November 18

This Day in History

Sports

Nov 18, 1966:

Sandy Koufax retires

On November 18, 1966, Sandy Koufax, the ace pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, retires from baseball. He was just 30 years old, and he was retiring after a great season--he’d led the Dodgers to a National League pennant and won his third Cy Young award. But he had chronic arthritis in his pitching arm, and he was afraid that if he kept playing baseball, eventually he wouldn’t be able to use his left hand at all. "In those days there was no surgery," he said much later. "The wisdom was if you went in there, it would only make things worse and your career would be over, anyway. Now you go in, fix it, and you’re OK for next spring."

Koufax entered the majors in 1955, when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. He didn’t do much for the Bums at the beginning of his career--his arm was powerful but he didn’t have much control over his pitches--but after the team moved to Los Angeles, Koufax began to settle down and throw much more consistently. In a game against the Giants in 1959, he tied the major league strikeout record (18); the next season, though he only won eight games, he struck out 197 batters in 175 innings.

In 1961, Koufax really hit his stride: He went 18-13 and led the majors in strikeouts, something he would do four times between 1961 and 1966. Meanwhile, during those six seasons he led the league three times in wins and shutouts, and twice he threw more complete games than any other pitcher. He set a new major-league season strikeout record--382--in 1965. (Only Nolan Ryan has since struck out more batters in a single season.) Koufax threw one no-hitter every year from 1962 to 1965, and in 1965 he threw a perfect game. His pitches were notoriously difficult to hit; getting the bat on a Koufax fastball, Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell once said, was like "trying to drink coffee with a fork."

But what Sandy Koufax is perhaps most famous for is his refusal, in 1965, to pitch the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. (Don Drysdale pitched instead, and gave up seven runs in the first three innings; "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too," he said when the team’s manager pulled him out of the game.) In 1971, the 36-year-old Koufax became the youngest person ever to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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