Sandy Koufax died in 1967. He was 32, just a month or two shy of beginning his 13th season in Major League Baseball.
It was very sad. “The Left Arm of God,” as Koufax was known, from 1962-66 strung together the most impressive five-year pitching stretch in major league history. In three of those seasons his ERA was below 2.00. In 1966, the final season before his death, he went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts, and won the Cy Young Award.
My parents and grandparents talked proudly and sadly of Koufax. Like them, Koufax was Jewish, a rarity in 1950s and 60s professional sports. Although he had less to overcome socially than Jackie Robinson, like Robinson Koufax was tied to a social minority. The 1965 decision to skip a World Series start because it was Yom Kippur made Koufax a legend. (Hank Greenberg who?)
Then arthritis struck his left arm, and not long after that, cancer, or something. Koufax was gone.
Koufax was resurrected on the floor of the University of Cincinnati’s Shoemaker Center to celebrate the Bearcats’ longtime former coach, Ed Jucker (Koufax went to Cinci for hoops but switched to baseball). I was there covering the DePaul Blue Demons, who were in town to play No. 1 Cincinnati.
And I was floored, struck by a thunderbolt from the heavens. I remember asking Cincinnati sports-information staffers, “Is that really Sandy Koufax?” AT LEAST a half-dozen times. “Are you sure?” I pressed. “He’s not dead?” I asked other beat writers, who saved me the indignity of actually answering me.
I pulled out my Motorola StarTAC and called my mom:
“I thought you said Sandy Koufax was dead!”
“I don’t think I ever said that.”
“Then why did I think he was dead!?”
“I … don’t know.” (Laughing)
“I’m 25, and I always thought Sandy Koufax was dead. I swear you said he was dead.”
“David, I never said Sandy Koufax was dead.” (Laughing)
No, Koufax wasn’t dead. He had retired early because of the arthritis and chose to live retirement outside the spotlight. Humility is his public trademark. Read David Brown’s excellent piece today at Yahoo! as an example. Or read Jane Leavy’s awesome 2002 book, “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” which stood out for both its quality and Leavy’s ability to produce that quality without interviewing Koufax. He gave her his blessing to write the book but not an interview because he didn’t want to talk about himself. Typical Koufax. (He did tell Leavy it was OK to contact him to fact-check stories others told about him.)
In the media capital of the United States, Southern California, Koufax declined to live as a celebrity and because of that a stupid kid (and adult) believed him dead for a quarter-century. I don’t know what that says about me, or celebrity culture, or anything else. I’m just glad he’s alive, and I love that he’s back in Dodger Blue.
Find Dave Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.