The Perfect Prime
Nobody was better than Sandy Koufax over a five-year stretch, and 40 years ago tonight, he was at his absolute peak in a gem against the Chicago Cubs
By Ross Newhan
Special to The Times
Los Angeles Times
Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax holds up four baseballs
after becoming the first major leaguer to pitch four no-hitters.
after becoming the first major leaguer to pitch four no-hitters.
September 9, 2005
It was 40 years ago tonight, the time logged on decaying tape and in fading memory. It is possible, in fact, to dial up the exact minute at which Sanford Braun Koufax put a symbolic signature on five years of the most dominant and breathtaking pitching ever.
The time is official because — for the first time — Vin Scully, recognizing the history and choosing to embroider a lasting gift for Koufax, brought the clock into play as he described the ninth inning and final three outs of the game between the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs.
And when the drama was complete, when Koufax had struck out Chris Krug, Joe Amalfitano and Harvey Kuenn to ring up 14 strikeouts, including the last six Cubs and seven of the last nine, when the Dodgers had typically found a way to turn one run into a 1-0 victory despite getting only one hit off Bob Hendley on a night when the journeyman left-hander emulated Koufax, when a silent Scully had provided the Dodger Stadium crowd 38 seconds to express its emotions, he said to those at home:
"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 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. He has done it four straight years. And now he capped it. On his fourth no-hitter, he made it a perfect game."
The 40 years since 9:46 merely underscore that neither time nor history stands still. Those four no-hitters have been surpassed by Nolan Ryan's seven on his spectacular march to the Hall of Fame. Koufax was 29 when he threw only the eighth perfect game since Doubleday. He will be 70 in December and there have now been 17, still only a minuscule number given more than 100 years of baseball. And none of the other 16 matched the Koufax-Hendley duel in which Lou Johnson — still active in community work for the Dodgers — collected the only hit with a single in the seventh inning, after scoring the only run in the fifth on a walk, sacrifice and first-pitch steal of third that generated a wild throw from catcher Krug.
What was new?The Dodgers would win the 1965 World Series with a .245 team average for the season, scoring two runs or fewer in 13 of Koufax's starts and three or fewer in 11 others. Their most productive hitter, Tommy Davis, was lost for the season with a broken ankle in May, with Johnson coming up from triple A at 30 to contribute a series of clutch hits extending through his home run in Game 7 of the World Series, supporting Koufax's 2-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins.
Referring to the night of Sept. 9 and the duel between Koufax and Hendley, Johnson said, "It was like Affirmed and Alydar. Of course, with the speed of Willie [Davis] and Maury [Wills] we didn't get shut out a lot, and we always knew that if we could find a way to score one run behind Sandy we'd have a chance. If we scored two or three, we'd have a party."
By 1965 the pressure of that limited support was compounded by the arthritic left elbow that would lead to Koufax's retirement at 30 after the 1966 season. He used anti-inflammatory medicine throughout the '65 season, often needed his elbow drained between starts, applied Capsolin to his arm to heat it up before he pitched and ice to cool it down when he was done. Still, amid the discomfort — "It was toughest between starts getting ready to pitch again in four or five days," Koufax said in a rare interview from his summer home in Pennsylvania the other day — he made 41 starts in what was basically a four-man rotation in 1965 and also pitched twice in relief. He was 26-8 with a 2.04 earned-run average, and came back amid the increasing discomfort in 1966 to go 27-9 with a career-best ERA of 1.73."If Sandy was pitching with the salaries of today," former Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi said from his La Jolla home, "the owner would have to give him a share in the club."I've always said [Don Newcombe] was the best pitcher I saw in a single season [27-7 in 1956], but over a four- or five-year period Sandy was the best I've ever seen by far."
In the five-year span starting in 1962, Koufax went 111-34 with a 1.95 ERA and averaged more than 35 starts a season, completing 27 in both 1965 and '66. He won three Cy Young Awards in the four years starting in 1963, pitched a no-hitter in four consecutive seasons through 1965, twice in the four-year span struck out 18 batters in a game, averaged 24 wins against seven losses with 307 strikeouts a season, and recorded 382 strikeouts in 1965, a major league record for eight years and still a National League record.
If hitters often compared facing Koufax colleague Don Drysdale to confronting the dentist without Novocain, there was almost a comfort level facing Koufax, recalled Ron Santo, the Cub third baseman and cleanup hitter in the perfect game."At least you generally didn't have to worry about being knocked down, as you did against Drysdale," Santo said."That's not to diminish his stuff, which was overpowering, but Sandy had that effortless delivery, then boom! There was great pitching in that era — Drysdale, [Bob] Gibson, [Juan] Marichal, [Steve] Carlton — but Sandy was a step above the rest."I remember that we had a team meeting before the perfect game and Al Spangler pointed out that Sandy had a tendency to tip his pitches by the position of his elbows in the stretch.
The fallacy in that was that you had to put somebody on base before he had to work out of a stretch, and we didn't. We would have laughed about it later if we hadn't felt so badly for [Hendley]. However, there was no reason to hang your head or feel depressed losing to that guy. He was capable of throwing a no-hitter every time."Koufax still has a difficult time measuring the perfect game but doesn't believe it should stand as his signature moment.
