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Sanford Braun "Sandy" Koufax (born December 30, 1935) strung together five amazing seasons as a Major League Baseball left-handed starting pitcher in the 1960s before arthritis ended his career at the age of 31. He played his entire career for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers (1955-66).
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Koufax was a natural athlete as a child, excelling particularly on the basketball court, which helped win him an athletic scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. While there, he pitched occasionally for the baseball team and caught the eye of scouts from his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers with whom he signed a contract in 1955. Although he was a long way from being ready for the major leagues, the rules at the time stipulated that -- because he had received a then-substantial signing bonus -- he had to spend two years in the majors before being sent to the minor leagues. Ironically, the Dodgers cut their future manager, Tommy Lasorda, to make room for Koufax.
Blessed with a blazing fastball but little command of it, Koufax played for Brooklyn for three seasons with limited success. He was still a fan favorite with the Jewish community, however. After the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Koufax continued in the same role, pitching long relief with an occasional start.
He had been making slow but steady progress as a pitcher until 1961, when a teammate, catcher Norm Sherry , advised him he was overthrowing and could be a more effective pitcher if he would just "ease off a bit." Koufax took the advice to heart and had a fine season, winning 18 games that year.
The next season, when the Dodgers moved into Dodger Stadium, a ballpark which strongly favored a power pitcher, Koufax exploded all at once. He missed a third of the season with injuries -- predominantly a circulatory problem in his left index finger and a subsequent infection. By the time he had recovered in September of that year, the Dodgers were in the midst of blowing a once big lead over their arch rivals, the San Francisco Giants. Koufax made 3 unsuccessful appearances down the stretch drive as the Giants tied the Dodgers at the end of the regular season to force a 3 game playoff. Koufax started the first game of the play-offs and was shelled in a losing effort. The Dodgers would later lose the pennant in the 9th inning of the last play-off game when they blew yet another lead. Koufax sat in the bullpen, with another Hall of Famer, Don Drysdale, as they watched the pennant slip away. He did, however, lead the National League in ERA with a mark of 2.54 and pitched Dodger Stadium's first no-hitter against the New York Mets on June 30, 1962.
In 1963, Koufax won the pitchers' Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (25), ERA (1.88) and strikeouts (306). He finished the season as the winner of the Cy Young Award (the first unanimous choice), MVP award, and pitched his second no-hitter, this one against a powerful San Francisco Giants lineup including Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda. After throwing two complete games (giving up a total of 3 runs) in the Dodgers' sweep of the New York Yankees he was given the World Series MVP Award. Legendary Yankees catcher Yogi Berra later said "I can see how he won 25 games. What I don't understand is how he lost 5." He was also awarded the 1963 Hickok Belt as top professional athlete of the year.
Whilst he repeated as ERA champ in 1964 while going 19-5, his shoulder problems increasingly troubled him causing him to miss 12 starts. Injuries did not preclude him tossing a third no-hitter, facing the minimum 27 Philadelphia Phillies, striking out 12 and allowing only one base runner -- a fourth inning walk.
On September 9, 1965, he eliminated even that imperfection, throwing a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs, becoming the first man to throw no-hitters in four consecutive seasons. (Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley also threw a complete game, giving up only one hit, a double, but lost the game 1-0. Ironically, the hit had nothing to do with the Dodger run that scored. By odd coincidence, the final outs in both the 1963 and 1965 no-hitters were made against the same batter, Harvey Kuenn.) The same year, Koufax and the Dodgers won the World Series again, while he captured his second Cy Young (again unanimously). In the Series Koufax was widely praised for refusing to pitch Game One due to his observance of Yom Kippur, but was hit hard in Game Two as the Minnesota Twins took an early 2-0 lead. The Dodgers fought back, with Claude Osteen , Don Drysdale and Koufax picking up vital wins to force a seventh game. Starting on only two days rest, Koufax took the ball and, despite not having good command of his curveball and pitching through tiredness and arthritic pain, threw a three hit shutout to clinch the Series. The performance was enough to win him his second World Series MVP award. He won his second Triple Crown with a 26-8 record, a 2.04 ERA and 382 strikeouts; a major league record that stood until Nolan Ryan broke it by one in 1974. Also in 1965, he won the Hickok Belt a second time, the first (and only) time anyone had won the belt more than once, and Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsman of the Year" award.
In the spring of 1966, Koufax and teammate Don Drysdale jointly requested a pay rise from Dodger owner Walter O’Malley , each appointing an agent to handle the negotiations. Rebuffed by O'Malley, they held out during spring training but signed before the season started -- for a sum considerably below their initial request of $1 million over three years. Although unsuccessful, their stand was a precursor to the later challenges against baseball's reserve clause and the onset of free agency.
Still, Koufax won his third Cy Young Award and third Triple Crown in 1966, going 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts. But after the Dodgers lost the World Series, he announced his retirement, stating that the arthritis in his left arm was making it too painful to continue and that the club doctor had advised him that to pitch on would run the risk of permanent arm injury. After a five year career as a colour commentator for NBC, he retired from public life and into the privacy that had marked much of his playing career. In recent years, however, he has occasionally appeared as a "pitching consultant" for the Dodgers during spring training.
In a 12-season career, Koufax had a 165-87 record with a 2.76 ERA, 2396 strikeouts, 167 complete games, and 40 shutouts. He is on the very short list of pitchers who retired with more career strikeouts than innings pitched. Koufax was selected for seven All-Star games (twice in 1961, and once in 1962-66). Koufax was the first pitcher to win multiple Cy Young Awards, as well as the first pitcher to win a Cy Young Award by a unanimous vote (all three Cy Youngs he won were by unanimous vote). Making this achievement more impressive is the fact that there was only one award given out to both leagues until 1967, when the rules were changed so that there would be a Cy Young Award winner in each league.
In 1972, Koufax was elected to the United States Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He was the youngest man ever so honored, at age 36. On June 4 of that same year, his number 32 was retired alongside Dodger greats Roy Campanella (39) and Jackie Robinson (42).
Whereas most left-handed pitchers throw, to some degree or other, with a three-quarter or sidearm motion, Koufax threw with a pronounced over-the-top arm action. This may have increased his velocity, but reduced the lateral movement on his pitches, especially movement away from left-handed hitters. Most of the velocity, however, came from his deceptively strong legs and back combined with a high kicking wind-up and long forward stretch toward the plate. Throughout his career he relied on two pitches: his four-seam fastball had a "rising" motion due to underspin and appeared to move very late; the overhand curveball, spun with the middle finger, dropped vertically ("12-to-6") due to his arm action. He also occasionally threw a changeup and a forkball.
At the beginning of his career he worked with coaches to eliminate his tendency to "tip" pitches (i.e. give away which pitch was coming due to variations in his wind-up). By the end, and especially as his arm problems continued, this variation (usually in the position he held his hands at the top of the wind-up) was even more pronounced and good hitters were rarely unsure what pitch was coming. It usually did not matter.
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