Andrew Luck, meet Sandy Koufax

2019-08-25 LuckKoufax
Andrew Luck does at 29 what Sandy Koufax did at 30—walking away from the sport at which he excelled, and shocking his sport while he was at it.

The football world, and a few other worlds in sports, took a jolt when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck decided it was time to retire at 29. For the sake of his health and the rest of his life. If F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, Luck seems determined to have one in the first place, and good luck (no pun intended) to him sincerely.

Even if you’re not a football fan, and I’m not, you could read of him, know he was one of his game’s genuine greats, and get that a young man can give up what he loves and does so well because the idea that perhaps the next injury might compromise him having a second life makes him just as sick as any of the injuries that interfered with playing his chosen sport.

If you’re my age you remember a baseball great who was a mere year older than Luck is now who made the same decision, shocked his sport and his country while he was at it, and stuck to his decision because he, too, was determined to make Fitzgerald a liar. And he sat on a far higher plane than Luck ever achieved.

Sandy Koufax didn’t begin the way Luck did. He was discovered a decade before baseball initiated its own college draft; he was a bonus signing forced to be on the major league roster two years under a foolish rule of his time; he was an outsize talent whose fastball speed and curve ball arc was throttled by lack of control.

It took Koufax the first six seasons of his career to discover control. (And, for a particularly observant companion in a Vero Beach pizza joint to discover just what kept him from it, a hitch between his windup and his delivery that obstructed enough of his view of the plate.) He went, as his biographer Jane Leavy phrased it, “from nothing special to never better.”

The second six seasons of Koufax’s career weren’t just off the charts. They obliterated the charts. It only began with smashing Christy Mathewson’s 58-year-old National League strikeout record in 1961. It only ended when his final season showed a 1.73 ERA for his fifth consecutive ERA title and his sixth consecutive major league-leading fielding-independent pitching rate. (2.07.)

Koufax so bedazzled the Yankees with his ownership of them as his Dodgers did what no opponent before them had, sweeping them out of the 1963 World Series, that his fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, asked if he wished there were a couple more Jewish holy days on the October calendar, replied, “You mean like Yom Koufax?”

If only Mantle really knew. (“I can understand how he won 25,” another Yankee Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra, said after that Series. “What I can’t understand is how he lost five.”) Two years later, Koufax refused to pitch Game One of a World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

Among other transdimensional achievements, Koufax would pitch pennant-clinching games in back-to-back seasons on two days’ rest, a World Series shutout on two days rest after a previous Series shutout, show a 2.25 ERA over a lifetime’s 24 games pitched on two days’ rest, and a batting average against him of (wait for it) .201 when he pitched on such short rest.

In the years when the Cy Young Award was a major league award (the late Dodger righthander Don Newcombe won the first, in 1956), Koufax won it three times, 1963, 1965, and 1966, and his dominance probably kept fellow Hall of Famer Juan Marichal from winning at least one and possibly two. Was it coincidence that, after Koufax retired, the Cy Young Award became awarded for each league?

His record four no-hit, no-run games would be eclipsed by Nolan Ryan, but Ryan didn’t pitch all of his in consecutive seasons. And Ryan doesn’t have one bragging right Koufax has if he wants it: after pitching no-hitters in 1962 (against the hapless Original Mets), 1963 (against the Giants), and 1964 (against the Phillies), Koufax in 1965 (against the Cubs) proved that practise makes perfect.

If you consider that his mound opponent that day, Bob Hendley, surrendered only one hit that didn’t even figure in the scoring (the Dodgers got the game’s only run in another inning, on a walk, a sacrifice, a steal, and a throwing error on the theft), Koufax’s perfect game is an entrant when you ask and talk about the greatest games ever pitched, period.

An injury on a baserunning play in August 1964 dictated his future—when he, of all people, was the baserunner. (Told that those giving him the 1963 World Series MVP left the Corvette parked on the sidewalk, with a $15 parking ticket attached to the windshield, Hall of Famer Whitey Ford cracked, “Sandy has only two flaws. He can’t park and he can’t hit.”) He scrambled back to second on a pickoff attempt (I know, I know, who on earth would think about trying to pick Sandy Koufax off, but yes, you can look it up) and made a four-point landing, elbows and knees.

The following morning Koufax awoke with his elbow the size of his knee and worse. The verdict: traumatic arthritis. The hope by spring training: he might be a once-a-week pitcher at best. The outcome: His 1965 and 1966 seasons made everything he’d achieved in the previous four seem like the mere overture to the main events. On a medical regimen that could and maybe should have killed him.

“I just told your pitcher to retire,” said Dodgers team physician Robert Kerlan during spring training ’65. Koufax confided in San Diego Union reporter Phil Collier in spring ’66 that this would be his final season no matter what. Collier eventually staggered his colleagues in the press when they learned he kept his promise to Koufax and sat on the story until Koufax’s actual retirement conference that November.

“I don’t know if cortisone is good for you or not,” Koufax said at the conference. (We know now that it isn’t, in ten or more such shots a lifetime.) “But to take a shot every other ball game is more than I wanted to do and to walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ball game because you’re taking painkillers . . . I don’t want to have to do that . . . I don’t regret one minute of the last twelve years, but I might regret the one year that was too many.”

