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Mission Impossible:
Facing Sandy Koufax in the 1965 World Series

In part 3 of his series on great postseasons, Klapisch highlights the heroics of pitcher Sandy Koufax, who led the Los Angeles Dodgers to victory against the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series.

By Bob Klapisch, September 29, 2017
Even though Sandy Koufax couldn’t throw a slider because it hurt his arm, he managed to pitch four no-hitters, one of them a perfect game.

You can walk back through history a million different ways in 2017, starting with a Google search. Step into the portal and you realize what infinity really means—there’s no limit to the data that surrounds us. It’s a historian’s dream, especially in sports.

But sometimes the written word and advanced analytics aren’t enough. Sometimes history requires putting eyes on its power and glory—and yes, that means it’s OK to consult YouTube. A couple of clicks will take you to Sandy Koufax’s performance in the 1965 World Series. Prepare for a surreal experience. 

You don’t have to be old school or an old-timer to recognize the voice introducing the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s Vin Scully, as colorful and poetic then as he was throughout his career, banging the drum on a classic showdown between Koufax and the resilient Minnesota Twins. The American League champs flattened the Dodgers in Game 6, showing why they’d been in first place throughout most of the ’65 season and turning the World Series into a nine-inning shoot-out in Game 7.

It was the moment of truth, yet nothing could’ve prepared the Twins for what was waiting. No one in Minnesota’s lineup was a match for Koufax. Not even a bad elbow could get in the way of the performance of a lifetime. 

Had Koufax begun his career a few years later, he would have been a prime candidate for Tommy John surgery. His frayed elbow ligament would have been exchanged for a wrist tendon that would have morphed into a brand-new ligament in 12 to 18 months, and Koufax could have been spared the hideous rituals he was forced to endure over the last two years of his career.

Things were bad in ’65, even worse in ’66. To say that Koufax was in pain is an understatement. He had lost the ability to straighten his arm; it was chronically bent in the shape of a crescent. Shaving was a chore, as sometimes Koufax had to use his right hand. And, as Sports Illustrated once described, eating was a separate torture. Koufax had to bend his neck closer to the plate to get food into his mouth.

Doctors did their best to help, but sports medicine was in its infancy in the 1960s. Before the age of MRIs and PRP and stem-cell injections, Koufax instead relied on cortisone shots and anti-inflammatory medications that often left him lightheaded. The pregame regimen included hot ointment that practically burned the skin off Koufax’s elbow and forearm, after which he would soak his arm in an ice bath for 30 minutes and be forced to wear a rubber tube around the joint to prevent frostbite.

In 1963, 1965, and 1966, Koufax won the Cy Young Award and the Pitching Triple Crown.

Teammates knew why Koufax spent so much time in the trainer’s room, but they were unaware of the degree of his suffering. No one knew how intensely his elbow throbbed or how many times he considered retiring after the Dodgers had failed to defend their world championship in 1964. They finished seventh despite Koufax’s 19-win campaign.

Somehow Koufax was even more dominant in ’65 when he led the Majors with 26 wins, a 2.04 ERA, and 382 strikeouts. He threw a perfect game in September, won the pennant clincher on two days’ rest, and never missed a start all year. As he had done throughout his career, Koufax needed only two pitches—the rising fastball and monster curve with the incredible spin rate. Hitters had to pick their poison when facing the game’s best pitcher: Either look for the heat that started at the belt and took off like it’d been caught by a wind shear, or else defend the lower quadrant of the strike zone when that big curve snapped off Koufax’s fingertips.

Koufax was so talented he could’ve probably gotten by with just his four-seamer. As Ernie Banks once said, “Sandy tipped off his curveball from time to time, so you knew it was coming. You could lay off it and wait for the fastball. But it didn’t matter; you still couldn’t touch it.”

By October Koufax was pitching in a trance. It hardly seemed a coincidence that he skipped Game 1 of the World Series in observance of Yom Kippur; he was already aligned with a higher power. The Twins thought they’d caught a break because of Koufax’s faith—conventional wisdom said the left-hander would be limited to two starts over the remaining six games. But the American League champs found themselves in the path of a history maker in Game 7. Koufax was waiting for them. 

Suddenly it didn’t matter that he’d been outmaneuvered by Jim Kaat in Game 2. Even though he allowed only one earned run and struck out nine, Koufax was still trailing 2–1 and was removed for a pinch hitter—ironically Don Drysdale. The Twins proceeded to rough up Ron Perranoski on the way to a 5–1 rout and took a 2–0 lead in the Series. The odds were steep for the Dodgers, who’d been outscored 13–3 in the first two games, wasted a strong outing by Koufax, and now needed to win four out of six to become world champs.

But Claude Osteen rescued LA with a 4–0 victory in Game 3 at Chavez Ravine, and Drysdale evened the Series with a complete-game, 11-strikeout masterpiece in Game 4. It rewrote the very calculus that’d been comforting the Twins up to this point.

Koufax, starting Game 5 on three days’ rest, was about to find another gear. He threw a four-hit, complete-game shutout, striking out 10 that wiped out Kaat and led to their ultimate face-off in Game 7.

Both men were near exhaustion, this time working on just two days’ rest. There was no question the Twins would lean on Kaat, although Dodgers’ Manager Walter Alston briefly considered starting Drysdale. He finally picked Koufax. “I think [Minnesota] has a tougher time with lefties than righties,” he said. It was a face-saving way of informing Drysdale there was no chance—none—that the Series would be decided with anyone but Koufax on the mound.

He summoned the voodoo one last time. When Kaat offered Koufax a good-luck handshake before the game, Koufax’s eyes watered from the scent of liniment. There was no hiding the obvious. Koufax would need a miracle.

His arm hurt too much to throw the curveball. He issued back-to-back walks in the first inning, shaking off John Roseboro’s repeated signals for the hook. As author Jane Levy recalled from a conversation with Roseboro years later, Koufax told his catcher, “My arm’s not right, my arm is sore.” 

Roseboro said, “What’ll we do, kid?” 

Koufax shook his head, “(Bleep) it, we’ll blow ’em away.”

There’s no other description for what Koufax proceeded to do to the Twins—he destroyed them. After striking out Earl Battey and Bob Allison to end the game, Koufax was too tired to celebrate. He couldn’t even muster the energy to shake his fist in triumph. 

Koufax finished the ’65 season with 360 innings, 411 strikeouts, 28 wins, and a 1.93 ERA. Think of a pitcher who could match those numbers in 2017. Go ahead. We dare you.

Koufax retired at the age of 30, and in 1972 he became the youngest inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame at the age of 36.

 

 

 

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