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.
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 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."
pressure of the finger against the ball, when he throws his fast ball, possibly
cause a recurrence of the circulatory difficulty?
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.)
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."
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.