Sandy Koufax from Basketball to Cy Young Pitcher

On this day in 1965, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax throws the eighth perfect game in major league history, leading the Dodgers to a 1-0 win over the Chicago Cubs at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles. His gifted arm’s condition would force him to retire at the end of the following season.

Koufax was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish family, and raised in Borough Park. Koufax attended Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School, where he was better known for basketball than for baseball; there was a lack of willing managers and coaches among NYC teachers at the time. In 1951, at age 15, Koufax also joined the local youth baseball known as the “Ice Cream League,” starting out as a left-handed catcher before moving to first base; during this time it was suggested they try him as pitcher, and he eventually pitched for the Coney Island Sports League’s Parkviews.

After high school Koufax attended the University of Cincinnati and was a walk-on for the freshman basketball team, a complete unknown to coach Ed Jucker; he later earned a partial scholarship. In spring 1954, he made the college baseball varsity team. In his only season there, Koufax went 3–1 with a 2.81 ERA, 51 strikeouts and 30 walks in 32 innings.

After trying out with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, Koufax did the same for the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field. During his Pirates tryout, Koufax’s fastball broke the thumb of bullpen coach Sam Narron. Branch Rickey, then the general manager of the Pirates, told his scout Clyde Sukeforth that Koufax had the “greatest arm he had ever seen.” The Dodgers ultimately signed Koufax for a $6,000 ($55,000 today) salary, with a $14,000 ($128,000 today) signing bonus. Koufax planned to use the money as tuition to finish his college education, if his baseball career failed. He didn’t need the backup plan.

Well after his 1955 Dodgers debut, Koufax’s career truly peaked with a run of six outstanding years from 1961 to 1966, before arthritis in his left elbow ended his career prematurely at age 30. He was an All-Star for six seasons and was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1963. He won three Cy Young Awards in 1963, 1965, and 1966, by unanimous votes, making him the first three-time Cy Young winner in baseball history. Koufax also won the NL Triple Crown for pitchers those same three years by leading the NL in wins, strikeouts, and earned run average.

Koufax was the first major league pitcher to pitch four no-hitters and the eighth pitcher to pitch a perfect game in baseball history. Despite his comparatively short career, Koufax’s 2,396 career strikeouts ranked 7th in history as of his retirement, trailing only Warren Spahn (2,583) and Randy Johnson (4,875) among left-handers. Koufax, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, and Nolan Ryan are the only Hall of Fame pitchers elected who had more strikeouts than innings pitched.

At age 36 in 1972, Koufax became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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