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The Very Best Act in Town

April 25, 1994
April 25, 1994

Table of Contents
April 25, 1994

Woeful Pitching
Horse Racing
Pro Football
SI 40th Anniversary
Shaquille O'Neal
Point After

The Very Best Act in Town

When this SI Classic ran in 1963, Sandy Koufax was in his prime but wary about how long it would last

Three hours before game time one day last week, Philadelphians began leaving their cream-cheese assembly plants and scrapple refineries for the sooty, dreary transitional neighborhood around 21st and Lehigh, home of Connie Mack Stadium and the poor but honest Phillies. By four o'clock, long lines of fans surrounded the ancient ballpark, and word went out that the twi-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers was SRO. Still the fans remained, sipping from thermos jugs against the humid 90° heat, hoping to be accorded the privilege of leaning against a girder inside for 18 innings. A few thousand extra got in, making the official paid attendance 35,353. Another 15,000 were turned away. The Phillies' daily press release, issued just before each game, noted: "Veteran observers say the swarm of fans before tonight's game is the greatest they have ever seen."

This is an article from the April 25, 1994 issue Original Layout

If you had to list 10 reasons for such an extraordinary turnout on such an ordinary day, the first nine would have to be Sandy Koufax.

It takes a good act to score in Philadelphia, and Koufax is a very good act. At 27, he holds the National League record for most strikeouts in a season, for most strikeouts per nine innings pitched, for most strikeouts in a single game (18, a feat he has brought off twice, against the Giants in 1959 and against the Cubs in 1962). He has two no-hitters. He has led the league in earned run average (2.54 in 1962), and he holds assorted Dodger club records. Until a finger injury wrecked him last year, he was the best pitcher in baseball, with a 14-4 record and a 2.06 ERA.

This year he can wiggle his finger just fine, and he is the best pitcher in baseball, make no mistake about it. Some of the wisest old watchers in the game will go so far as to tell you that at this moment Koufax is the best ever. By the end of last week, he led all major league starting pitchers in won-lost record (16-3), ERA (1.75), complete games (14), shutouts (nine) and strikeouts (176); and he had a good shot at becoming the first National League pitcher since Dizzy Dean to win 30 games in a season. In fact, things are going so right for Koufax that last Saturday in Milwaukee, one of the rare occasions when he did not pitch well, he hit a three-run homer to prevent defeat. How did he feel about all this? "It's satisfying," says Koufax, a highly intelligent young man who uses about as many superlatives as Calvin Coolidge.

That soggy night in Philadelphia, Koufax allowed six hits and won the game 5-2, a performance that would be more than satisfying to most pitchers. Moreover, he pitched six innings of perfect ball before allowing a hit. But to Koufax's fans—and they exist in every National League city—his performance was lackluster. As Dodger statistician Allan Roth explained, "It's reached the point now that when anybody gets a hit off him, people turn to each other and say, 'Gee, I wonder what he did wrong?' "

Koufax is aware of this attitude. "What people have to understand," he says, "is that maybe I threw just the right pitch. But that's a major league batter up there at the plate with a bat in his hands, and maybe he did something right."

On a team that counts among its personnel the man who gave history the definitive lowdown on where nice guys finish, Koufax serves as a constant reminder that no absolute statement—even one by Leo Durocher—is absolutely true. For years reporters and baseball fans who did not know him reckoned that he was a little aloof and stuffy, when the truth is that he was as painfully shy as a six-year-old boy at his first piano recital. In his ninth season in the majors, he is still frightened of the reporters who rush to his locker after a game. He answers their questions patiently and politely, but it is easy to see that he is not enjoying himself. In some ways, he borders on being a Pollyanna. When he does find something to say about other people, it is always good, but actually, as he puts it, "I hate like hell to talk about other people at all." He also hates like hell to be quoted using words like hell. He knows thousands of youngsters are influenced by him, and he therefore refuses to be photographed smoking and won't endorse cigarettes. He would rather not talk about drinking at all. (The fact is that Koufax both smokes and drinks, but in such laughably small quantities that one wonders why he bothers.)

"He's pretty quiet," says manager Walter Alston, who is pretty quiet himself, "but he's like all the other ballplayers in one way. They're a bunch of agitators, you know, and Sandy is, too." In other words, Koufax is a needler. Example: Riding on the team bus last week, the boys were kidding Frank Howard, the likable, lumbering outfielder who wins games with his bat and blows them with his glove, and who has lost fly balls in the lights, the sun and sometimes just in the air. Said Koufax, looking ahead to the game he would have to pitch on Saturday in Milwaukee, "Yeah, with my luck, you'll probably lose a fly ball in the eclipse, then win the ball game with a home run."

