Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax’s least favourite subject has always been himself. It was to wonder, then, just how he’d handle things when he came to the center field plaza behind Dodger Stadium Saturday, when a statue honouring what he means to the franchise and to baseball itself was unveiled.
It turned out that Koufax knew how not to rise to even the bait of his capture in bronze, frozen in his once-famous high and broad right leg kick as his left arm prepared to deliver to the plate.
After a tribute film was shown to the gathering, he began by quipping, “I think the film said everything I wanted to say, so I’ll be leaving now.” The gathering, which included his protegé/friend Clayton Kershaw and Hall of Fame manager/former catcher-third baseman Joe Torre, laughed heartily enough.
People who meet him testify that he’ll talk your ears off if the subject isn’t him, preferring to learn about them, but the moment the subject becomes him he makes Puxsatawney Phil resemble a 24/7/365 social butterfly.
His best biographer, Jane Leavy, has described him as a man who’d love nothing more than to be just another fellow in the neighbourhood. Just like any other fellow who has a plaque in Cooperstown and spent the bulk of his post-playing career living as a kind of renaissance man learning about things as diverse as flying, restoring houses, theater, music, and wine, and once carrying a business card identifying himself as “Peregrination Expert”—an expert at making a long, long journey.
Come Saturday, after opening with maybe the cleverest reimagining possible of Groucho Marx’s once-famous warble, “Hello, I must be going,” the peregrination expert talked for ten minutes. Getting him to speak that long in public is an achievement worthy of a combat decoration as it is.
But he talked about practically anyone except himself. Just as he had fifty years to the day earlier, when he was inducted as the youngest man ever elected to the Hall of Fame. A day intended to do him honour—and he did call it the greatest honour of his life—turned out to be the day Koufax preferred doing honour to about sixty people who had affected his life and career.
From the high school catcher whose father urged him onto the sandlot team the older man coached to the University of Cincinnati basketball coach (Koufax attended on a basketball scholarship) who also coached the baseball team and welcomed him there. From Jackie Robinson, the only other Dodger to be secured in bronze outside that center field plaza, whom he called a teammate and friend who “went out of his way to make me feel welcome and I’ll never forget his kindness on that,” to every pitching coach he had. (Both Robinson’s and Koufax’s statues come from the same sculptor, Branley Cadet.)
From his only major league manager, Hall of Famer Walter Alston (I’m not sure if he was happy with me as a bonus player, but we came to have a pretty good relationship through the years) to assorted roommates such as Doug Camilli (reserve catcher), Dick Tracewski (second baseman, and his roommate the morning he awoke to an elbow swollen so profoundly it turned into the arthritis diagnosis that ultimately put paid to his pitching career), Norm Sherry (the reserve catcher who helped him correct the hitch that kept him from greatness until 1961), and Carl Furillo (the Brooklyn legend with the steady bat and the throwing arm that got him nicknamed the Reading Rifle).
From all his teammates during his twelve major league seasons—particularly his longtime catcher John Roseboro but also the Dodgers’ all switch-hitting infield of 1965 (Jim Lefebvre, Wes Parker, Jim Gilliam, Maury Wills)—to his relief pitchers (particularly Ron Perranoski and Phil [The Vulture] Regan). From the trainers and clubhouse manager Nobe Kowano to Vin Scully. (GOAT used to be a bad thing, now it’s greatest of all time. Well, that’s the end of the discussion. Vin Scully is the greatest of all time.)
“I think my only regret today,” Koufax said near the finish, “is that so many are no longer with us and I’m unable to let them know how much I thank them and appreciated them. Thank you to all the fans who treated me so well, and tell them how lucky they are to have such a competitive team to root for for so many years.”
“I remember one of the first times I got to sit down and speak to Sandy, it was on a flight to L.A. for Joe’s charity event,” Kershaw said before his longtime mentor and friend took his turn. “And I was sitting there, and I thought, Sandy and Joe, some old ballplayers, I’m just gonna have to sit through ‘Back when we played,’ or, ‘This is how I used to do it,’ and I thought I was going to have to sit through that the whole flight.”
