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The Left Arm of God: Sandy Koufax was more than just a perfect pitcher

He sometimes was referred to as "The Ghost." Despite shunning the fame that followed him, Sandy Koufax impacted others through his lessons of generosity, humility and invaluable pitching wisdom.

In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to run in the magazine's history. Today's selection is on Sandy Koufax, whom the magazine named its favorite athlete of the 20th century. Koufax, the youngest person elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, was the first pitcher to throw four no-hitters and win three Cy Young Awards. The story, by current SI writer Tom Verducci, originally appeared in the July 12, 1999 issue.

He sat in the same booth every time. It was always the one in back, farthest from the door. The trim, darkly handsome man would come alone, without his wife, nearly every morning at six o'clock for breakfast at Dick's Diner in Ellsworth, Maine, about 14 miles from their home. He often wore one of those red-and-black-checkered shirts you expect to see in Maine, though he wasn't a hunter. He might not have shaved that morning. He would walk past the long counter up front, the one with the swivel stools that, good Lord, gave complete strangers license to strike up a conversation. He preferred the clearly delineated no-trespassing zone of a booth. He would rest those famously large hands on the Formica tabletop, one of those mini-jukeboxes to his left and give his order to Annette, the waitress, in a voice as soft and smooth as honey.

He came so often that the family who ran the diner quickly stopped thinking of him as Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. They thought of him the way Koufax strived all his life to be thought of, as something better even than a famous athlete: He was a regular.

Dick Anderson and his son Richard, better known as Bub, might glance up from their chores when Koufax walked in, but that was usually all. One time Bub got him to autograph a napkin but never talked baseball with him. Annette, Bub's sister, always worked the section with that back booth. For three years Koufax came to the diner and not once did he volunteer information to her about his life or his career. It was always polite small talk. Neighborly. Regular.

Koufax was 35, five years since his last pitch, in 1966, when he came eagerly, even dreamily, to Maine, the back booth of America. He had seen a photo spread in Look magazine about the Down East country homestead of a man named Blakely Babcock, a 350-pound Burpee Seed salesman, gentleman farmer and gadfly whom everybody called Tiny. Tiny would invite neighbors and friends over for cookouts and dinner parties, during which he liked to consume great quantities of food, then rub his huge belly and bellow laughingly to his wife, "So, what's for dinner, Alberta?" Tiny's North Ellsworth farmhouse caught Koufax's fancy at just about the same time one of his wife's friends was renovating her farmhouse in Maine. Wouldn't it be perfect, Koufax thought, to live quietly, almost anonymously, in an old farmhouse just like Tiny's?

Alberta Babcock was pulling a hot tin of sweet-smelling blueberry muffins from the oven when Koufax first saw the place in person, and the old Cape-style house was filled with so many flowers that it looked like a watercolor come to life. Koufax was sold, and on Oct. 4, 1971, Sanford and Anne Koufax of Los Angeles, as they signed the deed, took out a 15-year, $15,000 mortgage from Penobscot Savings Bank and bought what was known as Winkumpaugh Farm from Blakely and Alberta Babcock for about $30,000. A cord was cut. The rest of Sandy Koufax's life had begun.

The Babcocks had lived in the farmhouse since 1962, but no one was exactly sure how old the place was. Property records were lost to a fire at Ellsworth City Hall in 1933, and records from 1944 list the farmhouse's age even then only as "old." Nestled on the side of a small mountain off a dusty dirt road called Happytown Road and around the corner from another called Winkumpaugh Road, the farmhouse was the perfect setting for a man hoping to drop out of sight, even if that man was a beloved American icon who mastered the art of pitching as well as anyone who ever threw a baseball. 

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A man so fiercely modest and private that while at the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship, he didn't tell his parents back in Brooklyn that he was also on the baseball team. The man whose mother requested one of the first copies of his 1966 autobiography, Koufax, so she could find out something about her son. ("You never told me anything," she said to him.) The man who in 1968, two years after retiring with three Cy Young Awards, four no-hitters and five ERA titles, mentioned nothing of his baseball career upon meeting a pretty young woman named Anne who was redecorating her parents' Malibu beach house. Koufax did offer to help her paint, though. It wasn't until several days later that she learned his identity -- and he learned hers: She was the daughter of actor Richard Widmark. They were married six months later in her father's West Los Angeles home in front of about a dozen people.

