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AN URGENT MATTER OF ONE INDEX FINGER
Robert Creamer
March 04, 1963
A sore finger knocked Sandy Koufax out of action last July and cost the Dodgers the 1962 pennant. Now the Dodgers worry: is the finger better?
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March 04, 1963

An Urgent Matter Of One Index Finger

A sore finger knocked Sandy Koufax out of action last July and cost the Dodgers the 1962 pennant. Now the Dodgers worry: is the finger better?

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He didn't mature as a pitcher (he was a "bonus baby") until the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. But he won 11 games that year, and in 1959 he struck out 18 men in one game to tie Bob Feller's major league record. In 1961 he won 18 games and struck out 269 men to set a National League record; this time, the old record was held by Christy Mathewson. Last season Koufax stopped throwing baseballs at old Hall of Famers and started building his own statue. He struck out 18 men in one game to tie Feller's record again. He pitched a no-hit no-run game. Then he beat Warren Spahn 2-1, and drove in the winning run with his first major league home run. He struck out opponents at the rate of more than 10 per game. In eight starts between June 13 and July 12 he allowed a total of only four earned runs. By July 12 he had won 14 games, lost four and had struck out 209 men. The season was barely half over.

Then, amid reports of circulatory trouble and numbness in his finger, his season abruptly collapsed. He was unable to pitch. He was put under a doctor's care and was out of action for the rest of the season, except for a few futile appearances late in September.

In the months since, Koufax has been asked at least a thousand times, "How's the finger?" Even Milton Berle asked it—onstage, once each show. Koufax answered the question amiably—onstage, offstage, in hotel lobbies, on sidewalks and golf courses and elevators and every other place where he was asked. "It's coming along fine, thanks," he would tell Berle once each show, twice each night. "I've been to the doctor, and he says it shouldn't bother me at all." The audience applauded, as it should, as everyone should.

Koufax talked in more detail about The Finger one day at lunch in the Fontainebleau, in one of the innumerable restaurants scattered about that huge warehouse of frantic relaxation (the restaurants serve as oases for hungry and thirsty travelers who have ventured out across the vast lobby and have become hopelessly lost). Sandy had barley soup, a tongue sandwich and a Coke and held out The Finger for inspection. In tone, color, texture, it looked like his other fingers. It flexed like the other fingers. It tapped on the table like the other fingers. "It feels all right," he said seriously. "I don't think it's going to give me any trouble."

Wouldn't the pressure of the finger against the ball, when he throws his fast ball, possibly cause a recurrence of the circulatory difficulty?

"No," said Koufax. "It shouldn't. A lot of people have the idea that that was what caused the trouble in the first place. But it wasn't. The trouble was down here in the palm, here where the fleshy part of the thumb joins the palm. There was a blood clot right there, and that cut off the circulation to the index finger and partly to the next finger and thumb. The doctors said the clot was probably caused by a blow, a trauma, and I think I know when that happened. I throw left-handed, but I bat right-handed. Early last season I decided to bat lefty, because that way my right arm would be nearer to the pitcher than my left, and if I was going to get hit by a pitch I'd rather have it hit my right arm than my left. So I batted lefty and I got jammed by a pitch right on my hands, and I think that's when the trouble started."

(He soon reverted to batting right-handed. "In case you're wondering which way I hit that homer off Spahnic, it was right-handed," he said, grinning. Koufax plays golf left-handed because, he says, the muscles of his left arm and shoulder are so overdeveloped that they restrict his backswing when he addresses the ball right-handed. However, he putts right-handed. "Boy, you're all mixed up," said Maury Wills.)

"I first began to notice something in May," Koufax said. "My finger would feel sort of numb. It didn't hurt, and it didn't bother my pitching, but it was numb. Then—I guess in June—it would go white, sort of a dead white. No color in it at all. If I pressed my thumbnail against the finger and made a depression in it, the depression wouldn't come back up. It will now."

He demonstrated, pressing a thumbnail deep into the index finger and watching as the finger immediately sprang back into normal shape. "It still didn't hurt, but I had no feeling in it. It had no color, no life. I still wasn't having any trouble pitching so I wasn't worried too much. But then the finger grew so numb that I began to have trouble with the curve. I couldn't spin the ball off my fingertips. I could still throw the fast ball all right. Just before the All-Star Game I pitched against the Giants and I knew right away the curve was no good, so I threw nothing but fast balls. With maybe a change of pace now and then." He grinned. "I threw one change on a 3 and 2 pitch. I asked Alvin Dark later on if he had noticed that I wasn't throwing curves that day. He said about the third inning he'd told the Giants, 'He's not going to give you anything but fast balls today.' I got away with it then but in my next start, against the Mets, the finger was so bad I had to leave after the seventh inning. I started one more time, but I had to quit after the first inning. I was examined by the doctors and that's when I stopped pitching. They gave me anticoagulants to dissolve the clot and I had to rest. By this time there was a blister on the finger and it broke and the skin started to flake away, and when the doctors got the circulation going again, the finger was raw and ripped—like a piece of raw meat. I didn't really realize how bad it was. I was only concerned with how long I'd be out, but the doctors told me later that at the time they weren't worried so much about when I was going to pitch again as they were that they might have to amputate the finger."

He smiled a little grimly and shook his head.

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