Koufax would crack in due course, “Conventional wisdom has always said, ‘Don’t give an old man a microphone, he’s got too many years to talk about’.”
“But it was a far cry from that,” Kershaw continued. “I got to know Sandy on that flight and after that I thought, Wow, Sandy genuinely cares about how I’m going to do in this game. From then on I was able to talk to Sandy. He’d call me when good things happened and congratulate me. He’d call me when bad things happened to encourage me. He’d even call during the offseason to check in on Ellen and I and see how the chaos of our life had gone with our four kids.”
Koufax has no children of his own, but he has been remarried happily to his third wife, Jane Parucker Clarke, for almost two decades and counting. Once, appearing at the first showing of a documentary about Jews in sports, Koufax had a small chat with New York Times writer Ira Berkow. After Koufax seemed somewhat reserved when told most boys of his generation dreamed of striking out the Yankees and he’d done it in a World Series, Berkow asked what Koufax did dream about. Koufax pointed to his lady without missing a beat and replied, “Her.”
Those who knew him in his playing days continue to be solicitous without being obstreperous about his accomplishments. (“I have to be careful how I word things,” Torre told the Saturday gathering, “because I say I hit against Sandy Koufax, but I have to take that back: I faced Sandy Koufax.” For the record, Torre couldn’t hit Koufax with a hangar door: a pair of home runs but a .220/.233/.339 slash line against him.)
My own call is there’s a statistic that, even in the pitching-friendly era during which Koufax went from good to great to off the charts, says more about him than the 699 strikeouts he nailed in his final two, arthritic, overmedicated seasons. (Including the then-record 382 he bagged in 1965.)
Koufax’s fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP: you can see it as your earned-run average when the help from your defense is removed from the equation) for his final six seasons, the seasons that made him the ultimate peak-value Hall of Famer, is 2.18. Granting the stat applies retroactively, in his case, but ponder this: Sandy Koufax led the entire Show in FIP—the measure of what he himself was responsible for, including keeping the ball in the park, striking the other guys out, keeping the walks and hit batsmen to a minimum, everything he himself could control in a baseball game—for six consecutive seasons, and it averages out to 2.18 for the six. Even in a pitching-friendly era, that’s a surrealistic accomplishment.
So often compared to Koufax as a lefthanded pitcher, Kershaw preferred to honour Koufax the friend. “I was looking back at the time we were at [Scully]’s retirement ceremony on the field and something you said stuck with me, about Vin,” he said. You said that the thing you treasure most about Vin is that he allows you to call him a friend. And that’s the same for me. So, I’m grateful for that, Sandy. I know you don’t believe it, but there is no one more deserving of this honor.”
Kershaw had to hold tears back when he said it.
“Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Sandy,” Steve Garvey once told a reporter. “They’re the only ones that seem to grow bigger with the years.” It may depend upon how you define “big.”
Williams became a kind of cantankerous roving hitting instructor in his retirement, when not indulging his parallel passion for fly fishing, often still out to prove he knew best. DiMaggio presented himself as regal and demanded regal treatment. They seemed too aloof even in crowds on their own behalfs. Koufax guards his privacy powerfully but he’s considered accessible enough if you don’t treat him like a royal or a deity.
He’s probably been the least cantankerous or self-possessed baseball legend of his time, except perhaps for the late Yogi Berra. He’s turned up at Dodger and other spring camps over several decades to instruct and observe, to share but not “prove” his knowledge. “A lot of people look around to see how they can keep you from climbing up there with them,” the late fellow Hall of Famer (and longtime Dodger) Don Sutton once said. “Sandy has always gone out of his way to pull everybody up there with him.”
“To the extent that he removed himself from public view,” Leavy wrote in her biography, “it was not so much because he believed there are no second acts in American life as because he was determined to have one. 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.”
Having pulled everyone else up there at his own statue-unveiling ceremony, there was but one way for Koufax to conclude, and he did just that. “For all of you who came out,” he said, “thank you. To my family and friends, I love you one and all. I’m done.”