The last two years that Anne and Sandy Koufax lived at Winkumpaugh Farm were the first in his life when he was bound by neither school nor work. After commuting from Maine during the summer of 1972 for his sixth season as a television commentator for NBC, he quit with four years left on his contract. He loathed the work. He could tell you every pitch thrown by every pitcher in a game without having written anything down, but there was a problem: He didn't like to talk about himself. At a meeting before Game 5 of the 1970 World Series, fellow announcer Joe Garagiola noted that Cincinnati's starting pitcher, Jim Merritt, had an injured arm. "I said, 'Sandy, what a perfect thing to talk about. That's what you had, too.'" Garagiola says. "But he said he didn't want to talk about himself. He wouldn't do it."

"Every time he had to leave Maine to work one of those games, it broke his heart," says MaJo Keleshian, a friend and former neighbor who attended Sarah Lawrence College with Anne. She still lives without a television on land she and her husband bought from Koufax. "He was very happy here. He came here to be left alone."

Since then only his address has changed -- and many times, at that. DiMaggio, baseball's other legendary protector of privacy, was practically Rodmanesque compared with Koufax. DiMaggio was regal, having acquired even the stiff-handed wave of royalty. We watched the graying of DiMaggio as he played TV pitchman and public icon. Koufax is a living James Dean, the aura of his youth frozen in time; he has grayed without our even knowing it. He is a sphinx, except that he doesn't want anyone to try to solve his riddle.

Koufax was the kind of man boys idolized, men envied, women swooned over and rabbis thanked, especially when he refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. And when he was suddenly, tragically, done with baseball, he slipped into a life nearly monastic in its privacy.

One question comes to mind: Why? Why did he turn his back on Fame and Fortune, the twin sirens of celebrity? Why did the most beloved athlete of his time carve out a quiet life -- the very antithesis of the American dream at the close of the century? For the answer I will go searching for the soul of Sandy Koufax, which seems as mysterious as the deepest Maine woods on a moonless night.

Bob Ballard is a retiree in Vero Beach, Fla., who works part time as a security guard at Dodgertown, the sleepiest spring training site in all of baseball. Sometime around 1987 he told the secretary who worked for Peter O'Malley, then the owner of the Dodgers, how much he would enjoy getting an autograph from Koufax for his birthday. A few days later Koufax, working for the Dodgers as a roving pitching instructor, handed Ballard an autographed ball and said, "Happy birthday."

Every year since then, on or about Ballard's birthday, Koufax has brought the old man an autographed ball. Koufax delivered on schedule this year for Ballard's 79th birthday. "He's a super, super guy," says Ballard. "Very courteous. A real gentleman. A lot nicer than these players today."

***

It is a lovely day for golf. I am standing in the tiny pro shop of the Bucksport (Maine) Golf Club, a rustic, nine-hole track. The parking lot is gravel. Even the rates are quaint: $15 to play nine holes, $22 for 18, and you are instructed to play the white tees as the front nine, then the blue tees as the back nine. There is no valet parking, no tiny pyramids of Titleists on the scrubby range, no MEMBERS ONLY signs, no attitude. This is Koufax's kind of place. I am standing in the imprint of his golf spikes, a quarter-century removed. He was a member of the Bucksport Golf Club, one of its more enthusiastic members.

It wasn't enough that he play golf, he wanted to be good enough to win amateur tournaments. Koufax was working on the engine of a tractor one day when a thought came to him about a certain kind of grip for a golf club. He dropped his tools, dashed into his machine shop, fiddled with a club and then raced off to the Bucksport range. He was still wearing dungaree shorts and a grease-splattered shirt when he arrived. "That's how dedicated to the game he was," says Gene Bowden, one of his old playing partners.

