You don’t need to be a baseball fan to know who Sandy Koufax is. Right up there with Babe Ruth, Michael Jordon, or Tom Brady, his accomplishments were so great and so impactful that his name transcends the sport he played, becoming an American icon. It’s fitting then that it’s not just Koufax’s performance on the mound that makes him special.
Born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents, Koufax represents an archetypical American experience, the melting pot in action. His childhood days were split between rowdy play at school with time on backlot diamonds and basketball courts, and the synagogue and Jewish Community Center. His parents were proud Jews and raised him to value his heritage. It was an identity he would cherish and carry with him his entire life, even when it was difficult.
Koufax established himself as a great athlete from an early age, but he didn’t always have his sights set exclusively on baseball. You can always spot a prodigy by how many sports they can be competitive in and a young Koufax was equally enthralled with basketball as he was of baseball. In fact, it was basketball that clinched him a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. It’s fun to speculate how different his legacy might have been if the Dodgers, who knew exactly how much potential the young man possessed, hadn’t wheeled out an irresistible offer to get him to sign in 1954.
It was an unorthodox move for the clubhouse, the bonus Koufax signed was over the league’s threshold for non-players, meaning the Dodgers HAD to keep him on their major league roster for at least two years before they could even consider moving him to the minors (you know, where most young pitchers develop their game). The result was a trial by fire in the big show for the young star.
And what a trial it was. Just one year later in 1955 the Blue Crew found themselves in the World Series. Koufax didn’t play in the series, but he did help get them there posting respectable numbers throughout the season against some of the hottest bats in the league. All of this while balancing his continuing education, now at the University of Columbia.
Appreciate the situation here, Koufax is not quite 20 years old, still very much a young man. He’s pitching for one of the most prestigious teams in the league without the benefit of developing his game in the minors in front of thousands. On top of this, he’s commuting between New York and Columbia for every game so he could keep up on his studies. What a tremendous workload on anyone, but in particular a 20 year old. And yet he thrived, both academically and athletically.
These were the years where Koufax would develop his game. He always had a cannon for an arm, it was what led the Dodgers to sign him up in the first place, and it was enough to place him ahead of his college league peers. But what he lacked in those early Major League starts was control - wild pitches and a high rate of bean balls were preventing him from being truly great. It took a partnership with another Jewish player, his catcher Norm Sherry, to become the legend he is celebrated as today.
The key, it turned out, was to slightly ease up on the ball, to reign in his monstrous speed. Koufax transformed his arm from an artillery piece to a scalpel, developing a three-punch combo consisting of a still blazing (but accurate) fastball, a sneaky change-up, and a devastating curveball that seemed to defy physics. With just those three pitches, Koufax built an unassailable legacy.
Koufax was instrumental in securing the World Series for the Dodgers in 1959, but it was the 60s when he really started cooking. His 1961 series set a league record for batters struck out, with a jaw-dropping 269 sent back to the dugout. This tremendous success was immediately put in jeopardy in 1962 when a blood clot formed in his throwing arm that required surgery to fix and almost cost him his index finger, threatening to end his career. Sports writers at the time openly questioned whether or not it was possible for him to come back, to even approach the success of his 1961 campaign.
Koufax made them eat their words. Not only did he return in form for 62, he was better. He threw his first of four no-hitters that season. A feat he would repeat for the next three years culminating in a legendary "perfect game” in 1965 against the Cubs.
To put this accomplishment into perspective, the vast majority of MLB pitchers never even come close to a no-hitter. Over the entire history of the league, there have been only 315 no-hitters pitched, and Koufax was responsible for four of them. As impressive as no-hitter is, the "perfect game” (where absolutely no opposing players reach a base on a walk, hit-by-pitch, or error) is a unicorn. Over the history of the MLB, with more than 218,400 games played, there have been exactly 23 perfect games recorded. Pitching one essentially guarantees entry into the Hall of Fame.
But in the same year, Koufax did something almost equally impressive. Something far more personal and demanding than a perfect game. He stayed true to himself.
Picture the scene, Koufax is coming off 4 straight years of pitching no-hitters including a perfect game, a feat nobody to this day has matched (outstripping Cy Young, the namesake of the most prestigious pitching award in the game). He outdid his 1961 record by leaps and bounds with an astounding 382 regular season batters struck out. He was undeniably the greatest pitcher in the league and the (at this time) L.A Dodgers single greatest weapon. Largely thanks to his Herculean efforts, the Dodgers are in the pennant race for the World Series.
But there is just one catch. One of the games fell on Yom Kippur. With the eyes of the sports world on him, at a time when antisemitism was far more prevalent than today, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on this holy day.
Can you imagine the agony of such a decision? Can you imagine what it would be like to go to the head coach and say "not today” when the World Series itself was on the line? To risk the ire of not only Dodger fans across the country, but even his own teammates? All to stay true to himself and his faith. It was a decision not many people would have the strength of character to make.
But in an ESPN documentary in 2000, Koufax was completely unbothered. "There was no hard decision for me, it was just a thing of respect.” He knew what was right, and that was that. Incredible.
It’s an action that is still spoken of with reverence by Jewish sports fans and players. In the years since, several players have followed in Koufax’s footsteps (Koufax himself looked to Hank Greenberg who stood out of an important 1934 game for the same reason). But Sandy Koufax stands out because of the spotlight that was on him, because of the stakes of the World Series. It was and remains unprecedented.
It’s a legacy that is celebrated to this day. In 1990 Koufax was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, an honored addition. In Israel, Koufax had the distinction of being the final draft pick by the Modi'in Miracle’s in the inaugural 2007 Israel Baseball League season. Seventy-one years old at this point, Koufax was invited by manager Art Shamsky, saying "It's been 41 years between starts for him. If he's rested and ready to take the mound again, we want him on our team." An offer Koufax declined, but still an immeasurable sign of the deep respect Jewish players and sports fans still hold for him.
For as accomplished as he was, for as important as baseball was to him, Koufax never lost sight of what was truly important – his personal faith and self-respect. Perfect games are rare, nearly a miracle when they happen. But that clarity of purpose, that deep wellspring of respect and perspective – that is something even more rare and precious.