In a city trying to regroup from the Watts riots of August, on a team battling the San Francisco Giants for the pennant, the win was the thing, he said by phone. Getting back to the World Series was the thing."We operated on the basis of pride then," Koufax said. "Guys were making a lot less money and sometimes the World Series share would double their salaries, so winning was very important, and coming late in the summer in the middle of a pennant race, at a time when we hadn't been scoring many runs, to win 1-0 … well, I think the biggest thing that night is that you've got to win."I mean, the perfect game is very high among the highlights of my career, but nothing ever tops the World Series. Maybe if the perfect game had been my first no-hitter it might have carried more weight, but I think the things you share with your teammates like the World Series … one game just doesn't mean as much as working together all year to get to the World Series, and if you win that nothing feels better."Still, to deliver a perfect game amid the drama of a September race and to do it against a lineup that included two future Hall of Fame hitters, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, and a group of All-Stars in Santo, Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger … "
By that time Sandy had already reached the heights," Scully said in reflection. "He couldn't have been much better. It was amazing to watch, and that game was about as good as it gets. No knock on Bob Hendley, but if Hendley had been Bob Gibson, it would have been a game for the ages. As it was, Sandy gets a perfect game and poor [Hendley] is lost in the shuffle. If he had been a star you would have had [Dizzy] Dean versus [Carl] Hubbell. It would have been that kind of matchup."
Hendley, who lives in Macon, Ga., and rejected an interview request for this story, pitched seven years in the majors and was 48-52, including 4-4 in 10 starts for the Cubs in 1965. He would beat Koufax and the Dodgers, 2-1, with a four-hitter five days later in Chicago and ultimately post a 3-1 record in six career starts against Koufax, who on the 35th anniversary of the perfect game sent Hendley an autographed baseball with the inscription, "What A Game."In turn, Koufax received a note from Hendley that read in part, "It's no disgrace to get beat by class."
Forty years ago tonight Hendley lost by an unearned run to a pitcher who was conditioned to making one run do and who believed, as he said by phone, that the absence of consistent support "helped make me a better pitcher because you never knew how many runs you'd get and I think that good pitchers should win close games."
Of his fastball and curve on that September night, Koufax said: "It started off like a lot of nights and kept getting better as the game progressed. I don't know if there was one point when I could say my stuff was any better than it had been in any other game, but the last two innings I had a really good fastball. I don't know if I ever threw any harder than I did those last two innings."Koufax was throwing so hard that Jeff Torborg, who drew the catching assignment via a platoon with John Roseboro, recalled reaching up to snare a high fastball and "thinking my arm was going to be torn from the socket" by the explosiveness of the pitch."I probably only called one curveball in the last couple innings," said Torborg, who was in his second season and would later catch no-hitters thrown by Ryan and Bill Singer. "If he wanted to throw a curveball, he could shake to it, but I was a young catcher in awe of Sandy anyway and didn't want to make a mistake."As my first no-hitter, and a perfect game on top of it, it was almost like a dream going through it."
Amalfitano, the second out of the ninth inning and strikeout victim No. 13, reflected and said he might as well have been dreaming. As he retreated to the dugout and passed Kuenn, headed to the plate to pinch-hit for Hendley, Amalfitano said, "Be ready, he's getting it up there.""Wait for me," replied Kuenn, a former American League batting champion. "I'll be right back."
Kuenn got the count to 2 and 2, then struck out on another fastball, wrapping up the perfect game at 9:46, ultimately for Koufax another W in the box score, as important as anything else.The Dodgers would win 15 of their last 16 games, Koufax would throw three more shutouts in September, and he would come back on two days' rest — as he would in Game 7 of the World Series — to defeat the Milwaukee Braves with a four-hit, 13-strikeout effort, 3-1, on Oct. 2, the second-to-last day of the regular season, to edge the Giants and clinch the pennant.
A year later he would retire at the top of his game."Sandy loved golf," Scully said, "and I remember him telling me that he could probably pitch another year or two but would damage his arm so badly that he wouldn't be able to play golf and he wanted to play to a late age. I remember him saying that he would rather do that than pitch one more year."He was definitely in a lot of pain in '65 and he was really tortured in '66."
Koufax has continued to ply the fairway. He learned to fly fish and fly an airplane. He has guarded his privacy, skirted the spotlight, contributed at times to the education of young Dodger pitchers and, with the sale of the club from Fox to Frank and Jamie McCourt, he has renewed a cordial relationship. "The only regret I have," he said in reflection, "is that medical science hadn't caught up yet [to the physical problems he was having]. Today they would have just gone into the elbow arthroscopically and cleaned it up. Yet, that's not a big regret either."I was lucky enough to spend 12 years in the major leagues and be on six pennant winners and win four World Series championships.
My career may have been cut short, but I had some pretty good times on some pretty good teams."I played with some pretty good guys who went about it with pride and put success of the team first."
Perfect, in other words, in the most important sense.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times