Koufax even helped strike a blow toward beginning the end of the reserve era that kept players bound to their clubs with no say in their own employment and left them largely at the mercy of their owners in terms of their earnings. His joint spring 1966 holdout with fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale landed them baseball’s highest 1966 salaries and showed players what they could do if they really knew each other’s earnings and worked together to redress it.

All the while, he enjoyed a quiet accommodation with his fame. Never rude to reporters after the occasional bad game, Koufax drew a line between the pitcher and the person and navigated each side with a quiet dignity. Bachelor though he was, Koufax didn’t let his off-field life become the kind that earns the randy headlines provoked by the Bo Belinskys and Joe Namaths of sport. “Baseball,” Thomas Boswell eventually wrote, “could fascinate him, but not control him.”

After five years as a colour commentator on NBC’s weekly baseball broadcasts, during which his discomfort wasn’t talking about and analysing games but continuous bids to try getting him to talk about himself, Koufax gave it up. He’s as much a Renaissance man as any man can be.

“People ask all the time,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, whose rookie season with the Dodgers was Koufax’s final season, to Leavy, “‘What’s he done with his life?’ He’s enjoyed it.”

When not working spells since as a Dodgers’ or a roving pitching coach (to this day he loves to teach the art, asking pitchers who come to him to understand the why almost more than the how of pitching), he made himself into a master carpenter and home restorer (he did that in Maine once upon a time), a gourmet cook, a wine expert, a marathon runner, a fisherman, a pilot, whatever he thought would challenge as well as interest him.

The one subject above all others that didn’t interest Koufax, Leavy noted, is himself.

He does not disavow who he was or what he accomplished. He is proud of it. He simply refuses to exist in cinders and ashes. He doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, but he does think of “Sandy Koufax” as someone else, a persona separate from himself. If he was seeking refuge from anything, it was that.

And nobody can separate him from that separation. Asked not long after he married a third time (his first two marriages ended in divorce, and those who knew him noted their ends hurt deeply) what he dreamed about, Koufax gestured toward his wife (Jane Purucker Clarke, a one-time sorority sister of former First Lady Laura Bush) and said, “Her.”

The man who laughs when not shuddering even today when told he’s renowned for his quiet, private style (“I haven’t disappeared, I’m not lost, and I’m not very mysterious,” he once told reporters, after a magazine cover story described him as “The Incomparable and Mysterious Sandy Koufax”) said the following, in a 1965 memoir a copy of which his mother asked for simply to learn things about her son (“You certainly never told me anything,” Mom was once quoted as having told him):

I do not think the ballplayer is of an extraordinary importance in our national life. We do not heal the sick or bring peace and comfort to a troubled world. All we do is to provide a few hours of diversion to the people who want to come to the park, and a sort of conflict to those who identify their fortunes with ours through the season . . . it is a brief, self-liquidating life. It is a temporary life, really, a period between the time of our youth and the beginning of our lifetime career.

It’s not unreasonable to assume Andrew Luck—who retires from football as Koufax did from baseball, because the idea of crippling himself and perhaps denying himself the simplest pleasures and tasks of life—understands the same thing.

“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said when announcing his retirement. “It’s taken the joy out of this game. The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football. This is not an easy decision. It’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.”

Luck may not have transcended his sport quite the way Koufax did his, the truly transcendent being the truly few. But Luck may hope to transcend the shock of those Koufax described, those who identify their fortunes with those of athletes and their teams.

It’s a hope Luck deserves to see actualised as Koufax has long actualised his. It’s more important in too many ways than any postseason to which Luck ever led his team, any World Series in which Koufax triumphed, any game-changing touchdown pass Luck ever threw, any bullet fastball or voluptuous curve ball Koufax ever threw.

“He didn’t need baseball to be Sandy Koufax,” a fan named Al Meyers, who once got close enough to ask Koufax to sign a baseball for his father but couldn’t bring himself to ask, told Leavy.” Luck doesn’t need football to be Andrew Luck, either.

Those who identify their fortunes with those of teams and their players forget too readily. We’re ready to canonise a team that blows away the competition and players who execute in the highest leverage; we’re ready to damn a team that crumples under the whitest competitive heat and players who fail when only a single football or baseball rests between themselves and competitive disaster.

Koufax in 1966 and Luck in 2019 should remind us that they’re men first, capable of great achievement and great shortfall, sometimes at once, and always forgotten in what Jim McKay once said famously, week after week, on the old ABC’s Wide World of Sports: the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. Win, and you’re a genius; lose, and you’re a criminal against the state.

“I have something more important to do,” the late Hugh Hefner once said, when he bought his sumptuous Los Angeles home and spent more time making and living in its environment than working the magazine he created that nearly un-created him by the end of its second decade. “It’s called living.”

Luck today and Koufax then had something more important than football and baseball to do. It’s called living. If Luck needs a guide for how to do it after you walk away from the craft that made you famous in the most public of public eyes, he has no further to look than the now 83-year-old former lefthander spending five decades plus in league with all who’ve made F. Scott Fitzgerald a liar.

 

 

 

 

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