Sandy Koufax' final victory might have been his best

Danny Moloshok/AP Photo

As thousands of cellphone cameras went off like fireflies, the crowd rose to its feet, and the cheers echoed throughout Chavez Ravine. It was Vin Scully Appreciation Night at Dodger Stadium this past Sunday, but this reception was not for him. No, this was a love letter to another Dodgers legend, another man whose humility made his gifts seem even more transcendent.

This was for Sandy Koufax. Looking as though he could throw a no-hitter tomorrow, he walked onto the stage, embraced Scully, then took the podium as Vin sat back down. A microphone picked up an enthralled Scully saying, "This is great. This is the best."

It's hard to believe Koufax is now 80 years old, partly because he looks so trim and athletic, but also because it seems like only yesterday that he was thrilling the grandparents of the people now sitting in the seats.

"I think as many times as I've been on this field, I've never been this nervous," Koufax said. "My first year with the Dodgers was 1955. So if my math is correct, I've known Vin Scully for 60 years or more." In a seldom-heard voice that now suddenly seemed so familiar, Koufax delivered a lovely tribute that recalled how much Scully meant to Dodger fans and to the Dodgers.

"A story about Vin," Koufax said toward the end of his speech. "I don't know if many people know, but before the World Series, Vin would go to church ... and pray. Not for a win, but that there would only be heroes in the World Series. No goats. He didn't want anyone's future to be tarnished with the fact that they lost the World Series for their team. And I think that showed his compassion for the players."

No. 32 was one of those heroes. He won two games in the 1963 World Series, when the Dodgers swept the vaunted Yankees, and in the '65 Series against the Twins, he threw a three-hit shutout in the seventh game while pitching on just two days' rest. He also had four no-hitters, one of them a perfect game in 1965.

But for all his memorable victories, there's one that truly defines Sandy Koufax. It happened 50 years ago on this coming Sunday, Oct. 2 -- which also happens, this year, to be the day that Scully will broadcast his last game for the Dodgers and the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Statistically, the game doesn't particularly stand out -- he struck out 10 but gave up two earned runs and seven hits in nine innings. It's the circumstances, though, that make it so special.

It was the last game of the season, the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies in Connie Mack Stadium, a game the Dodgers needed to win to get into the World Series, a game he started on a moment's notice with just two days of rest. It was the last victory of his career.

Even the normally reserved Koufax had to admit afterward, "It was the biggest ball game of my life."

Look at the box score of that game today. If you're a baseball fan with a sense of history, you'll find a lot of familiar names. Opposing Koufax was Jim Bunning, a future Hall of Famer and Kentucky senator trying to win his 20th game. Also playing for the Phillies was the legendary Richie Allen, future National League president Bill White, future Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Uecker, and future major league managers Cookie Rojas, Harvey Kuenn and Bobby Wine.

The Dodgers had the base-stealing king Maury Wills playing shortstop and leading off, the late Willie Davis in center field batting third, and Ron Fairly in right field batting cleanup. Behind the plate was the late John Roseboro, behind him was future Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey, and up in the booth was Vin Scully.

"The situation was that the Dodgers needed to win one game of the doubleheader if the Giants won their game in Pittsburgh," Scully says. "What we didn't know was that Sandy had already decided this would be his last season. So you can imagine the pressure he must've felt."

"It did cross my mind that it might be my last game if we lost," Koufax says. "But it wasn't about me, really."

What follows is the story of that game, pieced together from interviews with those who were there; from accounts in Jane Leavy's superb biography, "Sandy: A Lefty's Legacy," John Roseboro's autobiography and Michael Leahy's "The Last Innocents," a fascinating look back at the 1960s Dodgers; and with the invaluable assistance of Dodgers historian Mark Langill.

But as with any good story, a little setup is essential. The 1966 season started with Koufax and Don Drysdale, the two Dodgers aces, holding out for more money and shooting a movie called "Warning Shot" -- Koufax was to play a police detective. "We were scared to death," says Wes Parker, then the first baseman.

Owner Walter O'Malley finally blinked, signing Koufax for $125,000 and Drysdale for $110,000 with a week to go in spring training. The late start didn't seem to affect Koufax at all -- by June 26, he was 14-2 with 14 complete games and a 1.56 ERA.

