AN URGENT MATTER OF ONE INDEX FINGER

A sore finger knocked Sandy Koufax out of action last July and cost the Dodgers the 1962 pennant. Now the Dodgers worry: is the finger better?
March 04, 1963

Let us talk ofsore arms.

In the old daysthe manager of a big-league baseball team would ask his star pitcher,"How's the old arm, Lefty?"

Lefty wouldreply, "It don't feel so good."

The manager wouldshrug and say, "Well, rub a little liniment on it and maybe it'll workitself out."

If it didn't,Lefty was back in East Greenbush, milking cows and telling lies around thegeneral store.

Nowadays, we aremore sophisticated. You can find ballplayers named Claude and Carleton andRoland, but you won't find a Lefty if you look all week. Doctors, not managers,prescribe for arm trouble. And never does a modern pitcher admit to an ailmentas generalized as "sore arm." He specifies. He has a strainedsupraspinatus muscle, or bone chips in his elbow, or calcium deposits in hisshoulder.

The ultimaterefinement along these lines may have been reached in the case of SanfordKoufax, the Los Angeles Dodgers' magnificent left-hander (see cover), who wasknocked out of action last July in the middle of one of the best seasons anypitcher ever had by a condition later described as a "circulatorymalfunction adversely affecting the left index finger." But though Sandy'ssore arm is one of the smallest in baseball history—his left index finger can'tbe more than four inches long—it has become indelibly famous. The Finger costthe Dodgers the National League pennant, it will have a great deal to say onwhether the Dodgers win or lose in 1963 and it has brought Koufax morepublicity than his extraordinary pitching achievements ever did. Let anotherpitcher develop a similar condition some time in the future, and you can betthat the doctors will diagnose it as a case of koufax index, or Sandy'sFinger.

Sandy brought TheFinger to Miami Beach in the middle of February, a couple of weeks before hewas scheduled to begin spring training with the Dodgers in Vero Beach. He had adate to appear in a nightclub act at the Fontainebleau Hotel with Milton Berleand five Dodger teammates—Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, Frank Howardand Willie Davis. The act had run for four weeks in Las Vegas, and Berle hadarranged for an 11-day, two-shows-nightly repeat performance in Miami Beach.This worked out perfectly for Koufax and the other Dodgers, who did not have toreport to Vero for training until the day the act ended. It also gave them achance to play in the annual Baseball Players Golf Tournament in Miami.

Koufax flew in toMiami from Studio City, outside Los Angeles, where he lives by himself in ahouse filled with stereo and electronic equipment. His mother and father livein Los Angeles, his grandmother lives in Miami, his sister lives in WestchesterCounty, New York, but Sandy, a bachelor, lives alone. Koufax is a type of thenew American cosmopolite. He grew up in Brooklyn, went to college in Ohio,lives in California, winters (or more precisely, spring-trains) in Florida,knows his way around most of the major cities of the country, dresses in theexpensive and quietly flamboyant clothes that ballplayers like to wear off thefield, speaks casual but grammatically correct English in a pleasantlymodulated voice that has none of the inflections that mark eastern, midwestern,southern or southwestern speech patterns. He is on easy and familiar terms withthe publicized names of sport and show business, has financial interests in amotel and an FM stereo station in California, is a liberal tipper, golfs in the80s.... In other words, he is the very model of a modern major-leaguer, exceptfor that damn finger.

Koufax has beenwith the Dodgers since he signed a bonus contract with them in December 1954.He was at the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship, but he wentout for baseball as a freshman and showed such an impressive fast ball thatmajor league scouts swarmed around. Now, at 27, he is entering his ninth majorleague season and, with the exception of Duke Snider, Junior Gilliam and JohnnyPodres, is the oldest Dodger in point of service.

He didn't matureas a pitcher (he was a "bonus baby") until the Dodgers moved to LosAngeles in 1958. But he won 11 games that year, and in 1959 he struck out 18men in one game to tie Bob Feller's major league record. In 1961 he won 18games and struck out 269 men to set a National League record; this time, theold record was held by Christy Mathewson. Last season Koufax stopped throwingbaseballs at old Hall of Famers and started building his own statue. He struckout 18 men in one game to tie Feller's record again. He pitched a no-hit no-rungame. Then he beat Warren Spahn 2-1, and drove in the winning run with hisfirst major league home run. He struck out opponents at the rate of more than10 per game. In eight starts between June 13 and July 12 he allowed a total ofonly four earned runs. By July 12 he had won 14 games, lost four and had struckout 209 men. The season was barely half over.

Then, amidreports of circulatory trouble and numbness in his finger, his season abruptlycollapsed. He was unable to pitch. He was put under a doctor's care and was outof action for the rest of the season, except for a few futile appearances latein September.

