When you greatly admire a famous person, someone once said, avoid meeting him. Otherwise, prepare yourself for disappointment. Whoever said that never met Sandy Koufax, the great former pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In the seventh grade, at age 12, I entered a poetry contest held at my Los Angeles junior high school. I wrote about my favorite player:
Koufax is on the mound,
The game has just begun.
He gets a sign from the catcher
And, zoom, strike one.
Not exactly Robert Frost, so I’ll spare you the rest of the poem. But after winning, I immediately sent the poem to Sandy Koufax. I never expected to hear back, but he sent me a postcard-sized picture of himself, with his elegant signature.
At an American Friends of the Hebrew University black-tie function honoring the current owners of the Dodgers, the McCourts, I sat at a table in a large ballroom at a Beverly Hills hotel. Vin Scully, the brilliant Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster, emceed the event. He ran down the list of attendees, among them Sandy Koufax. Sandy Koufax?!
When Koufax arrived in the major leagues in 1955, never having spent one day in the minor leagues, he found it difficult to control his pitches. Some days he threw accurately; other days he threw so erratically that the ball could hit the batter in the head or sail over the backstop. But the Dodgers recognized his brilliance and stuck with him.
Then it clicked.
From 1962 to 1966, the southpaw pitched so brilliantly as to kiss the face of God. The left-hander won the Cy Young Award – baseball’s highest pitching honor – in 1963, 1965 and 1966. (In those years, one award was given to baseball’s best pitcher, unlike now, when baseball awards a Cy Young to the best pitcher in each of the two leagues.) Koufax recorded the lowest earned run average (ERA – the number of earned runs scored against him per game by the opposition) for an astonishing five consecutive seasons, from 1962 to 1966. He threw 11 shutouts in 1963, amassing 40 during his career. Koufax led the major league in strikeouts four times, including a then-record 382 strikeouts in 1965. His career strikeouts totaled 2,396, and three times he fanned 300 or more batters in a season. In his five final seasons, his win-loss record was an astonishing 111-34. During the 1965 World Series, he refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, demonstrating that the High Holy Days meant more to him than a World Series game.
In those days, pitchers pitched. Modern pitchers now pitch “deep into the game,” walking off the mound to hand the ball in the sixth or seventh inning to a “middle reliever,” who, in turn, hands the ball off to a “closer.” When the Dodgers beat the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series, Koufax pitched games two, five and seven, astounding by modern standards.
Koufax pitched with grace, consistency and excellence. And by all accounts, handled himself the same way off the field. Handsome, almost regal, you simply could not take your eyes off of him as he pitched. He was the first major league pitcher to hurl four no-hit games, including, in 1965, a perfect game – no runs, no hits, no walks, no errors. Twenty-seven batters up, and 27 batters down, a feat pulled off only 17 times in the major leagues since 1880.
The Dodgers played the Baltimore Orioles in the 1966 World Series, defying the odds-makers by losing in four straight. Koufax battled arm problems throughout his career, though in 1966 he went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA. But by the time of the World Series, Koufax simply ran out of gas.
After the Dodgers’ 1966 World Series defeat, I picked up the local newspaper and read the shocking headline – Koufax To Retire. At age 31, the prince walked off the mound, never to return. I cried for two days.
Now, 40 years later, Koufax and I actually occupied the same space in the same hotel ballroom! I asked renowned Hollywood publicist Warren Cowan, seated at my table, “Is there anyway you can find Sandy Koufax, and ask him if I can go over to his table and shake his hand?”
Cowan left for a few minutes, then he came back and tapped my shoulder, “Done.” We grabbed a photographer and approached Koufax’s table. The Pitcher stood up. I told him the story of my poem, reciting the first stanza. “Mr. Koufax,” I said, “you inspired me as a child, through your class, dignity, consistency, excellence and humility. And you inspire me to this day. It is an honor to shake your hand.” He smiled and agreed to take a picture with me.
Oh, by the way, former Vice President Al Gore gave the keynote speech. I barely remember a word he said.