It was forty years ago today — forty years ago today on the Hebrew calendar — that Sandy Koufax sat out game 1 of the World Series in the Twin Cities to observe the holiest day of the year for Jews, Yom Kippur. The Minnesota Twins whipped Don Drysdale, Koufax’s replacement that day, and even edged out a victory over Koufax the following day, but both Drysdale and Koufax returned to form in Games 4 and 5 of the Series when it moved to Los Angeles. Koufax did it again in Game 7 back in the Twin Cities to put the Dodgers over the top in the series.
Forty years later the example of Sandy Koufax still resonates with me and others. Today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune carries a good story that commemorates the event: “When faith trumped baseball.”
Koufax was the greatest sports hero of my youth. In his prime, which lasted for only five or six years, he was the greatest pitcher ever. He had only two pitches, a fast ball and a curve, but they were the two best pitches in baseball.
In 1965, Koufax went 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA. As Scott noted, he sat out the opener of the World Series. I was at that game, in Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota. Don Drysdale started in Koufax’s place, but was not very effective, and the hard-hitting Twins won 8-2 behind Mudcat Grant. (Who, if memory serves, later had a career as a jazz musician.) Koufax started the next day, again in Minnesota, but the Twins won again to take a 2-0 lead.
The series went back to Los Angeles, where the Dodgers won three in a row. Koufax pitched Game 5 and won 7-0 as the Dodgers took a 3-2 lead.
Back in Minnesota, the series went to 3-3. To the surprise of many, Koufax took the mound to pitch the deciding game on two days’ rest. Bill James, I think it was, wrote somewhere that after a couple of innings Koufax realized that he could no longer throw his curve ball. From that point on, he threw nothing but fast balls against the Twins’ lineup, one of the all-time assemblages of power hitters. Koufax blew the Twins down with his fast ball, winning the game and the Series with a three-hit shutout, 2-0.
To an astonishing degree, that game was typical. Bill James did a statistical analysis of Sandy’s career, tabulating his won-loss record when his team scored 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 run. (The Dodgers hardly ever scored more than five.) James thus uncovered what he described as the most amazing statistic in the history of baseball: when the Dodgers scored just one run, Koufax’s W-L record was better than .500.
In other words, when his team needed Koufax to pitch a shutout, he usually did.
There have been lots of pitchers who had longer careers than Koufax; some of them were very great in their primes. But no one, at his best, was ever better than Sandy Koufax.