Koufax was the kind of man boys idolized, men envied, women swooned over and rabbis thanked, especially when he refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. And when he was suddenly, tragically, done with baseball, he slipped into a life nearly monastic in its privacy.
One question comes to mind: Why? Why did he turn his back on Fame and Fortune, the twin sirens of celebrity? Why did the most beloved athlete of his time carve out a quiet life—the very antithesis of the American dream at the close of the century? For the answer I will go searching for the soul of Sandy Koufax, which seems as mysterious as the deepest Maine woods on a moonless night.
Bob Ballard is a retiree in Vero Beach, Fla., who works part time as a security guard at Dodgertown, the sleepiest spring training site in all of baseball. Sometime around 1987 he told the secretary who worked for Peter O'Malley, then the owner of the Dodgers, how much he would enjoy getting an autograph from Koufax for his birthday. A few days later Koufax, working for the Dodgers as a roving pitching instructor, handed Ballard an autographed ball and said, "Happy birthday."
Every year since then, on or about Ballard's birthday, Koufax has brought the old man an autographed ball. Koufax delivered on schedule this year for Ballard's 79th birthday. "He's a super, super guy," says Ballard. "Very courteous. A real gentleman. A lot nicer than these players today."
It is a lovely day for golf. I am standing in the tiny pro shop of the Bucksport (Maine) Golf Club, a rustic, nine-hole track. The parking lot is gravel. Even the rates are quaint: $15 to play nine holes, $22 for 18, and you are instructed to play the white tees as the front nine, then the blue tees as the back nine. There is no valet parking, no tiny pyramids of Titleists on the scrubby range, no MEMBERS ONLY signs, no attitude. This is Koufax's kind of place. I am standing in the imprint of his golf spikes, a quarter-century removed. He was a member of the Bucksport Golf Club, one of its more enthusiastic members.
It wasn't enough that he play golf, he wanted to be good enough to win amateur tournaments. Koufax was working on the engine of a tractor one day when a thought came to him about a certain kind of grip for a golf club. He dropped his tools, dashed into his machine shop, fiddled with a club and then raced off to the Bucks-port range. He was still wearing dungaree shorts and a grease-splattered shirt when he arrived. "That's how dedicated to the game he was," says Gene Bowden, one of his old playing partners.
Koufax diligently whittled his handicap to a six and entered the 1973 Maine State Amateur. He advanced to the championship flights by draining a 30-foot putt on the 18th hole. He missed the next cut, though, losing on the last hole of a playoff.
Koufax is exacting in every pursuit. Ron Fairly, one of his Dodgers roommates, would watch with exasperation as Koufax, dressed suavely for dinner in glossy alligator shoes, crisply pressed slacks and a fruit-colored alpaca sweater, would fuss over each hair in his sideburns. "Reservation's in 15 minutes, and it's a 20-minute ride," Fairly would announce, and Koufax would go right on trimming until his sideburns were in perfect alignment.
He brought that same meticulousness to Maine. It wasn't enough to dabble in carpentry and home electronics—he built and installed a sound system throughout the house. It wasn't enough to cook—he became a gourmet cook, whipping up dishes not by following recipes but by substituting ingredients and improvising by feel. Later in life it wasn't enough to jog; he ran a marathon. He didn't just take up fishing, he moved to Idaho for some of the best salmon fishing in the world. He defines himself by the fullness of his life and the excellence he seeks in every corner of it, not the way the rest of the word defines him: through the narrow prism of his career as a pitcher. "I think he pitched for the excellence of it," Keleshian says. "He didn't set out to beat someone or make anyone look bad. He used himself as his only measure of excellence. And he was that way in everything he did. He was a fabulous cook, but he was almost never quite satisfied. He'd say, Ah, it needs a little salt or a little oregano, or something. Once in a great while he'd say, Ah-ha! That's it!"
Walt Disney, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Daryl Zanuck and all the other Hollywood stars who held Dodgers season tickets when Koufax was the biggest star in America never came to Winkumpaugh Farm. The fans never came, either, though a fat sack of fan mail arrived every week, even seven years after he last threw a pitch. The place was perfect, all right. He could move about without fuss, without having to talk about his least favorite subject: himself. "He did say once that he'd rather not talk baseball and his career," Bowden says. "And we never did."