Sanford Braun "Sandy" Koufax. Like Jackie Robinson, with whom he's tied for my all-time favorite athlete, he's far too large to capture in a blog post. Like Robinson, he's an incredible athlete and man, and like Robinson, his life transcends the game of baseball. Though both received their fame and recognition through baseball, neither one needed baseball to live a life of importance.
Arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, Sandy Koufax burned like a meteorite across the baseball firmament and then was gone, retiring at age 30 at the peak of his career, his elbow arthritic, his arm spent. Early in his career, he damaged his elbow trying to throw each pitch harder than the last, before discovering that by easing up he could throw just as fast and with more control. Early on, he was frustrated by how little the Dodgers pitched him, but once they discovered what they had, they worked him like a plow horse. The famously weak-hitting Dodgers of the early '60s depended on their pitchers for championships but, not uncommon for the times, seemed callously and myopically unconcerned with their longevity or health. In getting out of the game "while I can still comb my hair," he avoided the temptation that so many great athletes succumb to, to play out their string for too long past their prime and decline before our eyes on the field. He left on his terms. The game needed the man who once famously refused to pitch a World Series game on Yom Kippur, more than he needed the game.
In an abbreviated eleven year career from 1955 to 1966, he amassed a record matched by few pitchers working twenty years. From 1962 to 1966 he dominated. I'll leave it to the reader's initiative to learn about the MVP award, the Cy Young awards, the pitching Triple Crowns, strikeout record, World Series championships, and the four no-hitters (first player to reach four), including a perfect game (the eighth in baseball history). That at his Hall of Fame induction in 1972 at age 36 he was the youngest inductee ever. A player can be judged by what his adversaries say about him; Pittsburgh legend Willie Stargell said that hitting against Koufax was "like trying to drink coffee with a fork." Although he tipped off his fastball and curveball to hitters by variations in his windup, Willie Mays, arguably the best all-around player ever, said "I knew every pitch he was going to throw and I still couldn't hit him." More than once, the word "unfair" was used.
On the field he was a fierce competitor who once said that "Pitching is the art of instilling fear." Both on and off the field, as was Robinson, he's the epitome of class and grace. He didn't call attention to himself, argue with umpires or show up other players; one said "He'll strike you out but he won't embarrass you." Ever a man of dignity and integrity, he has never done anything in his playing days or in retirement to let down his fans or diminish his reputation. Even in a room full of politicians, scholars, celebrities and other luminaries, he's the one whose autograph everyone wants. He's a famously private man who declines his own celebrity, which is often mistaken for reclusiveness, but he's simply cut from a different cloth from a society that is increasingly, pathologically obsessed with fame and celebrity.
After an absence of several years, Sandy was back with the Dodgers this spring training, to the delight of both fans and players. He may refuse the mantle of hero, but he remains a hero to them all.
I highly recommend Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy by brilliant writer Jane Leavy.