By In Baseball, History


When I was in my young 20s, I sold off my entire baseball card collection. I needed the money.* But, in addition, I had this powerful impulse that it was time to grow up. True, this impulse came to me later than it does to most people, but still the day arrived when I looked at my baseball cards — legends, commons, minor stars, polypropylene page after polypropylene page of Cory Snyder and Mark McGwire and Don Mattingly and Jose Deleon rookie cards — and I was sickened by them. I wasn’t this nerdy kid anymore. I didn’t even want to associate with that kid.

*Of course, I got about 1/20th of what I had expected to get and about 1/50th of what I had paid for them.

And so I sold them all, notebook after notebook of baseball cards, shoe box after shoe box, Topps, Donruss, Fleer, O-Pee-Chee, mini cards, 7-11 baseball coins, hockey cards, football cards, basketball cards, wacky packies, every last card. I never wanted to see another baseball card in my life.

Except: I kept a 1956 Sandy Koufax baseball card and I put it on my dresser so I could look at it every single day. I still consider it the most beautiful baseball card ever made.




My version of this card was in terrible shape — creases, worn corners some sort of discoloration above his head — and it wasn’t even his rookie card. A collector would not have given me ten cents for it. But I kept that card anyway because Sandy Koufax was, to me, something bigger than baseball, something bigger than life. I never saw him pitch; he retired a year before I was born. I had no emotional connection to the Dodgers and had never been to either Los Angeles or Brooklyn. But I loved the man with a different sort of depth from any athlete, even those I personally watched and idolized. I read every story about him I could find. I can remember, again and again, listening to Larry King’s Sandy Koufax ice cream story (which he told, again and again, on his radio show). It’s a hard thing to explain, but I had this strong connection to him, and I had this powerful feeling that every thing I loved about baseball was somehow expressed through Sanford Koufax.

So I say this with the deepest love I can muster.

Sandy Koufax ain’t one of the four greatest living ballplayers.

You might know that Major League Baseball has a Greatest Living Players contest going on right now, and it’s a pretty cool idea. They’re looking for the Greatest Living Players for every franchise and, as shown in the link above, also the four greatest living players overall. They list off eight — you can vote for four.

The eight listed:

— Henry Aaron
— Johnny Bench
— Barry Bonds
— Rickey Henderson
— Sandy Koufax
— Pedro Martinez
— Willie Mays
— Tom Seaver

I’m not sure how they came up with this list. Aaron and Mays are obviously automatics. Glad to see Bonds on there. Rickey Henderson and Tom Seaver are both excellent choices.

The other three — I don’t know. Bench has his argument as the greatest catcher ever so I can see him being on here, but I think his teammate Joe Morgan was a significantly better player. I think Mike Schmidt was also a significantly better player. And, if we need a catcher on here, I think Yogi Berra has his case.

Pedro Martinez, I’ve said this before, is the pitcher I’d want pitching for my soul should the Devil ever come with an ultimatum and an All-Star Team. His peak — unmatched. But I don’t see how you can list him here over his contemporaries Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson. I simply don’t see how you can do that.

And then there’s Koufax. He is not only on that list, he is — at last check — one of the Final Four. It’s a testament to the magnetism of Koufax and glamour of his time. Unfortunately, it has little to do with reality.

The mythology around Koufax is thick and wonderful. That mythology — the classic windup, the high fastball and staggering curve, the no-hitters, the Vin Scully perfect game call, the World Series magic, the skipping a game for Yom Kippur, the Left Arm of God hype —  is at the core of my love of baseball. But when mythology starts crossing over into overkill like this, it seems less charming. Sandy Koufax is his own category of wonderful. But putting him on this list ahead of Gibson, Maddux, Big Unit, and especially Clemens is pretty ridiculous.

Let’s look at it this way:

Sandy Koufax went 165-87 with an ERA+ of 131.

Now let’s add in the career of Johan Santana. Just add the whole career.

Koufax + Santana: 304-165, .648 win pct., 2.97 ERA, 133 ERA+, 50 shutouts, 4,384 Ks, 5 Cy Youngs.
Clemens alone: 354-184, .658 win pct., 3.12 ERA, 143 ERA, 46 shutouts, 4,672 Ks, 7 Cy Youngs.

Yeah, that’s Roger Clemens vs. Koufax AND Johan Santana. Sure I know people would prefer to forget Roger Clemens because of his public fight over steroid accusations. But Clemens wasn’t just a greater pitcher than Koufax. He was dramatically better.

If this was a serious effort to list off the four greatest living pitchers — just pitchers — I think any serious attempt would have, in alphabetical order: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Tom Seaver. Then Bob Gibson. Then Pedro Martinez. Then, only then, would Koufax come into view (and Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan have pretty strong arguments against Koufax too).

It doesn’t feel right to point this out but that’s because Koufax should be above such arguments. The point of Koufax was never to judge his career straight up against other pitchers. The point was romance. That’s one of the wonderful things about baseball. What does Robert’s Clemente’s .359 on-base percentage really have to do with anything? Nothing. Does an only moderate OBP in any way detract from the wonder of watching him play? Of course not. Does it diminish the glory of that right arm? No. Does it in any way lessen the admiration we have for him as a player and a man? Unequivocally no. Clemente, for so many people who grew up watching him play, inspires feelings and emotions that no other player can match. That is exactly how it should be, and his .359 on-base percentage does not matter at all.

