With Team Israel making noise at the World Baseball Classic, it seems pertinent, and perhaps even necessary, to pay homage to the greatest Jewish-American in baseball history, Sandy Koufax. We can look at his career stats and debate whether Koufax was the greatest pitcher of all time, or at least the greatest lefty to ever step on a major league mound. But there’s no debating the massive impact he has had on both Jewish-Americans and the American sports landscape.
In case you need a reminder, Koufax played a mere 12 major league seasons, an incredibly short career compared to some of the game’s other legends. But in those 12 short seasons, Koufax packed in seven all-star appearances, three Cy Young awards, three triple crowns, four no-hitters, one perfect game, and four World Series titles.
Five years after arthritis in his elbow forced him to walk away from the game, Koufax became a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and was the youngest player ever inducted into Cooperstown at age 36. He is also just one of four pitchers in the Hall of Fame to average better than a strikeout per inning, and has the
“I knew every pitch he was going to throw and still couldn’t hit him.”
To be fair, there are a lot of pitchers in the Hall of Fame who had great careers and put up great numbers. But Koufax was of a different breed. There’s a reason they called him “Special K” – one of the dopest nicknames at the time, but not as good as these:
In today’s game, pitchers are treated with kid gloves and shut down at the slightest sign of trouble. Koufax, meanwhile, pitched through remarkable pain late in his career and squeezed every bit of talent out of his golden arm.
By 1964, Koufax had difficulty just straightening his left arm, and at the end of the season was diagnosed with arthritis in his elbow. But it didn’t stop him from pitching two more seasons. During those two years, Koufax took pain killers (sometimes during games) and anti-inflammatories in order to remain on the mound, but you watched him pitch, you’d be none the wiser to his arm troubles.
In 1965, after a team doctor told him he risked losing full use of his arm if he continued pitching, Koufax threw a career-high 335.2 innings (not a typo, that’s over 100 innings more than any modern-day pitcher would dream of throwing in a single season). It was in September of that season that Koufax threw the only perfect game of his career, an incredible feat for a pitcher whose arm had suffered an indescribable amount of wear and tear.
Prior to the 1966 season, Koufax was told by team doctors to retire, but he decided he had one more season in him. He made 41 starts that season, pitching on three day’s rest for most of the season. As it turns out, Koufax posted a career-best 1.73 ERA that season while helping the Dodger reach the World Series in his last hurrah.
“There are two times in my life the hair on my arms stood up: The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sand Koufax throw a fastball.”
Koufax is remembered as much for a game he didn’t pitch as he is for any of the games he did pitch. In the twilight of his career, Koufax passed on pitching Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it conflicted with the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. More than 50 years later, Koufax sitting out on Yom Kippur remains an important precedent that all Jewish-American athletes consider when faced with a similar dilemma.
“There was no hard decision for me. It was just a thing of respect. I wasn’t trying to make a statement, and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.”
If the measure of a person’s career is the impact they make after they retire, few can measure up to Koufax. He remains a frequent guest at Dodgers games, especially during spring training, always drawing great attention from players far too young to have ever seen him pitch. Koufax, at the age of 71, was even selected during the first ever Israeli Baseball League draft in 2007, a testament to how he is revered and remembered.
To say that Koufax is a baseball legend doesn’t do a justice. He’s so much more. He’s a paradigm of greatness and perseverance; a role model for contemporary players; an ambassador for baseball; and an icon for all Jewish athletes. More than anything, Koufax is an American treasure and an American legend.