Tommy Hutton, who grew up in Los Angeles, also made his big league debut for the Dodgers in '66, entering the ninth inning at first base as Koufax finished off the Pirates 5-1 on Sept. 16. Says Hutton, now a broadcaster for the Marlins, "I'll never forget this. After the game he came up to me and said, 'Congratulations.' Ever since then, I've always made it a point to congratulate a guy when he gets into his first game."
I am standing in a tunnel under the stands behind home plate at Dodger Stadium on a clear summer night in 1998. Koufax is about 75 feet in front of me, seated on a folding chair on the infield while the Dodgers honor Sutton with the retirement of his number before a game against the Braves. When the program ends, Sutton and all his guests—former Dodgers Ron Cey and Steve Garvey among them—march past me toward an elevator that will take them to a stadium suite. All except Koufax. He is gone. Vanished. I find out later that as soon as the ceremony was over, he arose from his chair, walked briskly into the Dodgers dugout and kept right on going into the team parking lot and off into the night. That's Sandy," said one team official. "We call him the Ghost."
I am searching for an apparition. I never saw Koufax pitch, never felt the spell he held over America. I had just turned six when Koufax walked into the Sansui room of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Nov. 18, 1966, to announce his retirement from baseball. To have missed his brilliance heightens the fascination. For me he is black-and-white newsreel footage shot from high behind home plate, and an inexhaustible supply of statistics that border on the absurd. A favorite: Every time he took the mound, Koufax was twice as likely to throw a shutout as he was to hit a batter.
Koufax was 30 years old when he quit. Women at the press conference cried. Reporters applauded him, then lined up for his autograph. The world, including his teammates, was shocked. In the last 26 days of his career, including a loss in the 1966 World Series, Koufax started seven times, threw five complete-game wins and had a 1.07 ERA. He clinched the pennant for Los Angeles for the second straight year with a complete game on two days rest. Everyone knew he was pitching with traumatic arthritis in his left elbow, but how bad could it be when he pitched like that?
It was this bad: Koufax couldn't straighten his left arm—it was curved like a parenthesis. He had to have a tailor shorten the left sleeve on all his coats. Use of his left arm was severely limited when he wasn't pitching. On bad days he'd have to bend his neck to get his face closer to his left hand so that he could shave. And on the worst days he had to shave with his right hand. He still held his fork in his left hand, but sometimes he had to bend closer to the plate to get the food into his mouth.
His elbow was shot full of cortisone several times a season. His stomach was always queasy from the cocktail of anti-inflammatories he swallowed before and after games, which he once said made him "half-high on the mound." He soaked his elbow in an ice bath for 30 minutes after each game, his arm encased in an inner tube to protect against frostbite. And even then his arm would swell an inch. He couldn't go on like this, not when his doctors could not rule out the possibility that he was risking permanent damage to his arm.
Not everyone was shocked when Koufax quit. In August 1965 he told Phil Collier, a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune to meet him in a room off the Dodgers' clubhouse. Koufax and Collier often sat next to each other on the team's charter flights, yapping about politics, the economy or literature. "Next year's going to be my last year," Koufax told Collier. "The damn thing's all swelled up. And I hate taking the pills. They slow my reactions. I'm afraid someone's going to hit a line drive that hits me in the head."
Koufax didn't tell anyone else, and he made Collier promise not to write the story. So they shared that little secret throughout the 1966 season. When the Dodgers went to Atlanta, Collier whispered to Koufax, "Last time here for you." And that is exactly how Koufax pitched that season, as if he would never pass this way again. He won a career-high 27 games, pushing his record in his final six seasons to 129-47. He was 11-3 in his career in 1-0 games. In 1965 and '66 he was 53-17 for the club that scored fewer runs than all but two National League teams.
"He's the greatest pitcher I ever saw," says Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. "I can still see that big curveball. It had a great arc on it, and he never bounced it in the dirt. Sandy's curve had a lot more spin than anybody else's—it spun like a fastball coming out of his hand—and he had the fastball of a pure strikeout pitcher. It jumped up at the end. The batter would swing half a foot under it. Most of the time we knew what was coming, because he held his hands closer to his head when he threw a curveball, but it didn't matter. Even though he was tipping off his pitches, you still couldn't hit him."
Koufax was so good, he once taped a postgame radio show with Vin Scully before the game. He was so good, the relief pitchers treated the night before his starts the way a sailor treats shore leave. On one rare occasion in which Koufax struggled to go his usual nine innings-he averaged 7.64 per start from '61 to '66—manager Walter Alston visited his pitcher while a hungover Bob Miller warmed in the bullpen.