But if you tell me that Roberto Clemente was a better player than Barry Bonds, now we are not dealing with romance. Now we’re in the real world. I’d have to point that Bonds’ on-base percentage was 85 points higher — and was much higher than Clemente’s even before he was suspected of steroid use. Those are outs Clemente made that Bonds did not. That’s tangible. That’s reality. We can love Clemente more. That doesn’t make him a better player.

So it goes with Koufax. The love for him is unique in baseball history, I think. Certainly it is unique among sportswriters. Koufax made only 314 stars in his major league career and yet he sailed into the Hall of Fame, first ballot, with about 87% of the vote. Nobody else did anything like that. Yes, another guy sportswriters romanticized, Dizzy Dean, was voted into the Hall of Fame with even FEWER starts than Koufax. But it took a few years and it was quite controversial. With Koufax the only controversy was with the 13% who did not vote for him.

Dazzy Vance and Bob Lemon both had about 350 starts and were eventually elected into the Hall of Fame, but not until 20 or so years after they retired. There were those who actually thought Pedro Martinez’s career was short for a Hall of Famer, but Pedro made almost 100 more starts than Koufax. Sportswriters have not had much sympathy for players who were brilliant for a short period of time. Bret Saberhagen got seven votes. Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Dwight Gooden, Tony Oliva and many others did not get voted in.

It wasn’t just that Koufax made only 314 starts … he was only an average pitcher for the first 100 of those starts. Through the 1960 season, Koufax was 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA (a 100 ERA+), a lot of strikeouts, a lot of walks — a bit too close to Oliver Perez for comfort.

Koufax was a very good pitcher in 1961 and 1962, though he gave up home runs in ’61 and had some injury problems in ’62.

Then, from 1963 to 1966, Sandy Koufax was otherworldly. It is these four years — almost by themselves — that got him into the Hall of Fame and got him on to this Greatest Living Players list. Four years. Four awesome years.

1963: 25-5, 1.88 ERA, 311 innings, 11 shutouts, 306 Ks.
1964: 19-5, 1.74 ERA, 223 innings, 7 shutouts, 223 Ks.
1965: 26-8, 2.04 ERA, 335 innings, 8 shutouts, 382 Ks.
1966: 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 323 innings, 5 shutouts, 317 Ks.

Look at those numbers. And then, like smoke, Koufax was gone.

Koufax threw four no-hitters between 1962-65 — one per year — the last a perfect game. He started six World Series games in those years and gave up one or fewer earned runs in five of them (he gave up two earned runs in the other). He was the rare sort of baseball player who defines his time. That’s the romantic story. And it’s a good story, one of my favorites.

But then … there’s reality. Koufax pitched half his games at Dodger Stadium, always one of the toughest hitting ballparks in baseball and, in those days, highlighted by a pitching mound that was roughly the height of a Volkswagen Beetle. Koufax’s home splits tell a story.

1963: 11-1, 1.38 ERA, 6 shutouts, 143 innings, 144 Ks.
1964: 12-2, 0.85 ERA, 6 shutouts, 127 innings, 124 Ks.
1965: 14-3, 1.38 ERA, 6 shutouts, 170 innings, 208 Ks.
1966: 13-5, 1.52 ERA, 3 shutouts, 171 innings, 160 Ks.

So, he was significantly better at home. And his road numbers? Superb. But … not the same.

1963: 14-4, 2.31 ERA, 5 shutouts.
1964: 7-3, 2.93 ERA, 1 shutout.
1965: 12-5, 2.72 ERA, 2 shutouts.
1966: 14-4, 1.96 ERA, s shutouts.

He was better — often MUCH better — at home every year.

Also teams were scoring very few runs during that time period. Baseball Reference has a tool that allows you to neutralize a player’s performance to what they call an average season — that would be a season where the average team scores 716 runs. In those four years, teams averaged just 656 runs a game. So basically, teams were scoring eight or nine percent less than they do in an average year. Here are Koufax’s top five neutralized ERA’s along with a Pitcher A’s Top 5.

Koufax 1964: 2.14
Pitcher A: 2.17

Koufax 1966: 2.20
Pitcher A: 2.44

Koufax 1963: 2.26
Pitcher A: 2.46

Koufax 1965: 2.59
Pitcher A: 2.58

Koufax 1962: 2.89
Pitcher A: 2.62

Fairly comparable, no? Pitcher A? The aforementioned Johan Santana who with 139 career wins I suspect won’t stay on the Hall of Fame ballot very long.

None of this changes how I or anyone else should feel about Koufax and his particular genius. If I was listing the four living players who best exemplify what baseball means to me, I would include Koufax, Mays, Aaron and Rose, those players who filled my imagination as a boy. If I was to list the four most thrilling players who are still living, I might include Koufax and Rickey, Bonds and Pedro (or Ryan). If I had to list the four most iconic players still living, I might say Yogi, Mays, Aaron and Koufax.

But four greatest living players? Realistically, Koufax just isn’t on that list.

82 Responses to Koufax

  1. MikeN says:

    Anyone asked Sandy what he took in spring ’62?

    • Richard Aronson says:

      Koufax was a bonus baby who had to be kept on the big league roster. Since the Boys of Summer were in contention for pennants, winning in 1955, 56, and 59, it was hard for a wild, long, young pitcher to get in the innings he needed to pitch reliably. Moving to Dodger Stadium helped (the LA Coliseum was arguably worse for LHP than even Fenway) but getting in enough innings to learn how to throw mostly strikes was the big difference. 1960 and 61 he led the NL in SO/W ratio; not coincidentally those were the first year he was given enough innings to qualify for the league lead in anything. So it’s not so much 1962 (note he broke the NL strikeout record in 1961) as it was finally getting enough work to learn control.

