It’s no wonder Sandy Koufax was the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Though he had a relatively short career, it’s hard to imagine any pitcher dominating as much as he did in the early 1960s.
Utilizing a rarely-seen over-the-top arm motion, Koufax is one of only five Hall of Fame pitchers who finished their career with more strikeouts than innings pitched. The Brooklyn Dodger southpaw did so despite using just two pitches most of the time – a four-seam fastball and a curveball that was famous for dropping nearly two feet straight down.
Koufax was good but not great during his first six seasons. In fact, after a lackluster season in 1960, Koufax even considered quitting baseball. He had invested in an electronics business and wanted to devote himself to that. Following the last game of the season, he threw his mitt and his cleats into a trash can.
Ultimately, Koufax decided to come back for the 1961 season and did so after devoting more time to off-season training. Aided by a Dodgers scout noticing a hitch in his wind-up that obstructed his view of the plate (and then fixing it), Koufax began one of the most dominant stretches in MLB history.
During the 1961 season, he led the National League with 269 strikeouts to break the 58-year-old NL record set by Christy Mathewson.
Starting in 1961, he made the All-Star team six-straight seasons, and won three Cy Young Awards and one National League MVP Award. He won the pitching Triple Crown three times and had four no-hitters, including a perfect game in 1965.
Also during that stretch, Koufax never recorded an ERA above 2.15 in those last six seasons. In two of those seasons, his ERA was under 2.00.
The final three years of his career were marred by injuries, which made his success even more impressive. In April of 1964, he suffered an elbow injury and had to receive three cortisone shots. He pitched a no-hitter that summer, but later in the season, he jammed his pitching arm while running the bases.
A team physician diagnosed Koufax with traumatic arthritis, and he sat out for the rest of the season.
The injuries remained throughout the 1965 and 1966 seasons, but he was up to the task every time he took the mound. During Spring Training in 1965, he suffered hemorrhaging in his left arm. He needed pain medication every night and sometimes during the games he pitched to get him through the season.
Despite that, pitched 335 innings and led the Dodgers to another World Series title. With the help of his only perfect game, he won his second Triple Crown and his second unanimous Cy Young Award.
Koufax, who was born to Jewish parents and practiced the religion himself, made headlines during the 1965 World Series when he refused to pitch Game 1 because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Koufax’s final season in 1966 almost didn’t happen due to contract negotiations with the Dodgers. The Dodgers tried to pit Koufax against fellow star pitcher Don Drysdale, but the two pitchers figured it out. When their demands were not met, they did not report to Spring Training.
Instead, they signed to appear in the moving Warning Shot. One month later, Koufax and Drysdale each got a deal done. Koufax turned in another dominant season that ended with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
Shortly after the season, Koufax announced his retirement due to his arthritic condition. Six years later, Koufax was inducted into the Hall of Fame after receiving 86% of the vote on his first ballot.