Recently there’s been discussion on the greatest living player and on pitching in general. One of the more hotly debated people is Sandy Koufax. There are some who argue he was the greatest pitcher ever, others who say he was the greatest pitcher of the post-World War II era, others who say he was overrated. Take your pick, team.
But without question he is one of the most well-known, most respected players of his generation. His legend overwhelms almost all aspects of his career. He has what I call an “Aura”. The Koufax Aura moves him from the list of quality pitchers of his era into almost holy status. He goes from being Koufax to being KOUFAX!!! (said in James Earl Jones stentorian tones with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” being played in the background). I believe there are a number of reasons for this and want to point them out to you. Some are legitimate, others not so much, but they make up the KOUFAX!!! Aura and have to be dealt with.
1. First, he really was really very good. His six-year stretch from 1961 through 1966 is one of the better set of campaigns in baseball history.
2. He pitched in an era of great pitching and held his own with the likes of Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale.
3. There are those three Cy Young Awards, all unanimous. First, in his era there was only one Cy Young Award, not one per league, and secondly no one else has ever won three unanimously.
4. There’s an MVP in both the regular season and the World Series (two in the Series). There are also two second place finishes in the regular season MVP race.
5. His Los Angeles team won three World Series and lost one (and went 1-1 when he was in Brooklyn–he didn’t pitch in either Brooklyn Series), giving him the glow of a winner. It is important here to note that the Dodgers won the first in 1959 when he was Koufax, not KOUFAX!!!
6. He played for the Dodgers, one of the more famous Major League teams.
7. He was the first great Los Angeles star in the sport most sports fans watched. Basketball was still a niche sport in the era, and dominated by the Celtics, while professional football, although making great strides, was still secondary to college football in ratings.
8. He had those three no hitters and the perfect game. That total of four was the most ever (until the coming of Nolan Ryan, a pitcher who was more like Koufax than a lot of people remember).
9. He held the all-time record for strikeouts in a single season when he retired (it’s since been broken by Ryan, by a total of one strikeout). He also held the record for most strikeouts in a single World Series game and for a complete World Series (also both since broken).
10. He retired at the top of his game. I think this one is key. I remember Willie Mays falling in the outfield in the World Series, I remember Tom Seaver (maybe the best pitcher I ever saw) when he was done. He was a shadow of the great pitcher of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I remember Greg Maddux as a great, great pitcher, but I also remember him as a middle of the rotation pitcher who wasn’t all that good at the end of his career. I remember Steve Carlton as a reliever and trying to learn the split finger just so he could stay in the Majors. There are no memories like that of KOUFAX!!!. There are no memories of a curve ball that didn’t curve or of a fastball that was slow. Your lasting memories of the man are of greatness, not fallibility. That, I believe, colors all our thoughts of the man and the pitcher.
11. He got a great biography. Leavy’s 2002 biography is one of the better baseball biographies of the last 50 years.
12. His most famous games are moments of greatness. The perfect game stands out, as does the game seven shutout in the 1967 World Series, a game pitched on short rest.
13. The Yom Kippur moment showed us an athlete who stood for something other than his sport. Don’t see a lot of that in any sport.
14. He disappeared when he retired. He did a little broadcasting, and he coached a little, but basically he left the public eye. That means there were no drunken episodes, no “gee, look at that poor guy who used to be such a great ballplayer” moments. He didn’t do those things that keep an athlete in the public eye for all the wrong reasons.
I could add more, but I hope you get the idea. Was he the greatest pitcher ever, or of his own era? Actually, it doesn’t matter. Will Clayton Kershaw be a better pitcher? Again, it doesn’t matter. As long as Koufax is KOUFAX!!! he will continue to have the Aura and continue to be the center of raging baseball debates.