March 1, 2010
Dodgers Legend Koufax Pitches Wit, Wisdom to Enthusiastic Audience
“Dodgers spring training kicks off Friday with a game against the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Ariz., but an early preseason event last Saturday treated L.A. baseball fans to an evening with Jewish pitching legend Sandy Koufax and Dodgers manager Joe Torre. The 90-minute program at downtown’s Nokia Theatre, a benefit for Torre’s Safe at Home foundation, was a rare public appearance for the reclusive Koufax.
After ending his 11-year Dodgers pitching career in 1966, the Hall of Fame lefty disappeared from the spotlight. Maintaining a low profile over the past 40 years, Koufax grants few interviews and makes few public appearances. But in good spirits and full of energy on Feb. 27, the 74-year-old Koufax began the evening by dismissing his reputation as a recluse.
”Yes, I’m here with the other 7,000 recluses,” quipped Koufax, who filled the night with sharp one-liners and witty comebacks. “I don’t know if I dropped out of sight. I go to the Final Four every year with 45,000 people. I go to golf tournaments and walk around if I have a friend playing in it. I go to the Super Bowl occasionally. I go to Dodger Stadium. ... I go to dinner every night. I go to the movies.”
Koufax traces his reputation as a post-baseball recluse back to his maternal grandfather, Max Lichtenstein. Raised by his grandparents after his parents divorced, Koufax described Lichtenstein as the most amazing person in his life.
“My grandfather just felt that time was the most important asset you have,” he said, describing the life philosophy he adopted from Lichtenstein. “Spend your money foolishly and your time wisely. It’s a lot easier to know what you have in the bank than it is what time you have left.”
The diverse crowd at the Nokia was made up of baseball greats like Sweet Lou Johnson and Tommy Davis, Hollywood celebrities like Ron Howard and Jon Lovitz, and everyday baseball fans of all ages and ethnicities. Some wore suits, some sported Dodgers hats, others wore kippot.
Torre discussed his deep and cherished friendship with the legendary pitcher. And Koufax brought current Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw on stage and taught him his secret to a successful curve ball: “Your thumb gets in the way,” he said.
Moderated by L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers, the panel had a casual, familiar tone that allowed Koufax to retell famous stories and offer up opinions.
Addressing his reputation as a playboy bachelor, the 6-foot-2 Koufax said, “I don’t know ... I had a good time.”
And when asked for his thoughts on the quality start, a controversial statistic that measures a starter who pitches six or more innings and gives up fewer than three earned runs, he replied, “A quality start is shaking hands with your catcher.”
Koufax spoke of one famous start that never actually happened. In 1964, Phillies manager Gene Mauch called off a game, allegedly due to the light rain that fell that morning. Legend says Mauch actually called the game because Koufax was set to start. And as Koufax explained to the audience, the next time the Dodgers would be in Philadelphia that year was on Yom Kippur, when Mauch knew he wouldn’t play.
Although the evening did not include a discussion of Koufax’s iconic decision to sit out Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, Koufax addressed whether there was any anti-Jewish bias in the Dodgers’ clubhouse.
“No, I didn’t feel that,” said Koufax, who grew up playing sports at a New York Jewish community center. The only prejudice he said he felt was the result of the large signing bonus he received in 1954 as an amateur free agent.
“I got $14,000. I was 19 years old and got invited to every poker game. I was not really welcome in the clubhouse at the start. I was a kid with no experience,” he said.
That all changed when Koufax started winning. He eventually went on to lead the league in wins per season in 1963 (25), 1965 (26) and 1966 (27). He led the Dodgers to World Series wins in ‘63 and ‘65. He was also the first to throw four no-hitters, including a perfect game against the Cubs.
Koufax recalls having peace of mind that day—Sept. 9, 1965. “There are times where everything is right. I don’t know if I’ve ever had better stuff or better control than I did in the final two innings of that game. Everything was right. Everything worked. I didn’t have much doubt that it was going to be OK.”
It was during this game that Dodgers announcer Vin Scully described the mound at Dodgers Stadium as the ”loneliest place in the world.” Yet again, Koufax dispelled the idea of his being a loner. “I had eight people by my side, standing all around me,” he said. ”While a perfect game is important, we were in a pennant race in September. We were leading, 1-0, and we had to win.”
Winning it for the team was the most cherished feeling of Koufax’s career. He said it meant more to him than any single game or personal statistic. “A winning clubhouse that you’re sharing with guys you just spent six months with and 162 games is the biggest thrill in the game. There’s no one game that compares with winning a pennant or the World Series.”