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Swung On and Missed

I almost saw Sandy Koufax pitch, once.

By 5.16.03

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(This column first appeared in the March-April 2003 issue of The American Spectator.)

I almost saw Sandy Koufax pitch, once. He was the scheduled starter in an early season Saturday night game against the St. Louis Cardinals. We'd purchased tickets months in advance, and come that dream date in April 1963 our history and civics teacher (he introduced me to Orwell and Booker T. Washington) drove eight of us lucky eighth-graders to the Taj Mahal of Dodger Stadium in the silver '62 Impala station wagon owned by the nuns who ran (and don't you ever doubt it) our Santa Barbara school. For most of us it would be our first time ever at a major league game. On top of that, we'd been lucky enough to pick a day on which God was going to pitch.

How quickly we learned that a real religious experience involves disappointment. From the parking lot we were awestruck by the stadium itself, its five decks climbing to the dark sky, the smoke from its light towers torches lifting us further heavenward. From our box seats along the left-field line first thing I saw was friendly giant Frank Howard warming up right in front of us, joshing with young fans and occasionally tossing one of them a ball. Later I'd compare seeing Howard for the first time with seeing his Cardinal counterpart in left field, Stan Musial. Everyone knew he was almost as great as Ted Williams, and definitely nicer.

But everyone also knew there was no one nicer than Sandy Koufax. Except as we learned just before game time, he'd been scratched. Some arm problem or other. Larry Sherry would come out of the bullpen to start. I can still hear myself groaning. He'd been the World Series MVP in 1959, winning or saving each of the Dodgers' four wins. But what had he done for us lately? That night he loaded the bases with none out in the first inning, all three men scored, and the home team went on to lose, meekly, 3-0, to a hot Ray Washburn.

No game Koufax pitched ever ended on a whimper. Nor did it ever start with one. My first taste of his brilliance was in 1959 when he struck out a record 18 evil Giants at the L.A. Coliseum. Vince Scully broadcast most every strike that night and every other time I "heard" Koufax pitch. In some mysterious way the battery of Koufax and Scully made Koufax strikeouts the most exciting play in radio baseball. You never wanted to miss the beginning of a Koufax outing. If he didn't strike out the side on nine pitches in the first inning you'd worry not all was right with the world. By 1962 he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball history, so far as we knew. But just as the real God was once taken from us, we knew we could lose him at any time. That year saw Koufax miss the second half of the season with a serious hand injury. In 1964 his season would end in August, more arm trouble. Perfection on earth exacted a price.

Yet perfection it was. A standard Koufax performance was a four-hit shutout with ten or more strikeouts and no walks. His famous opening day win in Yankee Stadium in the 1963 World Series saw him strike out a record 15 Mantles and Marises, though to my mind it was marred by the two-run home run he gave up to Tom Tresh late in the game. Inexplicably, he gave up another home run before winning the final game of that Series' four-game sweep. And what about the time in Pittsburgh late in his career when he was bombed in the first inning?

We expected a lot from this God, and of course he never really let any of us down, and never has. Every postgame show was a study of soft-spoken modesty. Scully or his sidekick Jerry Doggett would congratulate him, and he'd reply, "Thanks very much, Vin/Jerry. Yes, I felt good out there, my teammates made big plays behind me, we scored some key runs, and it was a good win for the team." He never threw at an opponent, except maybe once when, as his excellent biographer Jane Leavy notes, he plunked Lou Brock in the ribs after Brock had bunted his way on, stolen second, stolen third, and scored on a sacrifice fly. Whereupon, after being hit, Brock promptly stole second again. He'd then miss the next five games. Koufax wasn't proud of himself for that.

He is best known today for declining to pitch the 1965 World Series opener because it fell on Yom Kippur. In my parochial school world -- and I suspect most American precincts -- that was the first anyone had heard of that holy day. (The Yom Kippur war was a distant eight years away.) The liberating decision clinched his standing as the greatest Jewish sports hero ever. But more typical must have been the reactions I experienced: Whatever Koufax wants to do is fine by us. Besides, we knew he'd find another way to win the series for the Dodgers, which he did by winning three of its next six games, the last on only two days' rest despite a dead and painful arm.

Koufax's final two seasons will not be surpassed: 54 complete games, 53 victories, 659 innings, 699 strikeouts, an ERA well under two. Among these wins was a perfect game in September 1965 in which he blew away the last six batters -- all of this on a left arm that would swell to twice its normal size and resist unimaginable pain. It will require the real God to explain how Koufax did it.

(This column first appeared in the March-April 2003 issue of The American Spectator.)

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About the Author
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.