But unbeknownst to the Dodgers, the left-hander had already decided this would be his last season. He knew he was risking permanent disability to his left arm by pitching. "He suffered from Raynaud's Syndrome," Scully says. "It's a condition that makes everything you touch feel like ice. He couldn't even play golf. But Sandy is as tough as they come."

In "Glory Days With The Dodgers (and Other Days with Others)," written with Bill Libby, the late Roseboro described what Koufax was going through: "The arthritis was agony during games, but he threw hard. He remained better than anybody else. I used to ask, 'You all right, big guy?' And he'd say, 'I'll get by, Rosey.'"

Koufax would get cortisone shots in his elbow, slather on Capsolin heat ointment to mask the pain, then ice his swollen elbow after every start.

He had 15 wins at the All-Star break and was named to start the Midsummer Classic -- on two days' rest in the summer oven of St. Louis. To escape the heat, Marvin Miller, the new head of the players' association, went down to the clubhouse and saw Koufax icing his elbow. "I've never seen an arm swollen like that in my life," Miller told Jane Leavy. "He saw that look of horror and he said, 'Don't worry, it goes down. This happens every time I pitch."

That stoicism showed his toughness, but it was also a demonstration of the responsibility he felt for the other guys in the clubhouse. "He was the best teammate you could ever ask for," says Jeff Torborg, who caught his perfect game in 1965. "Back then, players would get gifts for doing postgame interviews. Well, Sandy would always give his away to the guys who never got interviewed -- Suzie and I still have the blender he gave me."

Koufax literally carried the offensively challenged Dodgers that summer as they took over first place. Over the last 26 days of the season, he made seven starts, with six complete games and five victories.

But he takes Alston off the hook for overusing him. "That was my choice," he says now. "I went to Walter and said, 'Don't worry about me. Use me as often and whatever way you can.' Maybe not the smartest thing to say, but I said it."

On Sept. 29, he pitched a four-hitter to beat the Cardinals and raise his record to 26-9. The Dodgers were in first, but both the Pirates and Giants were on their heels, and they were exhausted as they headed to Philadelphia to end the regular season and an 11-game road trip. The Giants, in the meantime, were in Pittsburgh for a three-game series.

On Friday night, the Dodgers lost and the Giants were rained out. They swept a Saturday doubleheader to close to within two games of the Dodgers, with two games of their own left to play.

"So now," Koufax says, "if the Giants beat the Pirates on Sunday, we have to win one of those games in the doubleheader."

There were 23,215 people in the stands that day. Drysdale started Game 1, but he gave up two runs in the first and turned things over to Ron Perranoski after just two innings. The Dodgers went ahead 3-2 in the sixth, and Bob Miller, who had relieved Perranoski, shut out the Phillies in the fifth, sixth and seventh.

Koufax remembers going out to the visiting bullpen in the right-field corner of Connie Mack just in case he was needed. The sight of him warming up would have been enough to freak out the Phillies, but there was also the sound of his fastball. "You knew it was Sandy," Phillies shortstop Dick Groat is quoted as saying in "The Last Innocents." "You knew it couldn't be anybody else."

But then just like that, the game unraveled for the Dodgers. Miller gave up a single to Allen to start the eighth, then threw away a double-play ball on a bunt attempt by White. "If Bob makes that play," Parker says, "we win the game and the pennant, and Sandy gets to start Game 1 of the World Series on five days rest."

Phil (The Vulture) Regan replaced Miller and intentionally walked Groat. Then third baseman Dick Schofield made an error that tied the score, and Clay Dalrymple singled to put the Phillies ahead 4-3. Koufax returned to the dugout.

That's the way the game ended. There was still the possibility that the Pirates would beat the Giants, negating the need for Sandy to pitch the second game against Bunning. But he couldn't take that chance. "I just changed shirts and warmed up again between games," he says.

Torborg was given the task of warming him up in the interval. "Picture this," Torborg says. "The TV guys gave me a headset so that I could listen to the play-by-play of the Giants game while I'm in the bullpen catching Sandy. If the Giants won, he would pitch. If the Pirates won, we could shut him down."

