The conversation took place on a quiet bus many years ago. Frank Robinson, one of the greatest players ever, one of the most confident hitters of all time, was asked how he had done against Bob Gibson in his career. "I hit him good,'' Robinson said. Don Drysdale? "Good,'' he said. Juan Marichal? "Real good,'' he said. Robinson was stopped by the next question.
"What about Koufax?'' he was asked.
"No one could hit that man,'' Robinson said.
Sandy Koufax (born Sanford Braun; he took his stepfather's name) was one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He is, by most measurements, the third best left-handed pitcher in history, behind Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn. When it comes to the prime of a career, Koufax is the second best left-hander, behind only Grove (he was an astonishing 103-23 from 1928-31). Koufax's four no-hitters came in 314 starts, the best no-hitter ratio ever for anyone with at least 200 career starts. He is the youngest player (age 36) to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He was voted in by the writers despite having fewer than 200 wins, rare for a starting pitcher.
Koufax finished his career with a 165-87 record and a 2.76 ERA. He retired at age 31 because of arm trouble. His final four years in the major leagues, he won one MVP, finished second twice and went 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA. In 1965, he struck out 311 more batters than he walked, a major-league record. And just imagine, he quit after a year (1966) in which he went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA.
Koufax was helped by the park in which he pitched -- Dodger Stadium, which was a wonderful place for a pitcher. He was helped by pitching in the 1960s, a wonderful era for pitchers: in 1963, the National League ERA was 3.29; today, usually no team is that low. In 1965 at Dodger Stadium, only 67 home runs were hit in all. In 2001, there were 183 home runs hit at Dodger Stadium.
Still, Koufax would have been great pitching in any ballpark, in any era. He threw as hard as most anyone, and his hard-breaking curveball was also among the best pitches of all time.
In his prime, he had great control. He pitched inside, he used intimidation as a weapon. But despite that, he threw 323 innings in 1966 without hitting a batter, still the NL record. He didn't have to hit anyone.
He was at his best when it counted most. In eight World Series starts, his ERA was 0.95. His perfect game in 1965 came in the heat of a pennant race. If he only got a couple of runs, he made them count. If he got a bunch of runs, which was say, five back then, he basically never lost. Usually, the only way he lost in a big game is if the Dodgers were shut out, as they were in the last start of his career, a 6-0 loss (he allowed four runs, one earned) to the Orioles and Jim Palmer in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series.
Koufax was a tremendous basketball player, his athletic ability allowed him to make any adjustment, though few were needed once he found his way. And once he did, there was no stopping him besides injury. He threw straight over the top, he was upright in his delivery and had that great, low finish. Years after he retired, he occasionally would throw batting practice during spring training in Dodgertown. He was in his 50's, but he still had that same, beautiful motion.
The only regret is that we didn't get to see more of him. If in 1966 they had known what we know today about arm injuries and the way to treat them, Koufax might have pitched another 10 years. Maybe he would have won 300 games. But, we'll take the 165, and enjoy them.
MLB front page
The latest news and stats
Who's on the cover today?
SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...