  2. J. Kestnbaum says:

    How about a discussion of Koufax and
    Gale Sayers. Both very short careers,
    both automatic HOF admits, both elegant and graceful athletes, both just had “something” about them that elevated them into a class of their own.

    And both, if one sorts through the numbers as you have done – loses a bit of their luster.

    And yet, just for one game, one pitch,
    one kickoff return … who would you pick? Discuss.

    J. Kestnbaum

    • DC says:

      I don’t think Koufax/Sayers provide a strong parallel.

      I strongly disagree that sorting through Sayers’ numbers causes him to lose some of his luster.

      Koufax was mediocre for the first half of his career, brilliant for the second half of his career. Sayers was brilliant for the entirety of his (aborted) career.

      Koufax’s number were distorted by the era and conditions that he played in, whereas Sayers’ astounding numbers (56 TD in 68 career games, 5.0 career yards per rush attempt, 14.5 career yards per punt return, 30.6 career yards per kickoff return) were not produced in a high-scoring era or with any home field advantage.

      I love Koufax, but as Joe’s post points out an analysis of his career requires some nuance, and the factors cited above lead to him generally being overrated, whereas there are no qualifications on Sayers’ greatness (played 5 seasons, 1st team All-NFL in all 5) except for the fact that his career was extremely brief and we can’t be certain that he would have continued to play at the level that he did had he not been injured.

      • Richard Aronson says:

        Koufax in the first half of his career played in some of the worst environments in the NL for a pitcher, and especially a left handed pitcher. He was used sporadically because his manager, Walt Alston, disliked having the bonus baby forced on his roster by the strange rules baseball had at this time. So much as his late career is helped by Dodger Stadium, his early career is hurt, and hurt badly, by the environment, Ebbets Field, and the L.A. Coliseum.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          One downside to Koufax was that he wasn’t particularly cunning. I can imagine other pitchers figuring out how to win under personally unfavorable conditions, but Koufax wasn’t a quick learner. A guy with that much natural talent should have been able to figure out for himself how to win before age 25. For Dodger lefties with baseball smarts, I’d pick Fernando Valenzuela, who won a Cy Young at 20, a mile before Koufax.

          Koufax, however, was brave and noble.

  3. tombando says:

    This is a spin job on Koufax. Nothing else. Cherry pick a bit more Poz. You put Sandy on Clemens PED program—-see how it works? And Clemente vs Barry. Which Barry? 400-400 3 mvp pre-99 Barry, or Mr Potatohead FrankenBarry after? See this is fun. Narrative son its alll about the narrative.

    • Joe says:

      Doesn’t matter which Barry you are using for comparison. He still tops Clemente. JoePo says as much in the article.

      • Kevin says:

        When you add defense, I think Clemente comes out slightly ahead – no way Bream scows on Clemente’s arm in 1992 NLCS…

        • Joe says:

          Barry Bonds was at 99.5 career WAR following the 1998 season, when it is commonly accepted that he started juicing. Roberto Clemente’s career WAR was 94.4.

          People tend to forget that Bonds is often considered the greatest defensive left fielders in MLB history, compensating for an average (at best) arm with terrific range and preparation.

        • Doug says:

          Well, if we’re going to be judging on the basis of single plays, Maz is clearly better than both of ’em.

        • tayloraj42 says:

          People love to talk about how great Clemente’s arm was (and it must have been incredible to watch the man throw), but he wasn’t exactly a perfect defensive outfielder. Specifically, Clemente made an absolute ton of errors during his career. His 140 place only 90th all-time among outfielders, but when you consider that almost all the guys ahead of him played decades before he did, when errors were much more common, it does become rather troubling. Since B-R has data for the separate outfield positions (1914), Clemente is 2nd in errors among right fielders at 132, two behind leader Dave Parker.

          Obviously, there’s a lot more to defense than errors, and to be fair, Total Zone Runs sees him as the best RF of all time by a significant margin (204 to Al Kaline’s 155), and his career dWAR of 12.2 puts him well ahead of Bonds’ 6.6. On the other hand, Bonds’ career dWAR is badly hurt by his last few ‘roided-out and in his 40s decline years, when he really couldn’t play the field any more: through the same age as Clemente’s final season (37) he had 10.2 dWAR, and Total Zone Runs sees him as the best defensive LF to ever play the game (179 runs, 43 more than #2 Yaz). Given that Bonds was a significantly better offensive player (even when comparing his 13 pre-roids seasons against Clemente’s 13 seasons after he really came into his own, Bonds is significantly better), I’d take him over Roberto, not that I’d feel particularly good about it.

        • wjones58 says:

          Bobby puts in a runner if it’s Clemente…..of course Clemente would be in right, not left…….

    • buddaley says:

      Check out the kind of stuff Koufax smeared on his arm.

      • Richard Aronson says:

        Koufax’s pain killers are still completely legal in every sport; few people have the pain tolerance to put up with it.

        • buddaley says:

          I don’t know about the legality of all the stuff he used, but according to Jane Leavy a number of his treatments are so dangerous they are off the market. She describes one, Butazolidin, as “an anti-inflammatory drug prescribed for broken down thoroughbreds, so poisonous to living things that it was taken off the market in the mid-1970s. It had only one major side effect. It killed a few people”. She describes another, Capsolin, as having an active ingredient, “capsaicin, (that) works by depleting substance P, the brain’s pain messenger. It is the medical equivalent of hitting your head against a brick wall.” She goes on to describe its “atomic balm” effect, noting an instance when Lou Johnson wore an insufficiently washed Koufax sweatshirt and began to sweat, then had his skin blister and finally threw up. It too is off the market.