In the monthssince, Koufax has been asked at least a thousand times, "How's thefinger?" Even Milton Berle asked it—onstage, once each show. Koufaxanswered the question amiably—onstage, offstage, in hotel lobbies, on sidewalksand golf courses and elevators and every other place where he was asked."It's coming along fine, thanks," he would tell Berle once each show,twice each night. "I've been to the doctor, and he says it shouldn't botherme at all." The audience applauded, as it should, as everyone should.

Koufax talked inmore detail about The Finger one day at lunch in the Fontainebleau, in one ofthe innumerable restaurants scattered about that huge warehouse of franticrelaxation (the restaurants serve as oases for hungry and thirsty travelers whohave ventured out across the vast lobby and have become hopelessly lost). Sandyhad barley soup, a tongue sandwich and a Coke and held out The Finger forinspection. In tone, color, texture, it looked like his other fingers. Itflexed like the other fingers. It tapped on the table like the other fingers."It feels all right," he said seriously. "I don't think it's goingto give me any trouble."

Wouldn't thepressure of the finger against the ball, when he throws his fast ball, possiblycause a recurrence of the circulatory difficulty?

"No,"said Koufax. "It shouldn't. A lot of people have the idea that that waswhat caused the trouble in the first place. But it wasn't. The trouble was downhere in the palm, here where the fleshy part of the thumb joins the palm. Therewas a blood clot right there, and that cut off the circulation to the indexfinger and partly to the next finger and thumb. The doctors said the clot wasprobably caused by a blow, a trauma, and I think I know when that happened. Ithrow left-handed, but I bat right-handed. Early last season I decided to batlefty, because that way my right arm would be nearer to the pitcher than myleft, and if I was going to get hit by a pitch I'd rather have it hit my rightarm than my left. So I batted lefty and I got jammed by a pitch right on myhands, and I think that's when the trouble started."

(He soon revertedto batting right-handed. "In case you're wondering which way I hit thathomer off Spahnic, it was right-handed," he said, grinning. Koufax playsgolf left-handed because, he says, the muscles of his left arm and shoulder areso overdeveloped that they restrict his backswing when he addresses the ballright-handed. However, he putts right-handed. "Boy, you're all mixedup," said Maury Wills.)

"I firstbegan to notice something in May," Koufax said. "My finger would feelsort of numb. It didn't hurt, and it didn't bother my pitching, but it wasnumb. Then—I guess in June—it would go white, sort of a dead white. No color init at all. If I pressed my thumbnail against the finger and made a depressionin it, the depression wouldn't come back up. It will now."

He demonstrated,pressing a thumbnail deep into the index finger and watching as the fingerimmediately sprang back into normal shape. "It still didn't hurt, but I hadno feeling in it. It had no color, no life. I still wasn't having any troublepitching so I wasn't worried too much. But then the finger grew so numb that Ibegan to have trouble with the curve. I couldn't spin the ball off myfingertips. I could still throw the fast ball all right. Just before theAll-Star Game I pitched against the Giants and I knew right away the curve wasno good, so I threw nothing but fast balls. With maybe a change of pace now andthen." He grinned. "I threw one change on a 3 and 2 pitch. I askedAlvin Dark later on if he had noticed that I wasn't throwing curves that day.He said about the third inning he'd told the Giants, 'He's not going to giveyou anything but fast balls today.' I got away with it then but in my nextstart, against the Mets, the finger was so bad I had to leave after the seventhinning. I started one more time, but I had to quit after the first inning. Iwas examined by the doctors and that's when I stopped pitching. They gave meanticoagulants to dissolve the clot and I had to rest. By this time there was ablister on the finger and it broke and the skin started to flake away, and whenthe doctors got the circulation going again, the finger was raw and ripped—likea piece of raw meat. I didn't really realize how bad it was. I was onlyconcerned with how long I'd be out, but the doctors told me later that at thetime they weren't worried so much about when I was going to pitch again as theywere that they might have to amputate the finger."

He smiled alittle grimly and shook his head.

"Anyway, nowit feels fine. The clot is gone, the circulation is normal, it feels good. Ihonestly don't expect to have any trouble, though I won't know definitely untilI've thrown hard for awhile. I'm sure the clot won't come back, and thecirculation should be O.K. The only thing is, we don't know what damage mighthave been done to the finger while the circulation was bad. There might bedamaged cells or something like that, and that might show up when I start tothrow hard."

He smiled againand shrugged, philosophically.

"I'll have towait and see."

PHOTOALLAN GOULDKOUFAX (LEFT), TEAMMATE MAURY WILLS AND OTHER DODGERS MET IN MIAMI TO PLAY GOLF AND APPEAR IN A NIGHTCLUB ACT

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)