On August 31, 1959, Brooklyn Dodgers left-hander Sandy Koufax strikes out 18 batters, setting a new National League record for most strikeouts in a single game.
Sandy Koufax was a talented all-around athlete from Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York. His first love was basketball, and he attended the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship. His impressive left arm, however, attracted the attention of major league ball clubs and in 1954 he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Despite his promising talent, Koufax won just 36 games to 51 losses from 1955 to 1961, and was incredibly inconsistent, blowing hitters away one game and walking runs in the next. Finally, advice from veteran catcher Norm Sherry turned Koufax around. As Koufax recounted in his autobiography, Sherry told him to “take the grunt out of the fastball.”
On August 31, Koufax and the Dodgers faced their rivals the San Francisco Giants in Los Angeles. The Dodgers entered the game two games behind the Giants in the race for the National League pennant, and Koufax came out firing, whizzing fastballs and breaking off curveballs to strike out the first two Giants batters. However, Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda then hit back-to-back doubles to give the Giants a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. The Dodgers quickly tied the game in the bottom of the inning, but in the fifth, Willie McCovey, the Giants star slugger, hit a home run to put the Giants up 2-1. The Dodgers tied it up, and Koufax continued to throw strikes. Finally, in the ninth, Koufax and Jim Gilliam singled before Wally Moon sent a 1-1 fastball from relief pitcher Al Worthington over the left-field fence. The capacity crowd in Chavez Ravine erupted, and the Dodgers won 5-2. Koufax’s total of 18 strikeouts in the game broke Dizzy Dean’s 26-year-old National League record, and tied the major league record held by Cleveland Indian ace Bob Feller. Koufax also broke the record for strikeouts over two consecutive games, fanning 31 men combined, having struck out 13 batters in his previous start. That year, the Dodgers went on to win the National League pennant. Though Koufax lost his only start in the 1959 World Series in spite of giving up only one run, the Dodgers brought home the championship.
From 1962 to 1966, Koufax executed what are arguably the five greatest seasons by a pitcher in baseball history. Newfound control limited his walks from 4.8 per game to just 2.1. He threw no-hitters in 1962, 1963 and 1964, and led the Dodgers to World Series wins in 1963 and 1965 and the National League pennant in 1966. He won four World Series games, with a .95 earned run average and 61 strikeouts for his postseason career. Koufax won three Cy Young Awards (1963, 1965 and 1966), all of them unanimous. In 1965 he struck out 382 men, breaking Rube Waddell’s 1904 record of 350 by 32. According to longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, Koufax was so well-regarded that he would often receive a standing ovation from fans while just warming up for a game.
Sandy Koufax retired after the 1966 season at just 30 years old because of arthritis in his elbow. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.