          Given the era and the experimentation with drugs, as well as the known spreading of steroid use in many athletic fields as reported in a contemporary Sports Illustrated article, it is naive to assume that players of the era were uninvolved with all sorts of PED type products.

  4. mark says:

    Thank you. As great as he was, I’ve long thought him the most overrated player in history. I only wish you had not used steroid users in your comparison. Not because I think they’re beyond mentioning, but because it allows the blind to ignore the truth of your argument by simply saying “you mentioned a steroid user – FAIL.”

  5. I spent the spring of 1963 in the bleachers at the Polo Grounds watching the Mets lose, and saw Koufax pitch twice. I was seated about 500 feet away from home plate, directly behind him. When he threw his curve, your first reaction was that it would be a wild pitch, probably ending up on the screen behind home plate. That it could bend into the strike zone seemed impossible by the laws of physics. But it did.

    With the arguable exception of Steve Carlton’s slider, I’ve never seen any pitcher throw such a impossible pitch. He got Mickey Mantle called out on it for the next-to-last out of the 1963 Series, and I remember Mantle walking back to the dugout, shaking his head in wonder. And the guy had some fastball, too.

    No, he doesn’t belong in the top four, or even the top eight. But I still say I’ve never seen another pitcher with the stuff he had. And if I could see only one pitcher come back in his prime to pitch a game, he’d be the one. Not for the romance, but because he did things nobody else could do with a baseball.

    • And this is the point. For 4 years he was dominant. You went to the ballpark just to see him & he was awesome. Sure, others had longer & more sturdy careers. But Koufax, in those four years, had three Cy Youngs. There’s a very short list of guys that did anything like that. Heck, one Cy Young can get a compiler into the HOF. Also, Koufax did have two other very good years. HIs 1961 numbers look less impressive, but he played that year in the LA Coliseum with dimensions like 250′ in left and 301′ in right. Joe mentioned that he gave up a lot of HRs that year. Guess why? He was still an All Star that year and also the following five years. Then he retired at age 30. So, six good to great years for a guy who retired that young is still pretty darned good. Top 4 living ballplayer good? No, of course not. But I still like him on the list. I’m a fan. I want my favorite players on the list. I don’t care if Bonds our Clemens are better. I don’t want them on that list. I think that was the whole point of the exercise too. When you ask fans to vote, you aren’t asking them to meticulously gather their FIP and ERA+, and put an Excel spreadsheet together with their neutralized numbers and WAR. You’re asking them to pick their favorite players. So, I say well done fans.

      • Platinum says:

        Randy Johnson won four straight Cy Young Awards, from 1999-2002. These years were in the heart of the “steroids era,” though as far as I know, Johnson has no PED rumors attached to him. The offensive context of these four years was pretty much the opposite of what Koufax enjoyed in his four-year streak. (Johnson also pitched home games in a hitters’ park.) It’s hard for me to see how those four years weren’t AT LEAST the equivalent of Koufax’s. (Unless you put a big premium on the postseason — Johnson did win a World Series MVP, but Koufax was better.)

        And then Johnson, of course, did a lot outside of those four years — another Cy Young, and three second-place finishes. Yet he never seems to get much love in these types of rankings.

  6. john4psu says:

    Joe, you are certainly correct and the data you provide backs you completely. Yet, for that brief four-year period of time, Koufax was a white hot comet blazing brilliantly against the night sky. A supernova one simply could not take one’s eyes off of; the baseball equivalent of Gale Sayers if you will. Like Earl Campbell, they all had a period of time that puts them in the discussion that during their peak they were amongst the best ever at their position earning them their place in their respective sport’s legend and lore. Romance in sports is a wonderful thing.

  7. Johnny B says:

    What I take from this is the fact that the steroids guys have better stats than the non-steroid guys. That I can’t argue.

  8. you’re showing your age, joe. the larger majority of yougun’s aren’t feeling all that badly about not letting go of childhood in their mid twenties anymore. it’s more of a painful awakening in their mid thirties, and realizing they don’t have the tools *to* grow up at that point. i read it on the internet, it must be true…

  9. It seems easy to see why Sandy Koufax became a dramatically better pitcher starting in 1962. In 1962, Dodger Stadium opened, and in 1962 the strike zone expanded.

    Prior to ’62, Koufax pitched in tiny Ebbets Field, and then the Coliseum, which had an abnormally short left field porch, where right handed hitters could hit Moon Shots off of lefties. Dodger Stadium not only had the big mound and the high infield grass, it was just bigger all around, and played even bigger than that. A pitcher could relax knowing that pop-ups wouldn’t fly over the fence.

    But the biggest difference was the strike zone expansion following the 61 season of Maris and Mantle chasing the Babe’s HR record. Koufax threw a huge overhand curveball and a high fastball, hence his early career difficulty throwing strikes. Once the strike zone reached to the armpits, suddenly those balls became strikes—unhittable strikes. The only game I ever saw Koufax pitch was a rebroadcast of the clinching shutout against the Twins in the 1965 World Series, and I swear I didn’t see a pitch thrown by Koufax that would be called a strike today. No pitcher in history benefited from the conditions of his era more than Sandy Koufax.

