K is for Koufax

1963 had turned America upside-down. Dylan would write The Times They Are a-Changin’ in the autumn of 1963, and these changes were manifesting themselves in the most painful and violent ways possible. And so, for those in search of a little reassuring stability, it would have come as some relief to see that, as it did every year, baseball’s World Series heralded itself at the start of October.

Even more routinely, the ubiquitous New York Yankees were present to defend their 1961 and 1962 titles. Standing in their way were the Los Angeles Dodgers, themselves champions in 1959. It would be the first time that the Dodgers had met a New York team in the post-season finale since their painful transplant from Brooklyn to the West Coast five years previously. Though ill-feeling about the departure of the Dodgers was now less raw, their rivalry with the Yankees was not. Los Angeles and New York were, and still are, the two most populous cities in the US, and the 1963 World Series would be the first major sporting final which pitched teams from both cities against each other.

In the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, R.P. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, unsuccessfully petitions the staff of the mental institution to turn on the television so he can watch Game 1 of the 1963 World Series. Once Nurse Ratched thwarts his plans, Mac calls an imaginary game to his companions, describing in enigmatic detail the mighty Mickey Mantle hitting the ball to all corners of the park for the Yankees. “Koufax is in big fucking trouble – big trouble, baby!” he yells.

The reality was quite different.

The Yankees may have been chasing a third successive title, but the Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Sandy Koufax, was not to be dismissed easily. The Yankees boasted the bats of Bobby Richardson, Tom Tresh and Mickey Mantle, but Koufax had also had an outstanding season. He was named in the All-Star team, elected the National League’s Most Valuable Player, and won the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in an era when only one such trophy was awarded across baseball’s National and American Leagues.

In Game 1 on October 2nd 1963, Koufax pitched a then-record 15 strikeouts, including Tresh and Mantle twice, and Richardson three times, an achievement not to be understated given that Richardson had only been struck out 22 times in 630 at-bats that season. Before coming up against Koufax, he had not been struck out more than once in a single game.

The Dodgers went on to dominate the Yankees and sweep the series 4-0, at the time one of the biggest upsets in baseball history. The Yankees scored only four runs in the entire series, with Koufax returning in Game 4 to pitch another complete game victory, earning him the World Series MVP award. He was presented with the award, along with a brand new car, at a special luncheon in New York City. Whilst Koufax was eating, a New York policeman and probable Yankees fan ticketed the car for a parking violation.

Koufax would make his final Major League appearance three years later on October 2nd, 1966. Despite what was a relatively short career, he has gone down in baseball folklore as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He is one of only four Hall of Fame pitchers to have recorded more strikeouts than innings pitched, and in 1965 threw the eighth Perfect Game of all time. The same year he recieved nationwide recognition for deciding not to pitch in Game 1 of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holy day. He returned to pitch Game 2, threw a complete game shutout in Game 5 and then returned in the deciding Game 7 to pitch through fatigue and arthritic pain, securing his fourth and final World Series ring and a second Series MVP award.

In baseball, the letter ‘K’ represents a strikeout. Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers announcer, claimed that Koufax’s name “will always remind you of strikeouts … when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that ‘K’ stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X”.

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