The Pirates had the winning run on third in the ninth, with Roberto Clemente at the plate, but he grounded out and the game went into extra innings. Koufax couldn't wait any longer and said something like, "The hell with it. Let's win the goddamn game."

There was a certain irony to the matchup between Koufax and Bunning. "You know, Sandy and I have known each other forever," says the soon-to-be-85-year-old Bunning. "I was actually coaching the Xavier freshman basketball team when we played the University of Cincinnati freshmen, and Sandy was on that team. He was pretty good. But I think he made the right career choice, don't you?"

They had also locked up in an epic pitching duel back on July 27, when they both left after 11 innings with the score tied 1-1. Now, Bunning was going after his 20th victory and Koufax his 27th.

The game started shortly after 7 p.m., and Bunning looked sharp, retiring the first three Dodgers in order. Koufax ran into a little trouble in the first, giving up singles to Jackie Brandt and Groat, but he got out of the inning.

Around this time, the news from Pittsburgh arrived: Willie McCovey hit a two-run homer in the 11th inning homer off Steve Blass, and the Giants had won. Koufax had to stay out there.

According to Doug Harvey, Roseboro looked at him in the bottom of the second and said, "Sit back, kid." When Harvey asked him what he meant, Roseboro said, "Koufax said he can't get his curve over. He's gonna go with the heater."

Fifty years later, all Koufax will say is, "My stuff was OK that day." But if it's true that he threw only fastballs, he did neutralize one of the Phillies' secret weapons: their manager, Gene Mauch, would whistle to his batters when he thought a breaking ball was coming.

"Gene was pretty quiet that day," says Bobby Wine, a backup shortstop in '66. "But that might have something to do with the fact that Sandy once yelled over to him, 'Grab a bat!' when Gene was getting on him."

In the top of the third, the Dodgers got to Bunning, who says, "I just didn't have it that day." Parker walked and stole second, Schofield singled him home and Willie Davis hit a two-run homer. They got another run off Bunning in the fourth on a sacrifice fly by Roseboro, and Koufax was now working with a 4-0 lead.

In the bottom of the fifth, though, Koufax felt something pop in his back while pitching to Gary Sutherland, the pinch-hitter for Bunning. In typical fashion, he downplays the injury. "It was just a cramp," he says. "We put some more Capsilon and tried to work it out."

The Leavy book tells a somewhat more dramatic version of the incident. The two trainers, Bill Buhler and Wayne Anderson, together with former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, pulled the pitcher in different directions to get the kink out.

Whatever the severity of the injury, it was still another pain Koufax chose to ignore. "You could see him wince," says Wine, "but nothing more than that." And the Dodgers eased the pain by scoring insurance runs in the eighth and ninth.

"I gave up that last run," says Darold Knowles, who would become the only pitcher ever to work in all seven games of a World Series, which he did for Oakland in '73. "But it was a privilege to share the mound with Sandy."

So there Koufax stood, with a 6-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth. "I guess I sort of ran out of gas," he says.

Leading off the ninth, Allen reached on an error by second baseman Jim Lefebvre. Kuenn singled to left in what turned out to be the last at-bat of his distinguished career. Tony Taylor singled to center to score Allen, bringing Bill White to the plate.

Alston walked out to the mound to take his pitcher's temperature, but he wasn't about to make a change -- he didn't even have anybody up in the bullpen. "We didn't want to see anybody but Sandy on the mound," Fairly says.

The left-handed-hitting White then doubled off the right-field wall. "It was one of the hardest balls I've ever seen hit," Parker says. "I can still hear the collision with the wall."

Suddenly, the score was 6-3, with no outs and White standing on second. "That's when I looked over at Sandy," Parker says. "I swear, I saw that inner fire in his eyes. He was not going to let this game get away from him."

He struck out Uecker. He got Wine, pinch-hitting, to ground out to Wills. "I was thrilled to even get my bat on the ball," Wine says. Then he threw three fastballs right by Brandt. "He didn't have a chance," says Parker.

After that final, futile swing, Koufax ran straight off the mound into Roseboro's arms as the Phillies and a stampede of fans came out onto the field. Parker soon joined them, but as he says, "It wasn't so much to celebrate as it was to protect them. The fans -- some of them must have been left over from Brooklyn -- were crazy. I'm still looking for the hat somebody swiped off my head."

