began, Koufax and fellow pitcher Don Drysdale met separately with Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi to negotiate their contracts for the upcoming year. After Koufax’s meeting, he met Drysdale for dinner and complained that Bavasi was using Drysdale against him in the negotiations, asking, "How come you want that much when Drysdale only wants this much?" Drysdale responded that Bavasi did the same thing with him, using Koufax against him. Drysdale’s first wife, Ginger Drysdale, suggested that they negotiate together to get what they wanted. They demanded $1 million (equivalent to $7.9 million in 2019), divided equally over the next three years, or $167,000 (equivalent to $1.32 million in 2019) each for each of the next three seasons. At the time, Willie Mays was Major League Baseball’s highest paid player at $125,000 (equivalent to $0.99 million in 2019) per year and multi-year contracts were very unusual.
Koufax and Drysdale did not report to spring training in February. Instead, they both signed to appear in the movie Warning Shot, starring David Janssen. Drysdale was to play a TV commentator and Koufax a detective. Meanwhile, the Dodgers waged a public relations battle against them. After four weeks, Koufax gave Drysdale the go-ahead to negotiate new deals for both. Koufax ended up getting $125,000 and Drysdale $110,000 (equivalent to $0.87 million in 2019). They rejoined the team in the last week of spring training.
In April 1966, Dodgers’ team physician Robert Kerlan told Koufax it was time to retire and that his arm could not take another season. Koufax kept Kerlan’s advice to himself and went out every fourth day to pitch. He ended up pitching 323 innings, a 27–9 record, and a 1.73 earned run average. Since then, no left-hander has had more wins, nor a lower earned run average, in a season (Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton matched the 27-win mark in 1972). In the final game of the regular season, the Dodgers had to beat the Phillies to win the pennant. In the second game of a doubleheader, Koufax, throwing on two days rest, pitched a complete game, winning 6–3 to clinch the pennant. He started 41 games (for the second year in a row); only two left-handers started as many games in any season over the ensuing years through 2018.
On September 25, 1966, Koufax and Ken Holtzman - the two greatest Jewish pitchers in history - faced off against each other for the one and only time in their careers. The game came the day after both had attended synagogue on Yom Kippur. Holtzman was finishing his first full season in the major leagues and Koufax was in his final season. The rookie Holtzman twirled a no-hitter for eight innings and beat the veteran Koufax 2–1. It was the last regular-season loss of Koufax’s career. He retired at the end of the season, being plagued by arthritis in his pitching hand, but still won his third Cy Young Award for being baseball’s best pitcher.
Koufax, who received the Cy Young Award three times by unanimous vote (1963,1965,1966), was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 just weeks after his 36th birthday. His election made him the Hall’s youngest member ever elected. On June 4 of that same year, Koufax’s uniform number 32 was retired.
Koufax was the first major league pitcher to pitch four no-hitters and the eighth pitcher to pitch a perfect game in baseball history. Despite his comparatively short 12-year career, Koufax’s 2,396 career strikeouts ranked 7th in history as of his retirement, at the time trailing only Warren Spahn (2,583) among left-handers. Koufax, Trevor Hoffman, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, and Nolan Ryan are the only five pitchers elected to the Hall of Fame who had more strikeouts than innings pitched. He finished with a 165–87 record with a 2.76 earned run average, 137 complete games, and 40 shutouts. He was the first pitcher to average fewer than seven hits allowed per nine innings pitched in his career (6.79) and to strike out more than nine batters (9.28) per nine innings pitched in his career.
Koufax’s postseason record was 4–3 with a 0.95 earned run average in four World Series. He is on the very short list of pitchers who retired with more career strikeouts than innings pitched. Koufax was selected as an All-Star for six consecutive seasons.
After retiring, he moved to the west coast and turned to broadcasting baseball games and to selling real estate. In 1967, Koufax signed a 10-year contract with NBC for $1 million (equivalent to $7.7 million in 2019) to be a broadcaster on the Saturday Game of the Week. He quit after six years, just prior to the start of the 1973 season.
The Dodgers hired Koufax to be a minor league pitching coach in 1979. He resigned in 1990, saying he was not earning his keep, but most observers blamed it on his uneasy relationship with manager Tommy Lasorda.
In 1999, he was named as one of the 30 players on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
On May 27, 2010, Koufax was included among a group of prominent Jewish Americans at the first White House reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.
On January 23, 2013, the Dodgers hired Koufax as a Special Advisor to team Chairman Mark Walter. Koufax worked with the pitchers during spring training and will consult during the season.
Koufax served as a member of the advisory board of the Baseball Assistance Team, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to helping former Major League, Minor League, and Negro League players through financial and medical difficulties.
Koufax married Anne Widmark, daughter of movie star Richard Widmark, in 1969; the couple divorced in 1982. His second marriage, to Kimberly Francis, a personal trainer, lasted from 1985 to 1998. Koufax is currently married to Jane Purucker Clarke.
Sources: Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America;
“Sandy Koufax,” Wikipedia.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.