Koufax diligently whittled his handicap to a six and entered the 1973 Maine State Amateur. He advanced to the championship flights by draining a 30-foot putt on the 18th hole. He missed the next cut, though, losing on the last hole of a playoff.

Koufax is exacting in every pursuit. Ron Fairly, one of his Dodgers roommates, would watch with exasperation as Koufax, dressed suavely for dinner in glossy alligator shoes, crisply pressed slacks and a fruit-colored alpaca sweater, would fuss over each hair in his sideburns. "Reservation's in 15 minutes, and it's a 20-minute ride," Fairly would announce, and Koufax would go right on trimming until his sideburns were in perfect alignment.

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He brought that same meticulousness to Maine. It wasn't enough to dabble in carpentry and home electronics -- he built and installed a sound system throughout the house. It wasn't enough to cook -- he became a gourmet cook, whipping up dishes not by following recipes but by substituting ingredients and improvising by feel. Later in life it wasn't enough to jog; he ran a marathon. He didn't just take up fishing, he moved to Idaho for some of the best salmon fishing in the world. He defines himself by the fullness of his life and the excellence he seeks in every corner of it, not the way the rest of the word defines him: through the narrow prism of his career as a pitcher. "I think he pitched for the excellence of it," Keleshian says. "He didn't set out to beat someone or make anyone look bad. He used himself as his only measure of excellence. And he was that way in everything he did. He was a fabulous cook, but he was almost never quite satisfied. He'd say, Ah, it needs a little salt or a little oregano, or something. Once in a great while he'd say, Ah-ha! That's it!"

Walt Disney, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Daryl Zanuck and all the other Hollywood stars who held Dodgers season tickets when Koufax was the biggest star in America never came to Winkumpaugh Farm. The fans never came, either, though a fat sack of fan mail arrived every week, even seven years after he last threw a pitch. The place was perfect, all right. He could move about without fuss, without having to talk about his least favorite subject: himself. "He did say once that he'd rather not talk baseball and his career," Bowden says. "And we never did."

"When Hideo Nomo was getting really, really big, Sandy told me, 'He'd better learn to like room service,'" O'Malley says. "That's how Sandy handled the attention." Koufax almost never left his hotel room in his final two seasons for the Dodgers. It wasn't enough that he move to a creaky, charmingly flawed farmhouse in Maine with a leaky basement, he quickly bought up almost 300 acres adjacent to it.

Not even the serenity of Maine, though, could quell Koufax's wanderlust. After three years he decided the winters were too long and too cold. The farmhouse needed constant work. His stepfather took ill in California. Koufax sold Winkumpaugh Farm on July 22, 1974, leaving for the warmer but still rural setting of Templeton, Calif., in San Luis Obispo County.

Koufax is 63, in terrific shape and, thanks to shoulder surgery a few years back, probably still able to get hitters out. (In his 50s Koufax was pitching in a fantasy camp when a camper scoffed after one of his pitches, "Is that all you've got?" Koufax's lips tightened and his eyes narrowed -- just about all the emotion he would ever show on the mound -- and he unleashed a heater that flew damn near 90 mph.)

The romance with Anne ended with a divorce in the early '80s. He remarried a few years later, this time to a fitness enthusiast who, like Anne, had a passion for the arts. That marriage ended in divorce last winter. Friends say Koufax is delighted to be on his own again. Says Lou Johnson, a former Dodgers teammate, "He has an inner peace that's really deep-rooted. I wish I had that."

He is the child of a broken marriage who rejected everything associated with his father, including his name. Sanford Braun was three years old when Jack and Evelyn Braun divorced, and his contact with Jack all but ended about six years later when Jack remarried and stopped sending alimony payments. Evelyn, an accountant, married Irving Koufax, an attorney, a short time later. "When I speak of my father," he wrote in his autobiography, "I speak of Irving Koufax, for he has been to me everything a father could be." Koufax rarely spoke to Jack Braun, and not at all during his playing days. When the Dodgers played at Shea Stadium, Jack would sit a few rows behind the visitors' dugout and cheer for the son who neither knew nor cared that he was there.