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A Dodger Awakening: Part Two

Sandy Koufax
1962 Bell Brand photo of Sandy Koufax, courtesy Bell Brand Snack Foods, Inc (US Public Domain)

The following is the second of two parts, depicting two Los Angeles Dodgers teammates whose careers turned around in a positive way and how it all happened.

The first player was Maury Wills. The second is Sandy Koufax…

In retrospect, the worst thing that ever happened to Sandy Koufax was signing for too large of a bonus. Because of that, his 12-year baseball career was divided into two parts. The first six years were utter frustration for him, while the last six were complete dominance over his opposition, separated by some very sound advice that he had finally taken to heart.

Born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York on the second-last day of 1935, Sanford “Sandy” Koufax learned early to play and love two sports that he was very good at: basketball and baseball. He didn’t start pitching, however, until he was 15, and not extensively until two years later. By then, word quickly spread about the sensational lefty who was firing the ball past his opposition in the New York City area amateur leagues. At 18, in 1954, while attending the University of Cincinnati and pitching for their ball team, he was scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers. By now, nearly every major league baseball team came knocking at his parents’ door hoping and praying to get the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder’s name on a contract.

After considering the offers, Koufax signed with the Dodgers on December 14, 1954 for a $15,000 bonus and $6,000 yearly salary for the first two years. This maneuver put him into the classification of an official “Bonus Baby.”  Trouble was, under the major league bonus rules at the time, the Dodgers were now forced to keep him on the major league roster for two years when he really should have been down in the minor leagues learning his trade properly under the umbrella of the outstanding Dodger coaching system.

The reason behind the Bonus Baby status was simple: signing bonuses of at least $6,000 prevented the richest teams from stacking their farm systems with the best prospects. In the off-season, to make room for him on the roster, Brooklyn traded away pitcher Preacher Roe and third baseman Billy Cox to the Baltimore Orioles for $50,000 cash and two minor leaguers.

The next two years were an up and down struggle for the teenager-turning-adult from Brooklyn, having to learn fast and pitch by the seat-of-his-pants. He could throw real hard in an over-the-top motion, strike out a lot of batters, but would walk almost as many. His first season seemed decent enough, posting a 3.02 ERA, two wins, two losses and 41.6 innings where he fanned 30, and walked 28. He relieved seven games, started five, and completed two, both shutouts in successive games. In the first, August 27, 1955, he beat Cincinnati 7-0 on two hits, five walks and 14 strikeouts. The second, on September 3, he beat Pittsburgh 2-0, giving up 5 hits and two walks, and fanning six.

Was Koufax on his way? Nope. Hit with the sophomore jinx in 1956, his ERA ballooned to 4.91: in 10 starts and not one completed game, along with six relief appearances. He struck out 29 and walked 30, giving up 66 hits in 58.6 innings.

Walt Alston
1960 Bell Brand photo of Walt Alston, courtesy Bell Brand Snack Foods, Inc (US Public Domain)

By spring 1957, with his two years on the roster officially up, the Dodgers didn’t know quite what to do with Koufax: send him down to the minors, trade him or keep him up with the big club, despite all his control problems. Sounds similar to Maury Wills, doesn’t it? Trade rumors circulated; one in particular with the Philadelphia Phillies, which Dodger manager Walt Alston reportedly squashed by telling GM Buzzie Bavasi that all Koufax needed was time. But how much more time for their $15,000-dollar prize was the question?

For the last season that the Dodgers had spent in Brooklyn, Koufax improved only slightly. With his most innings pitched to date (104.3), Koufax won five, lost 4, struck out 122, and walked 51, all wrapped up in a 3.88 ERA. Then it was off to California, where the newly minted Los Angeles Dodgers decided to stick by him. Posting 11-11, 8-6, and 8-13 won-loss records, with ERA’s between 3.91-4.48 over the next three seasons, along with his usual high number of strikeouts as well as walks, Koufax probably wondered why the team still wanted him around because he was being benched for weeks at a time.

