10 Things to Learn from Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy

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Looking at Clayton Kershaw, I imagine he’s close to being this generation’s Sandy Koufax, both being left-handed Dodgers strike-out kings. As long as Kerhaw doesn’t lose velocity like Tim Lincecum of the Giants or deal with injuries like Koufax, there’s no reason why he won’t be one of the best ever. Jane Leavy’s Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy is an excellent biography of the Jewish superstar, and here are ten key things I learned about him:

1) Koufax held the ball aloft to show the proper grip on the curveball: between the middle and ring fingers with his middle finger resting inside the long seam of the ball. His thumb, index finger, and even his ring finger were largely superfluous. He threw his curve off his middle finger, karate-chopping the air, pulling down on the seams with uncommon force and friction, thus generating unprecedented spin. “When you push back up, you’ve got to bend your wrist, hook it, so your hand is almost inside your arm,” he explained. “You can’t throw it as hard. You can’t spin it as fast pushing up as you can pulling back down.” Pulling down also places less stress on soft tissue and prevents the ball from popping up into view. In photos, you can see his thumb sticking straight up as if hitching a ride.

2) ‘Look at that guy, he’s built like a Greek god.’ We looked. It was Koufax. He was sixteeen years old then.” “Nobody knew how strong Sandy was,” Buzzie Bavasi said. “Great upper body. Got it from his mother. Lovely woman.” Great lower body too. In a pickup basketball game at the YMCA, Cohen said, “he split his gym shorts, his thighs were so big. Cheap shorts.”

3) When he was growing up, baseball was neither Koufax’s dream nor his passion. His dream was to play for the New York Knicks. Wilpon was the sandlot star for whom a major league career was confidently predicted, the boy with all the tools, a polished pitcher at age sixteen who piqued every scout’s interest. Koufax was a tagalong. Sometimes he kept Wilpon company when he was summoned to Ebbets Field to throw batting practice. The Dodgers made Wilpon an offer; he does not remember how much. “Everybody got an offer,” he says.

4) As for throwing behind the barracks, everyone did—that’s where the string area was. Joe Pignatano caught him in the spring of 1955. “Everybody said, ‘Sandy’s wild, wild, wild,’” Pignatano said. “He was not that wild. A little high and low in the strike zone. Once they put that tag on you it stays with you. They never stayed with Sandy long enough to give him a chance until later when they had nobody else.”

5) Drysdale came sidearm; Koufax came over the top. Drysdale’s ball beat you up, Koufax’s rose to greet you. “Drysdale was like going to the dentist without Novocain,” Joey A. liked to say. “Sandy had the Novocain.” Facing him was painful only in retrospect.

6) Though he was a heavy smoker and the surgeon general’s report on tobacco hadn’t yet been released, he would not be photographed smoking a cigarette. In an era when caution labels were not yet required reading, he refused to endorse either tobacco or alcohol. He did a sweater ad. He owned a piece of a motel on the Sunset Strip, Sandy Koufax’s Tropicana Inn.

7) In the spring of 1966 to say of a man he’d a played for nuthin’ was the ultimate accolade and the ultimate fiction. They played for money, just a lot less of it. The conceit of mercenary selflessness is a fin de siècle construct, a gauzy, revisionist mythology which allowed fans to think better of their heroes and owners to keep salaries down. When spring training camps opened that February, the minimum player salary was $7,000—one thousand dollars more than it was when Koufax signed with the Dodgers in 1955. Winning mattered. World series checks weren’t just latte money.

8) The Dodgers not only counted on him to win, they counted on him to make them all better, to infuse even the most modest among them with his quiet bravado. If he was bullet-proof, so were they. He wasn’t exaggerating when he told Ron Fairly late in the season, referring to rookie Jim Barbieri, “If I pitch well from here on out, I can double the man’s income.” And when a television network offered him $25,000 to film a documentary on a day in his life, he said he would do it for $35,000—and only if $1,000 was given to every member of the team and coaching staff.

9) Doctors were injecting steroids directly into the elbow joint. Once he had an adverse reaction. He was lying on the training table when infielder Jim Lefebvre walked in. “His arm, it was, like, twice the size,” Lefebvre said. “It was like a boil. I looked at him and I said, ‘Oh, my God, your season’s over.’ He looked at me and he goes, ‘No, no, Frenchie, it’s too late in the season. I won’t miss my start.’ And he didn’t.”

10) On September 9, 1965, Sandy Koufax and Bob Hendley pitched one of the best baseball games ever played. Hendley pitched a one-hitter, the game of his life, and lost on a young catcher’s error. The only run scored on a walk, a sacrifice, a stolen base, and a bad throw. As Scully said, “The only hit, you almost couldn’t dignify as one.” Hendley’s teammate, Ken Holtzman, calls it “the greatest loss in baseball history.”

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