But Koufax is unlike a ballplayer in other ways. He belongs to none of the several cliques within the Dodgers. His roommate, catcher Doug Camilli, is about as voluble as Harpo Marx, and Koufax and Camilli are likely to spend the long, boring hours on road trips sitting in their hotel room listening to one of the several dozen musical-comedy scores Koufax carries with him on tape. He bought an oversized attachè case, fitted it out with a portable radio and tape recorder, countersunk a speaker in the lid and still had room for his toilet articles. Now he carries this miniature concert hall with him whenever he goes on the road, sometimes leading Durocher to bark in mock anger, "Give it a rest, why don'tcha, Sandy?"

Koufax is bemused by reports that he listens only to Beethoven and Mendelssohn and reads only Thomas Wolfe and Aldous Huxley, as though this were proof that he is some kind of intellectual. "I don't know what's so highbrow about Mendelssohn," he says. "I guess my favorite kind of music is musical comedy. I may have read Thomas Wolfe in school, but I don't think I've ever read Aldous Huxley. I'm normal, that's all."

Sanford Koufax is as normal as any other red-blooded American youth with a bronze Oldsmobile, a gorgeous Hollywood-type girlfriend, a neat bachelor home (two bedrooms) in Studio City, a $40,000-a-year salary, part ownership of a radio station, an interest in a motel, and a fastball that is frequently heard but not always seen by National League batters. He has a college background (University of Cincinnati), an accent absolutely devoid of the tiniest trace of his Brooklyn years, a rich singing and speaking voice, and good looks that once moved a columnist to gush, "I have met Clark Gable, William Holden and Gregory Peck. But since meeting Sandy Koufax, they can all take a backseat. He's all of them rolled into one—only younger."

But only three or four years ago Koufax was a clichè: the strong young pitcher who can throw a grape through the side of a battleship—on that rare occasion when he can hit the battleship. They come up by the dozen every year, and every year they go back to Dubuque and Kankakee to learn control. Only a few of them ever learn it.

Koufax could not go back; he was a bonus baby (about $20,000 in 1955), and he had to be kept on the roster of a team that was always in the pennant race and that already had such pitchers as Sal Maglie, Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine. "I'll never forget my first year," Koufax says. "I didn't know what I was doing. I was scared to death. I had just turned 19, and there I was in spring training with the greatest names in baseball—Reese, Snider, Robinson. I had no right being there. They gave me money, and now every time I threw I could feel someone watching me. So I tried to throw a little harder, just to prove that I was worth the money. I ended up hurting my arm. For two weeks I was combing my hair and brushing my teeth righthanded."

Alston remembers those days with uncomfortable clarity. "I couldn't believe my eyes," he says. "Playing pepper and tossing the ball back and forth, he was so wild the other fellow couldn't catch it, and when he was just lobbing them to a catcher, three or four out of every 20 pitches would be over the catcher's head."

By the end of the 1960 season, Koufax was substantially unchanged. Now and then he would pitch a magnificent game (such as the fifth game of the 1959 World Series, which he lost 1-0), but on his next appearance he would walk three or four men in a row and be yanked. His record for six seasons, with a strong team behind him, was 36-40. He had all the stuff in the world, but not the slightest idea where it was going. The other day he recalled, "The trouble was, I'd get a chance to pitch, and then I wouldn't get another chance for weeks. There's your control problem. It wasn't the club's fault; they were always fighting for a pennant, they couldn't take a chance with me. And I had a lot of faults. I'd get mad at myself every time I made a mistake, and it seemed like I made a mistake every time I threw a ball. So then I'd try to throw a little harder, and I'd get a little wilder, and then I'd finally get the ball over, and they'd hit it."

Koufax was caught up in the wild young pitcher's classical dilemma. "On every pitch I was thinking about a thousand different things," he says. "If I didn't do a good job I might not pitch for a month, so I'd be afraid every time I got to a hitter. I'd say to myself, 'If you walk this man, you're out of the ball game, so you can't afford to throw him a curveball.' I'd worry about what the manager was thinking and what the coaches were thinking. Instead of concentrating on the batter, I'd be looking over my shoulder. Every time I would see the slightest flicker of movement in the bullpen, it would make me more nervous. I would lose my concentration and just throw the ball."

In the 1960 season, when Koufax won eight and lost 13, two men began to reach the conclusion that he was in the wrong business. One was Alston, whose outstanding characteristic as a manager is his grandmotherly patience. He announced at several confidential Dodger meetings that he doubted Koufax would ever make it. The other one was Koufax. "I was coming pretty close to thinking about quitting," he says, in his typically precise way. "I began to think that maybe putting 10 years into something else might be better. At the end of 10 years I wouldn't be through, I'd just be starting. Quitting seemed like a possibility."