    • rf6307 says:

      An interesting idea. But it seems contradicted by the record – Koufax led the league in Ks in 1961 (!). And FIP. So he was dominant before any change to the strike zone.

      • With Koufax’s stuff, he was always going to be tough to hit, and he was always going to get his K’s. But if you compare 1961 with 1963 (he got hurt in 62, so he didn’t pitch a full season), his ERA dropped from 3.52 to 1.88, his strikeout to walk ratio went from 2.8-1 to 5.28-1, and his HRs per 9 innings was cut in half. Basically he went from Sandy Koufax to SANDY KOUFAX.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Koufax benefited from the tall strike zone of the mid-60s in that he threw a rising fastball and a huge breaking curve. Batters who guessed wrong might swing and miss by two feet.

          Would he have adopted to a different era’s strike zone? I don’t know. Koufax was not a particularly cunning pitcher. He was a heroic pitcher, a strength against strength pitcher, kind of like Nolan Ryan, except that for four or five years, he alway won.

          Look at his road W-L record for 1963-1966: 47-16. That’s like going 23-8 on the road for one season and then 24-8 on the road the next season. And many of those games were 3-2, 2-1, or 1-0 games. The Dodgers had a tradition that they wouldn’t go out drinking the night before games pitched by Drysdale, Osteen, or Podres/Sutton; but they would be hung-over for Sandy’s starts, because he was Sandy Kou … FAX and if they only got him 2 or 3 runs, he’d still win.

    • Richard Aronson says:

      As I said above, Koufax broke the NL strikeout record in 1961. His career shows steady improvement long before 1962. Under today’s rules, Koufax would have had at least 500 minor league innings, come up in 1958, and been a better pitcher sooner (probably followed by Sandy Koufax surgery in 1966 instead of that incredible season, and then another five or more years pitching without pain: how good would he have been?).

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Right, a simple way of looking at Koufax’s steady improvement is just to look at his won-loss records:

        1960: 8-13
        1961: 18-13
        1962: 14-7
        1963: 25-5

        It appears he got consistently better for each of three straight seasons: 1961, 1962, and 1963. Some of that was moving to Dodger Stadium in 1962, and expansion in 1962, and the high strike zone in 1962. But his first Great Leap Forward happened in the Coliseum in 1961 in an 8 team league with the old strike zone.

        The story I read in a kid’s book fifty years ago was that somebody told him at spring training in 1961 that he didn’t have to try to strike out every batter, he just had to walk fewer batters. (Super-fast Willie Davis arrived as the Dodgers regular center-fielder in 1961.)

        His walks per 9 innings fell from 5.1 in 1960 to 3.4 in 1961 to 2.8 in 1962 to 1.7 by 1963.

  10. BobDD says:

    Koufax and Clemente certainly do have loyal fans. And I do not begrudge them that. But I know from experience that they will not listen to factual evidence.

    There’s already two posters here who claim Clemente was better than Bonds (let alone his contemporaries, Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Mantle). As great as Clemente was, he made 54 more outs per season than Bonds (700 PA). Then BB had 122 more points of Slugging Percentage. Those cannot be made up on defense.

  11. alexandelegrand says:

    Ive always thought Koufax was very good, but was elevated to mythic standards by the new york media (as many players are), doubly so because of the Yom Kippur story. he was lucky to move to a pitchers park and retire before becoming average or injury prone.

    • I think, in Joe publishing Koufax’s splits, you should be able to see that he was still excellent away from Dodger Stadium. Short career, short peak, yes Lucky, no.

    • MarkR says:

      This comment describing Koufax as “very good” and “lucky” in my opinion grossly short-changes him, but hey, to each his own. However, the subtle resentment of the mythologizing “new york media … doubly so because of the Yom Kippur story” starts to sound a little offensive.

      >April 23, 2015 at 3:34 am
      >Ive always thought Koufax was very good, but was elevated to mythic standards by the new york
      >media (as many players are), doubly so because of the Yom Kippur story. he was lucky to move to
      >a pitchers park and retire before becoming average or injury prone.

      • rf6307 says:

        Yeah, that made me nervous too

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I will try to give him the benefit of the doubt. Koufax first came to national prominence after he beat the Yankees twice in the 1963 World Series. IN the days before internet, NYC was clearly the media capital of the country-although LA was pretty bid too-so that anyone who performed against a NY team became instantly lionized. This happened with Hank Aaron, IMO. He was not really a national figure until the 1969 playoffs against the Mets where his performance in a losing cause got the media to start paying attention. (This was before people saw him as threatening Ruth’s record.) Having said that, the part of the comments referring to Yom Kippur has some not-so-nice overtones as you point out. For one thing, the Yom Kippur issue only resonated with Jews; it’s not as if everyone else was celebrating Koufax for not pitching on Yom Kippur. Second, as a corollary, this only makes sense if you assume that the “New York” media had a particular reason to focus on Koufax not pitching on the Jewish holiday.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax …” — Walter Sobchak

          Sandy Koufax was the greatest Jewish athlete of my lifetime. A lot of people in the media are Jewish, so it’s not surprising that he got a huge amount of publicity.

          But, Jews are fascinated with Koufax because he was a different kind of Jew. He remains the most enigmatic and legendary Jewish American. A few years ago, President Obama had a dinner at the White House in honor of Jewish-Americans. The room was full of billionaires and celebrities. But the man everybody wanted to have their picture taken with was the one fellow who almost never attends these kind of events: Sandy Koufax.

