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 cliché: 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."