Practise makes perfect

Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax poses after the perfect game he pitched 55 years ago tonight. Said Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley, who almost no-hit the Dodgers on the backside of the game, “It’s no disgrace to get beat by class.”

Now and then the best story of a particular baseball game doesn’t happen during the game itself. I can think of one that happened four decades after the fact, a story Sandy Koufax’s biographer Jane Leavy exhumed when writing her remarkable book, which wrapped¬† around the perfect game he pitched 55 years ago tonight.

Leavy had just written that Koufax remains proud of his accomplishments while refusing “to exist in cinders and ashes” when she described him as a good friend who remembers birthdays and has an open heart. She also observed, almost insistently, that Koufax would love nothing more than to be another regular guy if only people would let the man come before the legend—as he strives to do even now.

“He does not disavow who he was or what he accomplished,” she wrote. “He is proud of it . . . 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.”

Her immediate example of the open heart from there was Bob Hendley, the righthanded Chicago Cubs pitcher he defeated in the perfecto. Earlier in the same chapter, Leavy noted that Hendley’s youngest son, Bart, clipped a local article about Hendley and the game and sent it to Koufax. Koufax returned the clip autographed and included a note saying, “Say hello to your father.”

Then, around the actual anniversary, Hendley received an unexpected package. Inside was a clean baseball hand-inscribed, “What a game.” Included was a handwritten note: “We had a moment, a night, and a career. I hope life has been good to you—Sandy.”

Koufax’s path to the Hall of Fame includes that he threw no-hitters against the embryonic New York Mets in June 1962, the San Francisco Giants in May 1963, and the pennant-contending/ultimately collapsing Philadelphia Phillies in June 1964. It looked then as though among the other achievements that placed him somewhere in his own quadrant, a Koufax no-hitter was likely to become an annual ritual.

Then he squared off against Hendley in Dodger Stadium that Thursday night 55 years ago. Except for Dodgers outfielder Lou Johnson in the bottom of the seventh, Hendley himself would have pitched a no-hitter on the backside of Koufax’s jewel. Surrealistic as it still sounds, Johnson accounted for the game’s only hit and the game’s only run but never the twain did meet.

With two out, Johnson blooped one behind second, eluding both Cub second baseman Glenn Beckert and Hall of Famer Ernie Banks running over from first. By the time Banks reached the ball, Johnson had second, credited with a bloop double. Dodgers right fielder Ron Fairly grounded out to shortstop Don Kessinger for the side.

The irony was Johnson scoring the game’s only run two innings earlier. He led off with a walk, took second on Fairly’s bunt, then stole third with eventual 1965 National League Rookie of the Year Jim Lefebvre at the plate and scored when Cubs catcher Chris Krug’s throw sailed past Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo.

Of all the cliches about the mid-1960s Dodgers, the most enduring one is that they were so weak at the plate the leadoff batter working out a walk, taking first base clean after a strikeout pitch was lost by the opposing catcher, or getting hit by a pitch was equivalent to starting a rally with the bases loaded and nobody out.

The pitching win has become devalued in the decades since Koufax’s time, mostly because you can count on half your hand how many pitchers really do the bulk of the work needed to win. Koufax was one of those pitchers when all was said and done.

In 1965 he was probably lucky to average three runs to work during the games he pitched. Marry that to the league hitting .179 against him while he led the entire Show with a 2.09 earned run average and a 1.93 fielding-independent pitching and Sandy Koufax earned every one of his Show-leading 26 wins and the second of his three major league Cy Young Awards.

Perfect games aren’t usually the sole work of the pitcher who performs them, either, but Koufax again is an outlier.

When he no-hit the Mets in June 1962, he struck out thirteen but walked five while facing thirty batters, accounting for 43 percent of the game outs himself. Against the Giants in May 1963, he struck out only four and walked two while facing 28 batters, accounting for 14 percent of the outs himself. Against the Phillies in June 1964, he struck out twelve and walked one while facing the minimum 27. (He walked should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen with two out in the fourth, but Allen was thrown out stealing while Koufax pitched to Danny Cater.) That meant he accounted for 44 percent of the outs himself.

But when he pinned the Cubs 55 years ago today, Koufax struck out fourteen including nine straight in the final two innings. He was responsible for 52 percent of the outs directly. Breaking Bob Feller’s record of three career no-hitters, Koufax did what Feller couldn’t—he proved that practise makes perfect.

