by David G. Dalin
For five memorable seasons, Sandy Koufax dominated baseball as no other major league pitcher ever had before. From 1962 to 1966, Koufax led the National League in earned run average, the only pitcher ever to do that. At the same time, he compiled a record of 111-34, a winning percentage of .766, that has never been equaled. Koufax led the National League in wins, ERA, and strikeouts for three consecutive seasons. He pitched 4 no-hitters, including a perfect game. In 1963, he threw 11 shutouts, more than any other pitcher has since in one season. In 1965, he went 26-8 and set a major league record by striking out 382 batters in one season. In 1972, he was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame, becoming Cooperstown's youngest member at the age of 36. He remains today only the second Jewish player to enter the pantheon.
Born in Brooklyn on December 30, 1935, Koufax attended Lafayette High School in Bensonhurst, where one of his friends was the television talk show host Larry King. At Lafayette, Koufax played on the basketball team, earning a reputation as one of the best players in Brooklyn. He didn't play on the baseball team until his senior year, and then usually as a first baseman who would sometimes pitch in relief of another friend, Fred Wilpon, Lafayette's pitching star and later the co-owner of the New York Mets.
Koufax won a basketball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where he planned to study architecture. In the spring of his freshman year, he became the overnight pitching sensation of the university's baseball team, striking out 34 batters in his first two games and gaining the attention of sportswriters and baseball scouts throughout the country. Before long, close to a dozen major league scouts, including the Brooklyn Dodgers' Al Campanis, converged on Cincinnati and offered him contracts. Accepting the Dodgers' offer of $20,000--a salary of $6,000 and a signing bonus of $14,000--Koufax left college after his freshman year for Ebbets Field.
The Dodgers owners, as Koufax biographer Jane Leavy has noted, were overjoyed, regarding "the signing of a Jewish ballplayer the way others regarded the coming of the messiah. The Dodgers were so desperate for a Jewish presence, given the demographics of Brooklyn ... Koufax was a marketing godsend." The team's owner, Walter O'Malley, proclaimed him "the great Jewish hope" of the franchise, telling a reporter: "We hope he'll be as great as Hank Greenberg.
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