Ever Wonder “Why” the Koufax Craze?
How is it that a pitcher who last took the mound over 50 years ago, and who was really a star for “only” a six-year period, still is among the most sought after and heavily collected players in the baseball card market? What is it that makes his modern-day insert cards like the one pictured here (and available here) desired in the same way as cards bearing names like Jeter or Ripken or even Aaron?
To answer that, you gotta know the story.
It was fifty years ago today, on November 18, 1966, that the great Sandy Koufax, ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers, announced his retirement from baseball. He was just 30 years old, and he was coming off his third Cy Young award winning season. That year he won 27 games for the NL pennant-winning Dodgers, and had an ERA of 1.73. Oh sure, his strikeouts were “down” to a mere 317, but in addition to innings pitched he also led the league in complete games with twenty-seven. But it had all come at a price.
Sandy pitched in constant pain due to chronic arthritis in his pitching arm. Again, this was 50 years ago, and many of the surgical procedures that are almost common among roundsmen today were known at that time. It was a very real concern that, if he kept playing baseball, eventually Sandy would not be able to use his left hand at all. So, taking all things into consideration, the great Koufax brought his amazing six-year run—and his pitching career—to an end.
Of course, it had been a six-year run that took him straight to Cooperstown when he became eligible for the class of 1972. Perhaps you already know the story of how the beginning of Sandy’s career was nondescript at best. He had been signed as a “bonus baby” in 1954. Under MLB rules at the time, the size of his bonus prevented the Dodgers from sending him to the minor leagues, so Sandy began pitching in the big leagues at the age of 19. Through 1960 the powerful but often out-of-control lefty averaged only 6 wins per year with an ERA of 4.04 (not awful by today’s standards, but not good by the standards of that time).
But in 1961 Koufax began quite possibly the most impressive six-year span ever for a pitcher of any league. By the 1963 season, he led both leagues in victories (25), a feat he repeated in 1965 (26 wins) and 1966 (27 wins). His average ERA during this six-year stretch in the National League dropped to 1.99.
Koufax led the majors in strikeouts four times between 1961 and 1966, and twice he threw more complete games than any other pitcher. He set a season strikeout record of 382 in 1965. (Only Nolan Ryan has since struck out more batters in a single season.) Additionally, he threw one no-hitter every year from 1962 to 1965, and in 1965 he threw a perfect game.
A player’s prowess is often best summed up by those with whom he plays. In that regard, the Hall of Fame, Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates once said that hitting a Koufax fastball was like “trying to drink coffee with a fork.” After facing Sandy in the 1963 World Series, Yogi Berra was quoted as saying, “I can see how he won 25 games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”
Several full-length biographies of Sandy have been penned, and this brief post cannot begin to capture all that he accomplished or all that he meant to the game. But when you take the heights to which he had climbed in such a short span, and couple that with an all-too-soon retirement, stir it with the relatively reclusive life Sandy has led since his retirement, you have a recipe for a very interesting and collectible player. Chances are, his cards and memorabilia, both old and new, will continue to be highly sought after for some time to come.