SI Vault
 
The Very Best Act in Town
Jack Olsen
April 25, 1994
When this SI Classic ran in 1963, Sandy Koufax was in his prime but wary about how long it would last
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 25, 1994

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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

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."

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 attaché 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."

Continue Story
1 2 3