- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

“Trying to hit him is like trying to drink water with a fork.”

Willie Stargell

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ future Hall of Famer had that right. For five-plus years, Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball and one of the best ever.

When the 1966 season ended for his Los Angeles Dodgers with a startling World Series sweep by the Baltimore Orioles, the Brooklyn-born left-hander was the first man to hurl four no-hitters, the first to win three Cy Young Awards unanimously and the first to average fewer than seven hits allowed and more than nine strikeouts over nine innings for his career.

From 1961 through 1966, his record was 129-47. Over the final two seasons, as he and fellow ace Don Drysdale pitched the light-hitting Dodgers to pennants, it was 53-17. In 1966, he went 27-9 with a microscopic ERA of 1.73, had 27 complete games in 41 starts and fanned 317 batters in 323 innings.

For fans of that era, vivid memories endure of the black-haired, intense young man and his two bread-and-butter pitches: a rising four-seam fastball that had nearly all hitters flailing at empty air and an over-the-top curve that broke preposterously downward and buckled their knees en route. Nothing, it seemed, could stop Koufax. Nothing, that is, except Koufax himself — or more precisely whatever it was that caused the superstar to develop arthritis in his pitching elbow while still in his 20s.

Throwing a baseball effectively 60 feet, 6 inches at men with sticks in their hands is an unnatural physical act that exerts incredible wear and tear on muscles, tendons and joints. Today most pitchers wrap ice packs around their arms and/or shoulders to ease the swelling and pain after a night’s work — and this in an era when even the best will complete perhaps 10 games and pitch 230 innings in a season.

In Koufax’s day, there were no pitch counts or arthroscopic surgery. Superstars usually finished what they started and worked 300 innings a season. So your arm or elbow hurt — big deal. Were you a man or a mouse?

But the threat of permanent, crippling injury is too much to bear for the sake of a mere game, and Koufax’s body seemed more vulnerable than most to uncommon ailments. In 1962, he missed half the season with a circulatory problem in the index finger of his left hand. Two years later, after winning his 19th game, his elbow swelled and squished from pockets of fluid that made it as big as his knee. Dr. Robert Kerlan examined the elbow, peeked at X-rays and made an ominous diagnosis: traumatic arthritis. He told Koufax his career would not be a long one.

For the next two-plus seasons, however, Koufax spun his mound magic as few others had. Then, on the evening of Nov. 17, 1966, beat writer Phil Collier of the San Diego Union returned a call from Koufax, who had used him to ghost his autobiography. Collier knew what the pitcher wanted. Fourteen months earlier, Koufax had told Collier his pitching days were indeed numbered because of the arthritis, and the writer had agreed to hold the story in return for an exclusive when the end came.

Now their conversation was brief. Said Koufax, according to Jane Leavy in her marvelous 2002 biography: “When I get up in the morning, I’m going to call the wire services and tell them I’m holding a press conference at [noon]. Do you need anything?”

Collier’s reply was equally terse: “Sandy, I wrote the story months ago. It’s in a drawer [at the newspaper office].”

The next day, the Union played Collier’s story across the top of Page 1 under headline type of a size usually reserved for national calamities. At midday, more than a hundred reporters crowded into a room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. All of them, and baseball fans everywhere, had basically one question: why?

With microphones and cameras practically in his face, Koufax explained slowly, “I don’t know if cortisone is good [meaning bad] for you or not. But to take a shot every other ballgame is more than I wanted to do, and to walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ballgame because you’re taking painkillers — I don’t want to have to do that anymore.”

Somebody asked Koufax about the lost income. His salary in a time before free agency was $167,000 a season, achieved only after a highly publicized joint holdout with Drysdale that spring but still one of the highest in baseball.

“If there was a man who did not have the use of one of his arms and you told him it would cost a lot of money to buy back that use, he’d give every dime he had,” Koufax said. “I don’t regret one minute of the last 12 years [with the Dodgers], but I think I would regret one year that was too many.”

And then the press conference and the career were over. Most people were shocked at the latter because it had been traditional for star athletes to be carried off on a figurative shield, inevitable victims of age rather than being 30 years, 10 months and 42 days old, as Koufax was. Babe Ruth batted .181 in his final season. Willie Mays and Joe Morgan fell down on the field. Only a few packed it in during their prime: Gene Tunney, Jim Brown, Rocky Marciano — and now the best pitcher on the face of the earth.

In future decades, Koufax would do a little coaching in spring training and a little TV and movie work, but mostly he remained aloof from the multitudes and media — thereby only adding to his mystique as one of the greatest southpaws ever and, along with pre-World War II slugger Hank Greenberg, the greatest Jewish ballplayers ever. In 1972, at 36, he became the youngest man to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

And in addition to the arthritis, there might have been a psychological factor that led to Koufax’s retirement 40 years ago this week: the unreasonable but understandable expectation that every time he went to work a fifth no-hitter or second perfect game might result.

Years later Sandy Koufax would admit to a friend, “Maybe I was just tired of being me.”

Certainly no one else could be or was.

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