Share this article

print logo


THE BLACK-and-white picture of the man at work on the cover of this newspaper's copy of The Sporting News' 1966 Baseball Register is faded, ripped and more than a little ragged. But it still tells you everything you really need to know about what Sanford Koufax was like as a pitcher.

Wearing a long-sleeved undershirt under a button-down-the-front flannel shirt, No. 32 for the Los Angeles Dodgers is on a dusty mound in the middle of his delivery. His right leg, its knee sploched with dirt, is planted in the ground like the fulcrum of a powerful catapult.

His clean-shaven face is a study in concentration. His lips are pursed, his cheeks are drawn in, his eyes are focused on a target 60 feet, 6 inches away. It is not the face of a man playing a boy's game for the fun of it.

And then there's The Arm. The left one. It's bent back at the elbow at a grotesque angle; it looks like the ball in the hand is just below his left ear. His lower arm is twisted slightly and he's gripping the ball across the seams. Some poor batter is about to see Koufax snap a curve ball he has no chance to hit.

It's been two dozen seasons now since Koufax's comet stopped blazing. Since his arthritic left arm gave way under the stress of crashing down the door to the Hall of Fame.

"Good God, has it been that long?" he said over the phone the other day as he prepared to come to Pilot Field for Monday's National Old Timers Baseball Classic. (Game time is 8 p.m. Festivities start with a picture-taking session on the field at 4:30 p.m.)

Koufax, if he is anything like other pitchers who have performed at the previous two Classics at Pilot Field, will be extremely more hittable Monday than he was in his prime. Lobbing, not fireballing, is the norm in these five-inning funsies.

"I've stopped throwing, but I might be able to reach home plate," said Koufax, who will turn 55 in December.

Those who only remember Koufax in his prime -- his 382 strikeouts in 1965 are the most by a modern-day lefty -- might be surprised to learn that reaching home plate once was a real problem.

Once he reportedly had a tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds and was so wild they chased him away. Even after he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, his wildness was legendary. Duke Snider is said to have compared facing Koufax in batting practice to playing Russian roulette.

You will learn more about Sandy Koufax from pictures and books than you will from a phone conversation. Quiet, reticent, unassuming as a player, he has not changed as a retiree in Vero Beach, Fla. He is quite reluctant to talk about himself or his career.

"I really don't want to talk about anything other than coming up and being at the game," Koufax said. "It's a good cause (aiding ill or indigent retired baseball people).

"The past few years it's been the day after the Dodger old-timer game out on the West Coast. It's just a long way to go. This year it's the week before, so I told (promoter) Chuck Stevens I'd be there," he said.

What does Koufax do for a living now? He won't say except that "I take care of myself."

Even when Koufax was at the height of his powers -- from 1963 through 1966 he won 97 games, lost 27 and threw a no-hitter each season -- he was beset with physical problems. He missed the last third of the 1962 season with a circulatory problem in his fingers. In 1966, a few days after receiving the Cy Young Award for the third time, he announced his retierment, at the age of 30.

"I just can't go through the agony of pitching any more. The pain in my arm is too intense," he said then.

As one who was expected to go the distance (he threw 137 complete games, including 69 in his last three seasons) does he ever wish he'd played in era of more frequent relief help?

"No," he says. "I don't think about that at all."

With all his success in getting people out -- he was the strikeout leader four times -- were there any batters he worried about? Any nemesis he just couldn't figure?

"All the good hitters are nemeses," he said. "You're not going to get good hitters out constantly. You just try to keep the damage as little as possible."

Didn't it say in the one of the reference books that he was glad when Cincinnati's Frank Robinson got traded out of the National League to Baltimore in 1966?

"You never read that," Koufax said. "Another case of the press taking a few liberties. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

Koufax is one of 48 retired players scheduled to play in the National League vs. American League exhibition. The rosters include nine other Hall of Famers -- Hank Aaron, Luke Appling, Lou Brock, Bob Feller, Brooks Robinson, Enos Slaughter, Warren Spahn, Willie Stargell and Early Wynn.

Is he looking forward to being reunited with some old friends and enemies? Fellow Dodger Charlie Neal? World Series opponents Jim "Mudcat" Grant and Brooks Robinson? Home run king Aaron. Stolen base champ Brock?

"I'm sure I have some friends. I don't think I have any enemies. I hope not," he said.

There are no comments - be the first to comment