Only one other pitcher has struck out as many as fourteen batters in a perfect game, and that was Giants pitcher Matt Cain striking fourteen out in 2012. Unlike Koufax, Cain didn’t strike anyone out in the ninth. It also took half a century before another no-hit pitcher struck out the side in the ninth, when two pitchers—the Giants’ Chris Heston and the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta—did it in 2015.

Koufax is also the only pitcher to consummate two no-hitters against two separate teams by retiring the same batter. He did it to grizzled veteran Harvey Kuenn to finish his 1963 no-no, with John Roseboro behind the plate for him, getting Kuenn to ground out right back to the box. Then, finishing the 1965 perfecto, with Jeff Torborg behind the plate for him, he got Kuenn—traded by the Giants to the Cubs with Hendley himself in May 1965—on a swinging strikeout.

The 1965 strikeout climaxes Vin Scully’s much-anthologised call of the ninth inning, often under the title, “29,000 People and a Million Butterflies.”

He is one out away from the promised land, and Harvey Kuenn is coming up. So Harvey Kuenn is batting for Bob Hendley. The time on the scoreboard is 9:44. The date September the ninth, 1965. And Koufax working on veteran Harvey Kuenn.

Sandy into his windup, and the pitch—fastball for a strike. He has struck out, by the way, five consecutive batters, and that’s gone unnoticed.

Sandy ready, and the strike-one pitch—very high, and he lost his hat. He really forced that one. That was only the second time tonight where I have had the feeling that Sandy threw instead of pitched, trying to get that little extra, and that time he tried so hard his hat fell off. He took an extremely long stride toward the plate and Torborg had to go up to get it. One and one to Harvey Kuenn. Now he’s ready—fastball, high, ball two.

You can’t blame a man for pushing just a little bit now. Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg. All the while, Kuenn just waiting.

Now Sandy looks in. Into his windup, and the two-one pitch to Kuenn—swung on and missed, strike two. It is 9:46 p.m. Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away.

Sandy into his windup. Here’s the pitch—swung on and missed, a perfect game!

When the game ended, Koufax faced reporters, one of whom asked, “Who gave you the most trouble?” Still spent from his evening’s work, Koufax quipped, “Torborg.” The rookie catcher lingered to get a Koufax autograph on something as a memento. The joke went past the scribes faster than Koufax’s final fastball shot through Kuenn’s swing.

The same home plate umpire who called Koufax’s 1964 no-hitter against the Phillies worked behind the plate for the perfecto. “He had a perfect game, too,” Hendley said of Ed Vargo. “Except for getting hit by a foul ball,” Koufax said. So call Vargo the only umpire in major league history to be hit by a foul calling two no-hitters by the same pitcher when he was behind the plate.

Koufax didn’t let Vargo’s work go unheeded, Leavy recorded. When the tumult and shouting dissipated in the Dodger Stadium clubhouses, Koufax handed Vargo a ball signed, “Thanks for a second great game, Eddie.” To which Vargo could reply, appreciatively, “The game called itself.”

Bart Hendley, the same son who sent Koufax the commemorative newspaper clip, looked at the ball and accompanying note Koufax sent around the 35th anniversary of the game. “Dad,” he said, “this ball is from that era.” It was, indeed—a 1965 Rawlings ball, showing the official signature of then-National League president Warren Giles.

Koufax and Hendley squared off again later that September. That time, Hendley beat Koufax, 2-1. The two pitchers posed for pictures at Wrigley Field before the game. An Internet search shows a copy of one showing Hendley to Koufax’s right, Hendley in his home Cubs uniform and Koufax wearing a Dodgers jacket over his road uniform. Koufax autographed the picture—on Hendley’s side.

Hendley became a physical education teacher and high school baseball coach near his home in Macon, Georgia, after his pitching career ended. He told Leavy he would have liked doing better in his own pitching career, but that he wouldn’t have wanted to be Koufax. Not even if the roles could have been reversed and he’d thrown the perfect game while Koufax settled for just missing a no-hitter on its backside.

“I am who I am,” Hendley said. “I’m from where I’m from. I understand he has a problem wherever he goes, he’s swarmed. I don’t want to switch places.” He admitted to Leavy he’d have liked to have something like a signed ball to pass to his grandchildren, but he didn’t expect something like that.

Then came the autographed newspaper clip to his youngest son, and that 1965 National League ball with the accompanying, handwritten note. “I’d often been asked what it was like to be the other guy,” Hendley told Leavy. “I wrote Sandy a note and I said I always responded, ‘It’s no disgrace to get beat by class’.”

What a game.