Ending the 1960 season, Koufax, still young at 25, chucked his baseball gear into the locker room garbage can at the LA Coliseum. Confused and angered, he was ready to call it quits and seek another full-time procession. In his six years to date, his stats stood at a so-so record of 36 wins, 40 losses, and 4.10 earned run average. In 692 hard-throwing innings, he had struck out an impressive 683 batters, but walked 405.

On the positive side, Koufax displayed two glimpses of greatness in that span, both in 1959. On August 31, he walked only two and struck out 18 San Francisco Giants, his last win of the season. Then in the World Series that fall before 90,000-plus in Los Angeles against the Chicago White Sox, he threw a 5-hitter in seven innings, striking out six and walking one. Unfortunately, he was tagged with the lost in what amounted to a slim 1-0 Chicago win.

By the time Florida spring training rolled around the following year, Koufax had decided that he was going to give it all he had for one more year. An all-out effort. Do or die. Then, prior to a game in an exhibition  game in March in which the Dodgers split their squad and Koufax was scheduled to go the distance for the B team, Koufax was pulled aside by backup catcher Norm Sherry on the team bus as it was headed to Orlando.

“We have only one pitcher today, Sandy,” Sherry advised, “So take it easy. Take something off your pitches and get it over the plate. Throw more curves and changeups. Let the batters hit it to the fielders.” In that game and for the rest of that spring down south, Koufax did as Sherry advised and found out that he could still strike out batters, but walking less of them at the same time.

1962 Bell Brand photo of Norm Sherry, courtesy Bell Brand Snack Foods, Inc (US Public Domain)

Dodger management took note, and 1961 was Koufax’s breakout year. He won 18 games, lost 13, and led the National League with 269 strikeouts (a new National League mark) in 255.6 innings, finishing seventh in ERA with a 3.52 mark. By walking only 96 batters, the season was his best strikeout-to-walk ratio so far. More personal bests, he started 35 games, completing 15. Beginning in 1962, Koufax never looked back. For the next five successive seasons until 1966, his last in the majors before retiring with arm trouble, Koufax took the ERA title every time, dipping below 2.00 on three occasions.

Helped along by the new expanded strike zone in 1963, Koufax rose to picture-perfect prominence, leading the Dodgers to the National League pennant and a World Championship sweep over the heavily favored New York Yankees. A killer year at 25-5, 1.88 ERA, 11 shutouts, and 306 strikeouts, he finally tackled any aspect of previous control problems by walking only 58 batters in 311 innings. In the World Series, he beat the mighty Yankees twice in his two starts, Game One and Four.

In the first game, at Yankee Stadium before a packed house of 69,000 fans, he struck out the first five hitters: Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, Tom Tresh, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris in that order, before finishing with a record 15 strikeouts and a 5-2 complete-game win. The talk of the post-season, he pitched 18 of the team’s 36 total innings.

His best season had to be 1965, another World Series championship year for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team’s third in seven years since Koufax’s time on the west coast. With his fifth-straight ERA title at 2.04, Koufax won 26 games, eight of those shutouts. Starting 41 games and completing 27, he fanned a new major league record 382 batters in a workhorse number of 335.6 innings. That fall, he beat the Minnesota Twins twice, both shutouts.

By the time he had called it quits at the end of 1966, Koufax had won three Cy Young Awards, this when the honor went to the best pitcher in the entire majors, not one pitcher in each league, the way it’s been for decades now. Lifetime, he won 165 games, lost 87, and recorded a 2.76 ERA. He threw four no-hitters, one for a perfect game. Three times, he took the National League pitching Triple Crown honor (wins, strikeouts and ERA). In addition, he won the National League MVP in 1963, the same year he won a Cy Young.

When he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, he was the youngest player to do so at 36, and the first pitcher to strikeout more batters than his innings pitched (2,396-to-2,324.3 ratio). He may have been the best left-handed pitcher of all time.

Sandy Koufax was a maestro on the mound, the epitome in pitching perfection. Will we ever see the likes of him again?


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