          Even though his background was stereotypically Jewish-American (he was the son of a Brooklyn rabbi), he was also movie star glamorous in a not very Jewish manner: tall, handsome, athletic, strong, silent, and not particularly articulate or clever. He reminded people of Gary Cooper. He triumphed through physical courage and physical suffering, not through outsmarting his opponents. He won the 7th game of the 1965 world series 2-0, pitching on 2 days rest because he wouldn’t pitch the opener on Yom Kippur, with just one pitch: his fastball. That’s like a John Wayne character in a movie.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Why the “New York” media? He played in California during his prime? Of course, LA was/is a huge media market but it is separate from New York.

      IMO, it’s ridiculous to say he was overrated in his time. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that, based on our new understanding of conditions and so forth that he benefitted from Dodger Stadium, larger strike zone, etc. But he did what he did and I don’t see how you can simply discount that. He became mythic because his performance was mythic in those times, however much we discount it today. However he accomplished it, he had four of the greatest years in baseball history. Those are the facts; as I said, today we might discount those years for various reasons, but you can’t ignore them and say he was simply a media creation. That’s absurd.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Another reason for the Koufax Legend was that the allure of Los Angeles was at its peak in 1962-1966. Huge numbers of people, especially Jewish-Americans, were moving in the 1960s to Los Angeles, which was still a quite cheap. Los Angeles was the promised land of the common man.

        Moreover, the introduction of jet airliners at the end of the 1950s meant that Los Angeles (and San Francisco) were no longer an ordeal for New York media people to visit.

        This was the Golden Age of the Golden State. You can see it in the election to the Hall of Fame of Koufax’s teammate, giant San Fernando Valley surfer dude Don Drysdale. Bill James wrote a book about the Hall of Fame and concluded the two least deserving postwar players in the HoF were Phil Rizzuto and Don Drysdale. James concluded that Rizzuto is in because Manhattan in 1950 was such a halcyon time and place that it’s local heroes were overrated. But the same is true of Los Angeles in 1962, when Drysdale went 25-9.

    • John Leavy says:

      How could the “New York Media” have overhyped Koufax when he spent almost his entire career in Los Angeles? He wasn’t very good at all during his brief time in Brooklyn.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        In the early 1960s, the New York papers covered the Dodgers and the Giants a lot for the benefit of their subscribers who had grown up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.

        The introduction of jet airliner transcontinental travel in early 1959 made it easy for New York writers to get out to the Coast. The L.A. Dodgers won the 1959 world series, which kept enthusiasm up in Brooklyn.

        The arrival of Brooklyn-born Sandy Koufax to stardom in 1961 and superstardom in 1963 kept up interest in the L.A. Dodgers in New York.

        The other superstar Dodger pitcher, Don Drysdale, was born and raised in the Van Nuys suburb in Los Angeles, so the two tall, handsome Dodger pitchers, the dark-haired Jewish rabbi’s son from Brooklyn and the blond gentile surfer from Los Angeles, made a nice symbolic pair. People liked that Koufax and Drysdale were friends and held out together in spring 1966, each signing movie contracts with Paramount to give credence to their threat to sit out a year.

  12. frank says:

    How great was Koufax? You have Bob Gibson on you list of greatest living pitchers and deservedly so. Koufax was better than Gibson every year their careers overlapped. how important was Koufax to the Dodgers? In 1962 tha Dodgers were comfortably ahead, Koufax got hurt and the Giants caught them and beat them in a playoff. In 1963Koufax was healthy, won the Cy Young and MVP and the Dodgers swept the Yankees in the World Series withKoufax winning the World Series MVP. In 1964Koufax was injured and the Dodgers finished in the middle of the pack. In 1965 Koufax was healthy, winning another Cy Young, and the Dodgers won the World Series with Koufax pitching a game seven shutout on two days rest and again winning the World Series MVP. In 1966 Koufax was healthy, won another Cy Young and the Dodgers again won the NL pennant although they lost the World Series. After the 1966 season Koufax retired and in 1967 the Dodgers collapsed. every year in the 60’s Koufax was healthy the Dodgers won the pennant.

    • Doug says:

      Nobody is questioning whether Koufax was a great pitcher (he was) or whether he was brilliant at his peak (he clearly was).

      But it’s not crazy to point out that his peak only lasted 4 years and that, however important it is that the Dodgers collapsed after he retired, he did retire in 1966. Or that Bob Gibson had more years in his career with an ERA+ over 100 (14) than Koufax had years in his career (12). Or that comparing only the years when Gibson and Koufax were both pitching is kind of arbitrary, and ignores the years when Gibson was having some of his best seasons and Koufax was out of the game.

      But, I guess, most importantly, it’s not crazy to say that praising Bob Gibson in no way diminishes the incandescent, extraordinary brilliance of Koufax.

  13. Bob Forer says:

    My second “big boy” glove was a Spaulding Jim Fregosi model. As as 12 year old, I played third base in Little League. My fielding was impeccable during infield practice, but apparently I developed a case of game jitters and just about every ball hit to me I either booted or over threw first base. The coach told me it was my “crummy glove,” and he let me borrow one of his. My fielding remarkably improved overnight. In retrospect, I don’t think it had anything to do with the glove. But my coach sure did know how to positively impact my dome.

