Sandy Koufax, the best left-handed pitcher in major league baseball’s modern era, is a fanatically private man. He has been described as reclusive, guarded, withdrawn behind a wall of amiability. Those descriptions come from the small circle who know him well.
In the summer of 1966, his mother, Evelyn, found out Koufax was publishing an autobiography, she immediately wanted to get a copy. She indicated it would be the first time she had an opportunity to find out what her son was really thinking.
Koufax retired from the Los Angeles Dodgers after the ‘66 season, at the age of 30 — he promptly disappeared into what Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci described as a “nearly monastic” life.
The late Jim Murray, MLB Hall of Fame columnist, described it this way: “When he (Koufax) retired…he didn’t get a penthouse in Palm Beach or a condo in Palm Springs, Sandy moved to Ellsworth, Maine, where his nearest neighbor was a moose.”
From Maine, Koufax relocated to central California, Idaho, Oregon, North Carolina and, most recently, Vero Beach, Florida. Locations all off the grid.
In Sandy Koufax, Jane Leavy reported what happened in North Carolina when a jogging Koufax encountered two fellow runners on a deserted country road. “This is why I left New York,” Koufax told the surprised pair. “It’s too crowded.”
Koufax may have been joking, but the operative word is may. The man likes his solitude.
It was, therefore, pleasantly surprising when he appeared at a recent Dodger Stadium ceremony where a 19.5-ton statue depicting his celebrated all-out pitching delivery was unveiled. It will stand in a plaza nearby the famous statue of a sliding Jackie Robinson.
The real surprise of the day was the 10-minute speech Koufax delivered. It was tantamount to a valedictory bow from the 86-year-old hurler.
Koufax appeared trim and ready to suit up in Dodger blue as he approached the podium. His voice was clear, sincere: only white hair gave his age away.
The words he spoke were classic Koufax. They weren’t a reflection on his accomplishments; rather, he presented a long acknowledgement of those who helped him along the way. He thanked 46 people, hitting the appropriate chords of gratitude for each. The Hall of Famer gave a humble speech that once again displayed the civility he brought to the game of baseball.
Koufax said his only regret was that so many of those mentioned were “no longer with us and I am unable to let them know how much I thank them and appreciated them.”
He closed on a perfect grace note: “To my family and friends, I love you one and all. I’m done.” It was as if one of his called-third-strike curveballs just drilled the catcher’s mitt.
Quite possibly, those will be the last words the public hears from Koufax. No matter, his accomplishments will never dim: four no-hitters, one perfect game, five Earned Run Average titles, three Cy Young awards (back in the day when there was one award for both leagues), two World Series MVP’s …and this is just the beginning of the list.
For those lucky enough to have seen him pitch, Roger Angell’s description of a typical at bat against Koufax is quite authentic: “His fastball…flares upward at the last instant, so that batters swinging at it often look as if they had lashed out at a bad high pitch. Koufax’s best curve, by contrast, shoots down, often barely pinching a corner of the plate, inside or out, just above the knees…. It is almost painful to watch, for Koufax, instead of merely overpowering hitters, as some fast-ball throwers do, appears to dismantle them, taking away first one, and then another of their carefully developed offensive weapons and judgements, and leaving them only with the conviction that they are victims of a total mismatch.”
The measure of Koufax’s off-field character will always be tied to October 6, 1965. That was the day he opted not to pitch the opening game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. His decision made him an icon not just in the Jewish world, but in faith communities literally around the globe. Catholic priests and Protestant ministers preached sermons praising his convictions.
Koufax’s reaction to the outpouring of goodwill he generated is perfectly representative of his understated personality: “There was no hard decision for me. It was just a thing of respect. I wasn’t trying to make a statement and I had no idea that it would impact that many people.”
Biographer Jane Leavy best summarized Koufax’s essence when she told Sports Illustrated: “What makes him different is he does not have a craven neediness — so common in modern sports and modern celebrity — to be recognized at all times, to dominate every place he goes and every conversation he’s in…the irony of his life and his career is that his talent precluded that one thing that he probably wanted to be more than anything else– just a regular guy.”