But first he had a talk with Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi. "I told him I wanted to pitch more often," Koufax remembers. "He said, 'How can you pitch? You can't get anybody out.' I said, 'I don't know anybody else that can get anybody out once a month either.' "

The conversation with Bavasi produced more starts for Koufax, and a conversation with catcher Norm Sherry, who now plays with the New York Mets, produced a change in Koufax's pitching philosophy. Sherry sat next to Koufax on a plane ride to a B-squad game in Orlando during spring training in 1961. Sherry told him he should stop trying to blow his fastball by the hitters; he should try more curves, more changeups; and he should throw his fastball less hard and more accurately. That day Koufax pitched and Sherry caught, and Koufax recalls, "Every time I just reared back and threw, Sherry walked out and made me use changeups and control. I pitched a no-hitter." That season Koufax won 18 games and struck out 269 batters, breaking Christy Mathewson's National League record of 267. Since then both Koufax and Alston have decided that he might as well stay in the pitching business, after all.

To Koufax, the most satisfying aspect of his metamorphosis is not the public adulation or the bronze Oldsmobile or the several dozen alpaca sweaters he supports. "The best thing is that now I'm excited about playing baseball," he says. "Now I can go out to the mound and not only think about what I should do with each batter, but I can execute my idea most of the time. It's the difference between just playing a game and really knowing a game. It's like one man knowing how to play chess and another man playing chess only because he knows which way the various pieces can be moved."

A typical sequence of Koufaxian thought patterns occurred in the fifth inning of the Philadelphia game against a strong hitter, Don Demeter. Koufax said later, "After I got behind 3 and 0, I threw two fastballs for strikes. Then I tried to get him out on a real good fastball. He fouled it off. So I lost confidence in the fastball, and I went to the curveball. To be on the safe side, I could have challenged him again and thrown the fastball. But I felt that Don could hit a fastball out of the park. And I figured the worst thing that could happen with a curveball would be that I would walk him, but then, at least, I could start even up on the next hitter. At 3 and 2, a pitcher is behind. I just didn't want to challenge him again with another fastball. So I threw him the curve." Demeter struck out.

Little puzzles like how to pitch to a Demeter make life more than bearable for Koufax, now that he has the equipment to work them out. But sometimes the puzzle is how to straighten himself out. Frequently, he has trouble loosening up in early innings, and he scrooches and squirms all over the mound trying to get the stiffness out. "He looks like a belly dancer out there," says Vin Scully, the Dodger broadcaster. "I tell him he's got to stop wearing those cheap undershirts."

"It's just that he's got very heavy muscles," says Alston. "One day in the shower I noticed this roll, a couple of inches, around his middle. I was gonna kid him about being out of shape, so I reached out and grabbed it. It was hard as a rock. It was muscle."

Koufax has other problems with himself. Every now and then, his wildness comes back, and he will throw five or six pitches like the Koufax of old—all muscle and no finesse, trying to use 100% of his strength, when experience has taught him that he is most effective when he uses about 90% of it in a steady, rhythmical pattern. Sometimes he will forget to concentrate—that is, he will throw a pitch, simply chuck it, without any idea behind it. "You have to have an idea, some sort of plan, on every pitch," he explains, "but sometimes you get tired and forget. Pitchers talk to each other, you know, and one of the things we're agreed on is that when a pitcher gets tired, generally the first thing that gets tired is the head. Then he becomes a thrower instead of a pitcher."

It is slowly getting around both leagues that Koufax is now a pitcher, but the last person to become certain about it will be Koufax himself. Tooling along the Sunset Strip in his bronze chariot, a lovely woman at his side, the undisputed king of his profession may be living the American boy's dream. But he is not kidding himself about how quickly this high life could end. "All last winter, while my finger was healing, I didn't know if my career was over or not," he says. "I had no idea. I don't even know for sure now if the finger will hold up over the whole season, although I think it will. There's some scar tissue in the tip, and it's hard. Sometimes it gets a little tender.

"And there are other things to think about. Sometimes it seems like a dream world. It seems like I should have everything a man could want now, but who knows what's gonna happen. When is it gonna end? I feel that if I could play till I'm 40 or 38 or 36 and be successful till then—sure, then I would have everything I want. But if it's over next year, what have I got? The money I've made I could spend in a very short time. I have some schooling, but I'm not really prepared to do anything except pitch. The thought is always there that it might end quickly. I remember too many great arms, too many pitchers that everybody thought were going to be great, and all of a sudden it was over."

Do such thoughts ever come to him while he is on the mound? "I'll tell you," he says, "some nights out there you feel alone, scared and naked." Then the best pitcher in baseball laughed. But not very hard.

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.PHOTONIELS LAURITZENA rarity: Koufax (32) beat the Braves with his bat.

This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.

"I'll tell you," Koufax says, "some nights out there you feel alone, scared and naked."