  14. Nathan Roser says:

    Tom Boswell tells a story in, I think, Diamond Dreams, where it’s the hour before game 1 of the 1981 WS is about to start. Koufax is a pitching coach for LA, and someone asks him to throw BP. Well, suddenly, it’s 1965 again, and out comes the Koufax fastball. None of his team can hit it. Someone makes the gesture for the curve ball, and he starts throwing dynamite curves. They can’t hit it past the removable backstop. Then someone of the coaches thinks, “It’s not a good idea to destroy the morale of your team before the World Series starts.” So another of the coaches comes up to Koufax, and he absent-mindedly shuffles off the mound. Koufax swears it never happened, but the rest of the team says he did it. It’s the coolest baseball story I have ever heard.

  15. NevadaMark says:

    What is mythological about Koufax? He really did throw 4 no hitters. He really was perhaps the greatest WS starter ever. That WAS a perfect game he threw.

    And suddenly Nolan Ryan is in this conversation? Joe did a long post on Ryan’s shortcomings. Other than brevity of career, what shortcomings did Koufax have?

    Oh, and Koufax didn’t have injury problems in 1962. He almost lost his finger.

  16. rf6307 says:

    It was 6 years of excellence, not four.
    1961: Koufax led the league in strikeouts. And FIP. And it didn’t go unnoticed. He was an All-Star selection that year.
    1962: Koufax pitched 184 innings, led the league in ERA, FIP, WHIP, Strikeouts/9 innings. Again, an All-Star.

    Our dear author – who is great, just great – get’s that his case is a lot stronger if he claims it was but 4 years, and not 6. But that’s not credible.

    “The point of Koufax was never to judge his career straight up against other pitchers. The point was romance.”
    Or maybe the point was those six years. Has any pitcher – since integration – ever had a six year run like that? It is six years. That’s not like “he’s been the best pitcher in baseball since the All-Star break.” It is six years.

    You might question whether he should have gone into the HOF so easily. But we can rejoice that he did. He has the lowest FIP of any starting pitcher in the Hall. The fifth best ERA+. And for the paleos out there, the third best W-L%.

    • Dr. Doom says:

      Did anyone have a 6-year stretch like that? Yeah.

      Sandy Koufax (1961-1966) 46.6 WAR, 156 ERA+, 1632.2 IP

      Randy Johnson (1999-2004) 48.4 WAR, 175 ERA+, 1389.2 IP
      Roger Clemens (1986-1991) 49.6 WAR, 158 ERA+, 1552.2 IP
      Tom Seaver (1970-1975) 45.8 WAR, 143 ERA+, 1645.1 IP
      Pedro Martinez (1997-2002) 49.2 WAR, 213 ERA+, 1221.1 IP
      Bob Gibson (1965-1970) 45.5 WAR, 147 ERA+, 1667.1 IP
      Greg Maddux (1992-1997) 48.1 WAR, 191 ERA+, 1424.1 IP

      Average of the aforementioned six pitchers. 47.8 WAR, 168 ERA+, 1483.1 IP

      And those were just the first six pitchers I checked. I didn’t need to do a search on Baseball Reference or anything. The thing is, they were all as good as Koufax in their top six, but then had tons of black ink and great seasons EVEN BEYOND those six years. Koufax’s numbers are indistinguishable from that other group of six. So Koufax, while astounding, is basically a peak version of any of these other six, without the rest of the career.

    • Paul White says:

      “Has any pitcher – since integration – ever had a six year run like that? ”

      Sure. For those 6 years, Koufax had a .733 winning percentage, an ERA+ of 156, a 4.16 K/BB ratio, while pitching 257 innings per 162 games. Awesome, obviously.

      But for a seven-year period, 1997-2003, Pedro Martinez had a .766 winning percentage, an ERA+ of 213, a K/BB ratio of 5.59, while pitching 240 innings per 162 games. Not as durable, but better each time out than Koufax at his peak.

      Greg Maddux had a seven-year period, 1992-1998, with a .706 winning percentage, 190 ERA+, 4.78 K/BB ratio and 252 inning per 162 games. Just as durable as Koufax, and just better too.

      Randy Johnson had a TEN year period, 1995-2004, with a .714 winning percentage, 171 ERA+, 4.63 K/BB ratio and 242 innings per 162 games. Almost as durable each year and clearly far more durable for his career, while also being significantly better than Koufax’s peak.

      • rf6307 says:

        I appreciate Paul White and Dr. Doom taking this approach. I find myself drifting towards the compromise position that they lay out – Koufax’s six years was on par with (though not necessarily superior to) any six-year period among the super-elite, consensus-best pitchers since WWII.

        I am tempted to let it go at that, as life is short.

        It nags at me that neither mentioned FIP, the thing a pitcher is supposed to be able to control independently. Since 1947, Koufax is #1 in FIP among starting pitchers (by Baseball-Reference). He is the only pitcher since 1947 with 2 seasons of a sub-2.00 FIP. But OK.

        I do think this whole exchange casts doubt on Joe’s statement: “The point of Koufax was never to judge his career straight up against other pitchers.” Koufax looks pretty good in those comparisons.

        • Doug says:

          Those aren’t comparisons of Koufax’s career and the careers of the other pitchers. What you mean to say is that Koufax’s six year peak looks pretty good in those comparisons. Which it absolutely does! Koufax was great.

          I don’t think anyone (including Joe) was ever arguing that point, but it’s certainly well taken.

          • rf6307 says:

            The problem was Joe’s statement that the case for Koufax’s greatness rested too much on ‘romance’ and not enough on actual performance.

            Pretty clear Koufax’s six-year run was as good as any six-year run since WWII.

            Maybe no one should qualify for adulation based on only six years of dominance. You could make that argument. Joe chose to go a different way, spending a lot of time suggesting that Koufax’s six-years weren’t so great after all. That deserves rebuttal.