After calling strike three, Harvey pulled off his mask and walked off in the other direction, with a smile on his face. "It was the greatest exhibition of baseball I've ever seen in my life," he would tell Leavy after his induction into the Hall of Fame.

There is some distant black-and-white footage of the last out in a recap of that year in sports narrated by Red Barber, who just happened to be Scully's mentor: "Sandy Koufax, with a pain-ridden, arthritic arm shut out the Phillies in the ninth with his 10th strikeout. The Dodgers had the league pennant. It was Sandy's 27th victory in 1966. He also got the Cy Young Award. And with the announcement of his retirement, it became Sandy's final win."

Of course, none of the Dodgers knew that as they celebrated in the visiting clubhouse. Backup outfielder Wes Covington poured a bottle of champagne on Koufax's head, but as Roseboro wrote, "Sandy was so sore and weary he just sat there with a funny sort of smile on his face."

The Dodgers flew home to Los Angeles that night, and when they arrived at 4 a.m., there were hundreds of fans there to greet them. The loudest cheers came when Koufax disembarked. "It was the biggest ball game of my life," he told Bob Hunter of The Sporting News. "This was bigger than my pennant clincher last year, or winning the seventh game of the World Series against the Twins."

Does he still feel the same way 50 years later?

"I always wanted to finish a win," he says, "and I wanted to finish my career with a win. So, yes, I'm tremendously proud of that game. But the reason I said that then was because of the team. I just wanted to make sure all of us got World Series shares. That money wouldn't seem like much now, but it was important to us then."

For the record, players received $11,683.04 apiece for winning the 1966 World Series, or $8,189.36 if they lost it.

Alas, the Dodgers had to settle for the losing share. Exhausted by their ordeal, they were swept in four games by the well-rested Baltimore Orioles, and in the last game of his career, Game 2, the 30-year-old Koufax lost 6-0 to 20-year-old Jim Palmer. What undid Koufax in that game were three errors by Willie Davis in the fifth inning that led to three unearned runs.

At the end of that inning, Davis sat at the end of the bench, away from everybody. Koufax walked over to him, put his arm around him and said, "Don't let them get you down."

On Nov. 18, 1966, Koufax officially announced his retirement. A few people knew he was going to do it, but for most, the news came as a shock. Who retires from baseball at the age of 30, with a 27-9 record and a 1.73 ERA?

The answer is someone who wanted to give only his best for his team.

Back when Ron Fairly was a member of the Seattle Mariners' broadcast team, he was in Kansas City, watching highlights of the 1965 World Series on the big screen. "One of our young players -- a guy by the name of Alex Rodriguez -- looks at Sandy pitching and says to me, 'Was he any good?' Hah! I attempted to educate Alex right there."

A lot of what made Sanford Koufax great is on his Hall of Fame plaque: Set All-Time Record With 4 No-Hitters In 4 Years, Capped By 1965 Perfect Game, And By Capturing Earned-Run Title Five Seasons In A Row, 1962-1966. Won 25 Or More Games Three Times, Had 11 Shutouts In 1963, Strikeout Leader Four Times, With Record 382 in 1965. Fanned 18 In A Game Twice, Most Valuable Player 1963, Cy Young Award Winner 1963-65-66.

But because bronze is somewhat restrictive, they left some things out. Back then, the Cy Young Award was for both leagues, and each time he won, Koufax was a unanimous choice. There's nothing about his college basketball days, or his transition from wild to brilliant. No mention of the pride he brought to millions of Jews when he decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it was Yom Kippur.

There was no room on the plaque for the pain he endured or the selfless devotion he gave to his Dodgers teammates.

The other living members of the Hall of Fame are now his colleagues. He goes to Cooperstown each year for Induction Weekend, to share in the camaraderie, sample the wines at the big dinner, welcome the newest inductees.

During his induction speech in July, Mike Piazza said his early travails with the Dodgers were worth it because, "I actually got the chance to take batting practice off the great Sandy Koufax."

The distinguished-looking gentleman whom Piazza was talking about smiled.

And once again, his teammates turned to Sandy Koufax.