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  • Bill Chastain

TOYS AND GAMES: The Great Koufax

Sandy Koufax, age 79, looked immaculate on the TV Tuesday night flanked by fellow “Greatest Living Players” Johnny Bench, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron at the All-Star Game.

I wasn’t surprised in the least.

I spotted baseball’s Greta Garbo prior to a Devil Rays game at Tropicana Field in 1998 and had the good fortune of having a nice visit with the consummate gentleman–after I put down my pad and recorder at his request.

No. 32 sat on the bench in the visiting dugout. Though he was wearing a white cotton shirt and blue jeans, any kid who grew up in the 1960s would have recognized him. Sure, baseball in the ’60s had Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, but there was only one king. No. 32, Sandy Koufax, wore that crown.

Arthritis forced his retirement after the 1966 season, freezing the Hall of Famer in time. In the minds of baseball fans he’ll always be the dominating left-hander who left while on top. His final season’s numbers: 27-9 record with a 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts.

800px-Sandy_Koufax “Sandy Koufax” by publicity still – N.Y. Public Library Picture Collection.

Koufax could have cashed in on his fame. He didn’t. Instead, “The Left Arm of God” opted to head into the sunset, content to have his privacy.

Talking with me in the visitor’s dugout, Koufax still looked as if he could retire the side at age 62. Only the silver hair with flecks of black gave his age away.

Koufax recalled the early days of his professional career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He joined the team as a bonus baby in 1955, in time to experience the final two years of train travel.

“In those days the whole team loaded up in railroad cars for two days,” he told me. “We spent a lot of time together, so we grew close.”

When I asked him about a 1966 game against the Braves that I listened to on the radio, he smiled. The details from a game played three decades ago remained fresh in his mind. Atlanta’s Eddie Mathews hit a game-winning home run off him after a rain delay. “I gave him a fastball at 3-2 because I didn’t want to face [Hank] Aaron with a man on base.”

And I’ve talked to pitchers who couldn’t remember their pitching sequences on the night they pitched.

Koufax lived in the present, a refreshing contrast to some baseball old-timers. He complimented the skill level of the modern players, particularly the pitchers, some of whom he helped.

“If you hang around enough good arms, sooner or later they’ll think you’re a genius,” he said.

Baltimore’s Mike Mussina ranked as his favorite player at the time.

Mussina “uses both sides of the plate, he’s got a good breaking ball, changes speeds,” Koufax said. “He’s fun to watch.”

Fun, just not nearly as fun as watching Koufax deliver his famed fastball. He allowed that were he pitching in the present, he would add a split-finger pitch to his repertoire.

“Pitchers are having a lot of success with that,” he said. “It’s a tough pitch to hit.”

No. 32 with a splitter? Nasty, huh?

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography