Growing up a Jewish baseball fan, I thought about Sandy Koufax a lot. Jewish sports fans love to talk about Jewish athletes; it’s a major (league) source of pride for our small people. There aren’t many Jewish athletes, let alone legendary ones. There was Hank Greenberg, who refused to play on Yom Kippur in 1930s Detroit. Ossie Schechtman was the first NBA (then BAA) player to score a basket in the league’s history on November 1, 1946. And as a Red Sox fan, there was Kevin Youkilis, who used to pray in my synagogue on the High Holidays along with teammate-turned-Giants manager Gabe Kapler, their enormous bodies garbed in the synagogue’s small prayer shawls. There was Craig Breslow, the pitcher who majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, nicknamed the “smartest man in baseball.” And there was Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game.
It was Koufax’s 84th birthday this week, and so I thought of him again.
The pitcher with the .95 postseason career ERA.
The first National League pitcher to throw an immaculate inning (9 pitches, 9 strikes) in 1964, and he did it twice.
The pitcher who won five consecutive National League ERA titles from 1962-1966.
The first MLB pitcher to throw four no-hitters.
The Jewish boy from Brooklyn who once wanted to be an architect, but instead became one of the most formidable southpaws in the game. Like Greenberg and partially due to his influence, Koufax also didn’t play on Yom Kippur, skipping his scheduled start in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series.
The first pitcher to win multiple Cy Young Awards, and all within four seasons, 1963, 1965, and 1966. He was the first pitcher to win by unanimous vote, and he won them all when they only gave out one, not one for each league.
Sandy Koufax was arguably the best pitcher of his era.
And then he retired at 32.
By the time Sandy Koufax retired, he’d been playing 12 seasons, something virtually impossible to say about a 32-year-old in today’s game. By 32, he’d pitched in 399 games, started 314 of them, thrown 2,324.1 innings, and struck out 2,396 batters. Nowadays, a complete game is a pitching rarity; Koufax had 137 of them. But Koufax had been diagnosed with traumatic arthritis in his elbow. The same arm that had propelled him to near-mythic heights was at risk of becoming permanently disabled. He didn’t have a choice.
At 32, Sandy Koufax deserved to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. His career was already the stuff of legends before he was old enough to run for President of the United States. But as with anyone whose time is cut short, we will always wonder how much more could have been for Koufax. Which records would he have broken and set. How many more incredible games did his soul have in it that his body couldn’t bring to fruition. What else could Sandy Koufax have achieved?
It sounds greedy, but greatness like the kind Sandy Koufax has doesn’t come around often, and when it does, you want to soak up as much of it as possible. Those moments are fleeting; time is not something guaranteed. Sandy Koufax found that out earlier than many. There’s a fine line between what is, and what could have been. Sandy Koufax is one of the greatest to ever play the game. I’d bet good money he could have been even greater.
Photo: Baseball Hall of Fame