You can always find weird numerology on sports and celebrities if you search hard enough. Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley both died on August 16.
Then today, December 30th, is the birthday of three American athletes you may have heard of: Tiger Woods, LeBron James, and Sandy Koufax.
Koufax turns 86. He was once the pitching version of The Babe. And maybe Elvis too. Because for four historic seasons – the last four of his dazzling career in the 1960s, before elbow pain forced him to take early retirement – Koufax of Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, NY was the best starting pitcher of them all.
I asked the great broadcaster Vin Scully, who had a place in the ring with Koufax from the time the left-hander was a fighting boy for the Brooklyn Dodgers, if he was even able to describe what he got from Koufax looked these days.
Scully’s SMS reply was appropriately capitalized:
“INGENIOUS. BREATHTAKING. COMPLETELY UNDER COMMAND.”
Then he added this just for fun and with a Scully wink:
Pretty good. Even when Koufax was performing with a pretty good boy in New York named Tom Seaver who was about to make his big league debut during the time of Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and Jim Palmer (Koufax left after the season Retired in 1966; Seaver’s rookie year was ’67), Koufax managed to stand taller than any of them, just as Scully described it.
In 1963, Koufax was 25-5, with a 1.88 ERA. He made 40 starts, half of which were full games. Eleven were shutouts. He knocked out 306 bats in 311 innings.
Because of what was then described as a broken elbow, he has only made 28 starts in 1964. His ERA was 1.74. He has posted 15 full games (seven shutouts) and punched out 223 clubs in as many innings.
In 1965, Koufax was 26-8, with a 2.04 ERA, the only season in that four-year stretch to finish its ERA above 2.00 – a catch. He made 43 appearances, had 27 full games (eight shutouts) and 382 strikeouts in 335 2/3 innings.
Finally, on his way out the door in 1966, Koufax finished 27-9, the most wins in any of his 12 seasons. His ERA was 1.73. Of his 41 starts, 27 were full games. He racked up 317 strikeouts in 323 innings.
During this time Koufax won three Cy Young Awards (1963, ’65, ’66) and one NL MVP (1963). And by the way, he and the Dodgers made the World Series on all three of those award-winning seasons. Koufax’s lifetime ERA in the Fall Classic was 0.95.
I once asked Hank Aaron what it was like to face Koufax. He giggled and said, “We have come to an understanding. He caught me sometimes. And sometimes I got him. ”In truth, Aaron was a little better. His average life against Koufax was .362 with seven home runs. Koufax only hit him 12 times and walked with him 14 times. In the end, Aaron had 42 hits from Koufax, the most of all.
However, Koufax pretty much dominated everyone else in its day. And what a time it was: a 97-27 record in his last four seasons when he was at his best. His best was better than anyone else’s.
Koufax beat four no-hitters in his career, including a perfect game against the Cubs on September 9, 1965.
Here is the end of Vin Scully’s call that night, one legend speaks of another:
“On the scoreboard in the right panel, it’s 9:46 PM in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 people sitting just to see the only pitcher in baseball history [at the time] to hurl four no-hit no-run games. He’s done it four years in a row, and now he’s crowning it. On his fourth no-hitter, he made it a perfect game! And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strokes, did it with verve. He knocked out the last six hits in a row. When he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, this ‘K’ stands out even more than the OUFAX. “
Koufax was 30 when he pitched his last game for the Dodgers, Game 2 of the 1966 World Series. Palmer was the winning pitcher in a 6-0 Orioles win. But only one of the four runs Koufax gave up that day was earned as Willie Davis made three outfield mistakes in a day the Dodgers made a total of six mistakes. The next season baseball went on without coufax.
But those last four years have been miracle years. They are reminiscent of the four years that Woods, who celebrated Koufax’s birthday, had between 1999 and 2002, winning seven majors and holding all four golf major championships at the same time. The best way to describe Woods during those years is to say he was Koufax.
Sandy Koufax. Once ingenious. And breathtaking. And totally in command.