“On the scoreboard in right field, it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 [has seen] the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. … And now he caps it. On his fourth no-hitter, he made it a perfect game.”
The date was Sept. 9, 1965, and it seemed appropriate that Vin Scully, the best baseball broadcaster since World War II, was telling the world that Sandy Koufax, the most dominant pitcher of that period, had achieved the ultimate.
Unfortunately, Koufax was brittle as well as brilliant. Over his last several seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he battled an arthritic elbow that required astounding amounts of medication between starts and finally forced his retirement a year later at age 30. But when he fired his sizzling fastballs and phantom breaking balls toward the plate, he was literally and figuratively unhittable.
Veteran catcher Ed Bailey was in the Cubs’ bullpen that night and very happy to be.
“That’s as close as I want to be when he’s pitching,” Bailey said - and that was before the game.
More than four decades later, Koufax’s star shines as brightly as ever in memory. Nolan Ryan eventually pitched nearly twice as many no-hitters, won 324 games to Koufax’s 165 and struck out 5,714 batters to Sandy’s 2,396. But the rubber-armed Ryan lasted for 27 seasons and 5,386 innings. Koufax, a notably erratic spot starter in his early years with the Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers, pitched in the big leagues for just 12 seasons and 2,324 1/3 innings.
How great might he have been given a healthy body?
Move over, Cy Young, Walter Johnson and any other fantastic flinger you might care to mention.
From 1962 through 1966, Koufax was 111-34, led the National League in ERA five times and won three Cy Young Awards. And perhaps this is the most telling indication of his mastery: When he achieved perfection, nobody was surprised, although only seven men had done it in 90 previous major league seasons.
Since 1965, 10 others have perpetrated perfectos, probably because more and more batters swing for the fences. Yet there has never been another Koufax - a pitcher so routinely overpowering that hitters like Ed Bailey quaked and quivered at the mere prospect of facing him.
D.C. author Jane Leavy structured her insightful 2002 biography “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” around the perfect game. Koufax finished it with a flourish, too, fanning the last six Cubbies for a total of 14 in a 1-0 victory.
The final batter was Harvey Kuenn, a former American League batting champion and dangerous spray hitter who retired a year later with a .303 lifetime batting average.
“How’s he throwing, Joe?” Kuenn asked Joey Amalfitano rather pointlessly as his teammate walked past the on-deck circle after becoming Koufax’s 13th strikeout victim.
“You better be ready, because it’s getting up there real good,” Amalfitano replied.
“Wait for me,” Kuenn said. “I’ll be right back.”