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The Chosen One
Jane Leavy
September 09, 2002
Sandy Koufax overcame bigotry and constant, searing pain to become the greatest pitcher of his time, but his finest moment came on the day he refused to take the mound in the World Series
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September 09, 2002

The Chosen One

Sandy Koufax overcame bigotry and constant, searing pain to become the greatest pitcher of his time, but his finest moment came on the day he refused to take the mound in the World Series

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Sandy Notes Holy Day

Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax left the team's Hotel St. Paul quarters Tuesday evening to begin the 24 hour observance of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. He planned to spend the night with friends in suburban Minneapolis, will attend services today and rejoin the team tonight for his starting assignment in Thursday's second game of the World Series. He was asked whether he would view today's game on television or listen to radio accounts. "No," he said. "I don't think that's possible."

He was reported to have been seen at synagogues throughout the Twin Cities—and even in Los Angeles—on Wednesday. In fact, Koufax did not attend services that day. Friends say he chose to stay alone in his hotel room. The Dodgers started Don Drysdale in Game 1 and lost 8-2, but Koufax won. He became known as much for what he refused to do as for what he did on the mound. Rabbi Hillel Silverman, who annually invoked Koufax's name in his Yom Kippur sermon, spoke with him about it once. "He said to me, 'I'm Jewish. I'm a role model. I want them to understand they have to have pride.' " By refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience; he was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sandy. A moral exemplar, and single too! (Such a catch!)

Koufax pitched the next day and lost. On the flight home Koufax and Drysdale, the two best losing pitchers in baseball, joked, "Well, we got ourselves in a hell of mess, didn't we?"

The Dodgers won the next three games in Los Angeles, the last a 7-0 Koufax shutout, to take a 3-2 lead. They needed only one more win, but they would have to go back to Minnesota to get it.

August 1999. Two months after knee surgery Koufax stepped up to the 1st tee at the Shadow Ridge Country Club. No one, including him, thought much about it. Walking 18 holes eight weeks after surgery was in no way extraordinary for a 63-year-old man in the last year of the 20th century. What may have been just another round of charity golf was also evidence of the revolution in the treatment of movable human parts.

At the 1st tee a gallery of 200 eager fans awaited him, old guys wearing replica Jackie Robinson jerseys, young kids in Yankees caps, and a few enterprising autograph merchants lugging duffel bags full of memorabilia and disguises to change into once Koufax caught on to them. They mobilized at the sight of him, pushing less mercenary souls out of the way.

As the players warmed up, Lou Johnson wrapped Koufax in a bear hug. Koufax whispered to him, "My neck's killing me." Sometimes his neck is so bad he can't get out of bed; sometimes it's his back. He's had surgery on his rotator cuff and on both knees, and he still can't straighten his left arm. Vin Scully, the Dodgers broadcaster, was with him one day on a golf course when a pro suggested Koufax would shoot better if he straightened his arm on his follow-through. Koufax replied, "If I could straighten my arm, I'd still be pitching."

When Sandy Koufax was a rookie, there was no such thing as sports medicine. You didn't rehab injuries. You lived with them, grew old with them. Ice was for martinis, not elbows. Every pitching arm is doomed. Soft tissue and bone can give only so much. The first intimations of his arm's mortality surfaced on Aug. 8, 1964, in Milwaukee. That night Koufax won his 17th game and became the first National League pitcher in the modern era to strike out 200 hitters in four consecutive seasons. He also singled and scored to begin the winning rally. Reaching base proved costly, however. He jammed his left elbow diving back into second to beat a pickoff throw.

The papers made no mention of it. The big news was that he was experimenting with a new pitch, a forkball. He won his next two starts and was leading the league with a 19-5 record. But the morning after his 19th win, a shutout in which he fanned 13, he couldn't straighten his arm. The elbow joint made a squishing sound, and pockets of fluid protruded like hard-boiled eggs beneath the skin. His elbow was as big as his knee. The only difference was that his knee bent. He had to drag his arm out of bed as though it were a log.

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