Yesterday in baseball history — Koufax is perfect

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of an extraordinary baseball game. On September 9, 1965, Sandy Koufax’s perfect game enabled the Los Angeles Dodgers to win 1-0 despite getting only one hit.

The line on the game reads like a binary math problem:

Chi N 0 0 1
LA N 1 1 0

The Dodgers scored their only run in the fifth inning, without the benefit of a hit, thanks to Lou Johnson. The ex-Cub (and Angel, and Brave, and Tiger) farm hand drew a walk from Bob Hendley to lead off the inning. He then advanced to second base on a bunt by Ron Fairly. Hendley appeared to have a play on Johnson, but fumbled the ball and thus had to go to first.

Johnson stole third base and scored on the play when catcher Chris Krug’s throw sailed into left field. Hendley struck out Jim Lefebvre and retired Wes Parker, so the run was “unearned.”

Koufax pitched brilliantly, of course. He fanned 14 Cubs.

There were, however, a few close calls. Glenn Beckert, the second batter of the game, hit a shot down that third base line that was barely foul.

In the sixth inning, Parker had to dig Maury Wills’ throw out of the dirt to retire Krug. The next batter, Don Kessinger, was out on a close play at first base. Had Jim Gilliam not been playing in looking for a bunt (even with no one on base), Kessinger might have been safe.

In the seventh inning, Koufax started Billy Williams off with three straight balls. He bounced back with two strikes and then retired the future Hall of Famer on a pop-fly to the opposite field.

Hendley, meanwhile, took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He lost it on a bloop double by Johnson that barely made it out of the infield. This was the game’s only hit.

By the eighth inning, Koufax wasn’t just unhitable, he was virtually untouchable. That inning he struck out future Hall of Famers Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, along with Byron Browne (one of two late-season call-ups in the Cubs lineup).

In the ninth, Koufax struck out Krug and Joey Amalfitano (batting for Kessinger). His last obstacle was pinch-hitter Harvey Kuenn.

A career .300 plus career hitter, Kuenn was near the end of the line. His average when he stepped in against Koufax was only .216. Moreover, Kuenn had made the last out in Koufax’s 1963 no-hitter. Still, I doubt he was the man Koufax would have picked to face in this situation.

Nonetheless, the great left-hander fanned Kuenn to complete the perfect game.

Koufax’s performance stands out even more when viewed in the context of the Dodgers season. LA had been in first place most of the year, but could never stretch its lead over a band of rival contenders — San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee.

The Giants were their fiercest rival. In late August, Juan Marichal had assaulted Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro with a bat. Koufax was the Dodgers pitcher that day. When he didn’t throw at Marichal in retaliation for the Giant star’s knock-down pitches, Roseboro returned the ball to his pitcher by buzzing it past Marichal’s ear. This led to the brawl.

Since that game, in which Koufax was the losing pitcher, the Dodgers had gone 7-8. Koufax hadn’t won in his next three starts plus a relief appearance (despite pitching well).

To make matters worse, the Giants had overtaken the Dodgers, though only by half a game, and Reds had caught them. Both rivals won on the day of Koufax’s masterpiece, so Los Angeles needed perfection, or something close to it, just to avoid losing more ground.

Following the perfect game, the Dodgers closed out the season 27-4. Koufax lost his next start (to Chicago, pitching six innings and allowing only one earned run) but didn’t lose again. He posted four victories, three of them shut-outs and the other a complete game in which he allowed only one run.

The Giants and the Reds couldn’t keep pace, though the Giants nearly did. LA edged them out to win the National League pennant by two games.

The Koufax perfect game can fairly be considered the turning point.