SI Vault
 
THE GREAT HOLDOUT
Buzzie Bavasi
May 15, 1967
The outspoken general manager of the Dodgers, currently baseball's most successful executive, begins a four-part series on his joys and troubles in the front office with an account of the famous contract hassle in which pitching stars Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale 'came at me as a pair'
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 15, 1967

The Great Holdout

The outspoken general manager of the Dodgers, currently baseball's most successful executive, begins a four-part series on his joys and troubles in the front office with an account of the famous contract hassle in which pitching stars Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale 'came at me as a pair'

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

But Sandy did not suffer agonizing pain while he was pitching, and he never said he did, either. I think Roberto Clemente was on the right track when he said: "All I know about Sandy's arthritis is that it must come after the game is over. Nobody could pitch the way Koufax does with something bothering him." Sandy had arthritis, bad arthritis, no doubt about it, but if he had the pain that the press kept yelping about he'd have had to walk right off the mound. I never heard Sandy complain once about pain during a game. Of course, he's that kind of guy; he wouldn't say anything even if he was hurting. Simple common sense has to tell you that no one can chalk up the records he did with a sore arm. But how the papers worked on that painful legend! They used to show pictures of him pitching and his face would be all contorted, and the caption would say something about the agony the brave Koufax was going through. Why, I can show you similar pictures of every pitcher in baseball, including one of Sal Maglie where his face looks like there must be a scorpion in his undershorts, and all he's doing is pitching to the No. 6 batter with two outs in the second inning and a 5-0 lead.

I know what made Sandy Koufax quit, and I agree with him 100%; in fact, as much as I hated to lose Sandy, I never suggested for a second that his reasoning was anything but correct. And here's what his reasoning was: Sandy is a doer; he likes to play golf, to wire up fancy stereo sets, to fool with his cars and to go out and play and have fun, and every time he wound up and threw a baseball he ran the risk that some time in the future, some day maybe 10 years off, he would lose the use of that bad arm and not be capable of doing the things that he wanted to. In other words, he could stay in baseball and earn more and more money for his retirement years, but at the same time he might be destroying his retirement, because who the hell wants to go into a disabled retirement? Sandy was thinking ahead, that's all. I'll never forget what he told me: "Buzzie, I'm working hard, I'm not married, I'm saving a lot of money. I've stayed in baseball so that later on I'll be able to do all the things I like to do. But suppose later on I'm physically unable to do those things? If I can't do those things, why bother to work to make money for my retirement?"

I agreed with him right down the line; I never for one second insisted that Sandy pitch another season once he had made up his mind. Dr. Robert Kerlan, the team's physician, knew how strongly Sandy felt. I'll never forget one day after Sandy's retirement the doctor said to him, "Sandy, you can still pitch." And Sandy said, "I know I can still pitch," and the doctor said, "Well, why don't you pitch another season?" And Sandy said, "I don't want to pitch anymore." Dr. Kerlan said, "If we could eliminate any pain from that arm, would you pitch again?" Sandy said, "No."

In other words, Sandy had had it. He wasn't going to jeopardize his future physical condition any further. And all the time he was arriving at this decision, the papers were printing their daily horror story: the agony of Sandy Koufax. It was a fine story, the way they wrote it, a real sob story, but Sandy would be the first one to come out and tell you: he could suit up and pitch right now and win damn near 27 games, too, I'd be willing to bet! If you want to see a real study in arthritic pain, by the way, look at Dr. Kerlan. He is permanently bent. He has arthritis of the spine, and he has to take 20 aspirins a day for his pain. But he operates through his pain, he functions with it. Sandy is equally able to function on the mound.

The truth about Sandy's retirement is very simple. He quit for the same reason I work: security. I want the security of my job. He wants the security of his health. Do you really think I would try to argue him out of a decision like that and maybe have his useless left arm on my conscience for the rest of my life? I don't have the guts!

Of course, Sandy did disappoint me in the way he announced his retirement. In my opinion, the whole thing left something to be desired. You probably think you know the story. You read it in the paper, didn't you, how Sandy came to Buzzie and said he wanted to quit and Buzzie said, "Oh, Sandy, please don't quit until after the winter meetings, because if I go to the meetings with you on the roster I'll be able to trade for a pitcher, but if I go with you off the roster they'll know I'm hurting for pitchers and they'll never give me one." That "inside" story was printed in just about every newspaper. It's not true. Now, normally, I would say what the hell's the difference, and let the story stand unchallenged. The reason I'm not is, first, it makes me look like a guy who would have the nerve to say to a great ballplayer, "We've gotten everything we could out of you, and now please disrupt your personal plans for a few more months so that we can squeeze out a little more." I don't like that suggestion. Second, the "inside" story makes it look as though Sandy did not care much about the future of the Dodgers, because, after all, he did announce his retirement before the winter meetings. I wish I had a dollar for every newspaper item that explained how Sandy had done the ball club an injustice by announcing his retirement too soon; now the Dodgers wouldn't be able to trade for a decent pitcher, etc., etc. And I wish I had two dollars for every newspaper item that explained how that heartless Bavasi insisted that Sandy wait until after the trading period.

Well, it was all baloney; it wasn't fair to Sandy, and it wasn't fair to me. But the imminent retirement of such a spectacular star and such a reticent star was bound to cause all kinds of conjecture. Sandy wouldn't talk about his retirement plans, and I couldn't talk about them, since I was one of the last to find out, and between those two incommunicado sources the newspaper guys pretty much had to guess for themselves. Most of their guesses were wrong.

Phil Collier of The San Diego Union, one of Sandy's few close friends in the press, says that Sandy first told him of the retirement in 1965, a year before it happened. "Next year will be the last," Sandy told him, and swore him to secrecy. Collier had to keep Sandy's secret to himself. When a reporter stops respecting confidences like that, he stops getting confidences like that. The irony is that when Sandy finally did make his retirement announcement, he did it in such a way as to give Collier a scoop but also to force Collier into an error, not a big error, but the kind of petty thing that irks a good newspaperman.

Despite certain stories you may read, Sandy did not come to me right after the World Series and tell me that he was going to retire. Now that it's all over, I wish he had. He may have told a few close friends, but I was not one of them. The last word I had with Sandy about retirement was late in the season, when he told me he was giving it some thought. I told him I hoped he wouldn't quit but, if he had to, it would help the ball club if he would wait until after the winter meetings in December. I told him that we would be hurting without him and the other ball clubs would want us to keep on hurting. He said that he would bear that in mind, and I told him it was no big deal, that the main thing was that he protect his own future and do what was right by himself. He said he would let me know his decision as soon as the season was over.

Now the World Series ends and Sandy says nothing, and another player comes to me and gets me all excited by telling me that Sandy has decided he was making so much money on the Dodgers that he was going to pitch another year. The weeks go by, the ball club goes barnstorming to Japan, but Sandy stays home for reasons of his own, and soon I've got my hopes up that we are not going to lose him. I figure that every day that goes by in silence is an indication that he's staying, which is what I want more than anything. And just when I'm lulling myself into a false sense of security the telephone rings on my desk. "Buzzie," Sandy says, "I've got to see you right away. I'm quitting baseball."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7