You can always find weird numerology with sports and celebrities if you look hard enough. Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley both passed away on Aug. 16.
Then there’s today, Dec. 30, the birthday of three American athletes of whom you may have heard: Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Sandy Koufax.
Koufax turns 86. He was the pitching version of The Babe, once. And maybe Elvis, too. Because for four historic seasons — the last four of his dazzling career in the 1960s before elbow pain forced him into early retirement — Koufax, out of Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., was the greatest starting pitcher of them all.
I asked the great broadcaster Vin Scully, who had a ringside seat to all of it with Koufax, from the time the left-hander was a struggling kid with the Brooklyn Dodgers, if it was even possible for him to describe what he saw from Koufax in those days.
Scully’s reply via text message was all in capital letters, appropriately enough:
“AWESOME. BREATHTAKING. TOTALLY IN COMMAND.”
Then he added this, just for fun, and with a Scully twinkle:
Pretty good. Even as Koufax pitched during the time of Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and Jim Palmer, with a pretty good kid in New York named Tom Seaver about to make his big league debut (Koufax retired after the 1966 season; Seaver’s rookie year was ’67), Koufax managed to stand taller than all of them, in exactly the way Scully described.
In 1963, Koufax was 25-5, with a 1.88 ERA. He made 40 starts, half of which were complete games. Eleven were shutouts. He struck out 306 batters in 311 innings.
Because of what was described as a ruptured elbow at the time, he only made 28 starts in 1964. His ERA was 1.74. He posted 15 complete games (seven shutouts) and punched out 223 batters in as many innings.
In 1965, Koufax was 26-8, with a 2.04 ERA, the only season in this four-year stretch that his ERA finished above 2.00 — by a tick. He made 43 appearances, had 27 complete games (eight shutouts) and 382 strikeouts in 335 2/3 innings.
Finally, on his way out the door in 1966, Koufax finished 27-9, the most victories in any of his 12 seasons. His ERA was 1.73. Out of his 41 starts, 27 of them were complete games. He compiled 317 strikeouts in 323 innings.
During this stretch, Koufax won three Cy Young Awards (1963, ’65, ’66) and an NL MVP (1963). And by the way, he and the Dodgers reached the World Series in all three of those award-winning seasons. Koufax’s lifetime ERA in the Fall Classic was 0.95.
I once asked Hank Aaron about what it was like facing Koufax. He chuckled and said, “We had an understanding. He got me sometimes. And I got him sometimes.” In truth, Aaron did a little better than that. His lifetime batting average against Koufax was .362 with seven home runs. Koufax only struck him out 12 times and walked him 14 times. In the end, Aaron had 42 hits off Koufax, the most of anybody.
Koufax, though, dominated pretty much everybody else in his time. And what a time it was: a record of 97-27 across his final four seasons, when he was at his best. His best was better than everybody else’s best.
Koufax pitched four no-hitters in his career, including a perfect game against the Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965.
Here is the end of Vin Scully’s call that night, one legend talking about another:
“On the scoreboard in right field, it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history [at the time] to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he caps it. On his fourth no-hitter, he made it a perfect game! And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flurry. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that ‘K’ stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.”
Koufax was 30 when he pitched his final game for the Dodgers, Game 2 of the 1966 World Series. Palmer was the winning pitcher in a 6-0 Orioles victory. But only one of the four runs Koufax gave up that day was earned, as Willie Davis managed to make three errors in the outfield on a day when the Dodgers made six errors in all. The next season, baseball went on without Koufax.
But those final four years were wonder years. They remind you of the four years that Woods, with whom Koufax shares a birthday, had between 1999 and 2002, winning seven majors and holding all four of golf’s major championships at one point. The best way to describe Woods in those years is to say that he was Koufax.
Sandy Koufax. Awesome once. And breathtaking. And totally in command.