            Of course, the punch line of this piece isn’t really about Koufax. It is about Clemens. That Clemens is the greatest pitcher of all time. Which I guess he probably is.

          • Dr. Doom says:

            rf6307, I think the point of the article was simply that Koufax does not belong in the discussion of one of the 4 best living players, when there are at least seven other pitchers with equal peaks but more career value. I don’t think there was any suggestion that his years weren’t that good – the suggestion was that they weren’t special ENOUGH to merit his inclusion in this list.

  17. Paul White says:

    Another “greatest Living Ballplayer” article that makes no mention at all of Frank Robinson.


    Just for the sake of being fair, here are the top ten living ballplayers in terms of bWAR. Yes, it’s just one stat, but it should at least get Robinson in the article somewhere, right?

    162.4 – Barry Bonds
    156.2 – Willie Mays
    142.6 – Henry Aaron
    140.3 – Roger Clemens
    116.7 – Alex Rodriguez
    110.8 – Rickey Henderson
    110.5 – Tom Seaver
    107.2 – Frank Robinson
    106.8 – Greg Maddux
    106.5 – Mike Schmidt

      • Cuban X Senators says:

        I think last fall when Pos was heading to SF for the post-season (or was it in the spring to pick up his Kuip bobble head?), I urged him to collect Frank Robinson stories from Krukow, Kuiper & Miller.

        I hope he did. Somehow Frank the player has become overlooked & there’s a great article to be written about Frank the ball player. I can’t wait for Frank’s top 100 article.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Totally agree. Robinson is always overlooked. He gets more attention for being the first African-American manager and deservedly so, but his performance is always overlooked.

  18. Randy says:

    Can’t disagree with your points, but having grown up in the 60s, I still think of Koufax, Gibson, Spahn, Burdette & Ford as the pitchers I wouldn’t have wanted to face. They just had the aura. In the same way that there was nothing like a Tiant/Red Sox vs Palmer/Oriels game in late September…waiting for the bantam to come screaming out of the dugout at any unknown moment! Thanks.

  19. rf6307 says:

    BTW – I think Joe makes a strong case that Clemens is the best pitcher in the history of baseball. And that Johan Santana was a really good pitcher.

    One note. Joe says that Koufax gave up a lot of HRs in 1961. And that Koufax benefitted from playing half his games in Chavez Ravine – a stadium that suppressed HRs.

    Of course, Chavez Ravine opened in 1962. In 1961, Koufax played in the LA Coliseum – the most homer-friendly park in the National League. If you think Koufax’s HR numbers weren’t great in 1961, look at Drysdale. And Johnny Podres.

    • rf6307 says:

      Not suggesting Joe said Koufax played in Dodger Stadium in 1961 – just saying Joe’s arrangement of facts might give that impression to those who didn’t know when Chavez Ravine opened.

  20. Dboy says:

    My take on the Dodger stadium mound was that it was the second highest point in the country at the time, second only to Mt. McKinley.

  21. Bill Caffrey says:

    This is really no different than that All-Century team they did at the 1999 AS Game, in which Nolan Ryan was the top vote-getter among pitchers, Sandy Koufax was second and Tom Seaver somehow didn’t make the team.

  22. Jim N says:

    As a fan who first fell in love with baseball in 1954 at the age of eight, I struggle to explain the impact Koufax had on baseball fans during that four year-run from 1963 through 1966. In 1963, he threw 11 shutouts. No one had thrown that many since 1916. In 1963, he struck out 306 batters. No one had struck out more than 269 (Koufax in 1961) since Feller had set the record with 348 in 1946. By 1963, Koufax had already become the first pitcher to strike out 10 batters per nine innings in a season. In 1965, he broke Feller’s record for strikeouts in a season — by 34 strikeouts.

    Try to imagine what it was like as a fan to watch Koufax during that four-year span. It wasn’t just that he was dominating in the three statistics that mattered the most at the time — strikeouts, ERA and wins. It was the visual experience of watching him dominate games in a way no other pitcher in recent memory had. He was taking us into uncharted territory.

    That is not something you can say about the other pitchers mentioned in this article, even though they had far more productive careers, and by the measures valued today they matched or bettered Koufax’s peak period (whether that be 4, 5 or 6 years).

    Further, there is his record in big games. Again, think about it from a fan’s perspective — especially a young fan. I had seen Whitey Ford turn in clutch performance after clutch performance in the World Series. So when the 1963 Series rolled around, we fans were treated to two matchups of the winningest pitcher in World Series history against a pitcher who just had a regular season with the most strikeouts in 18 years, the lowest ERA in 19 years and the third highest win total in 18 years. Koufax earned complete-game victories both times, allowing one run in one game and two in the others. In the first game he set a new World Series record with 15 strikeouts.

    Then there was his performance down the stretch in 1965. On Sept 9, with his team half a game behind the Giants in the standings, Koufax threw a 14-strikeout perfect game. He followed it up with a 6-inning start in which he allowed two runs and lost. Then he threw a 4-hit shutout. Then he got bombed — lasting only two innings and giving up five runs. Then he threw a 5-hit, 12K shutout. Then he threw a 2-hit, 13K shutout. And in his final regular-season game, he threw a complete-game, one-run, four-hit, 13K win.

    On to the World Series. He lost the first game, allowing two runs — one earned — in six innings with nine strikeouts. Then a 4-hit, 10K shutout. Then, on two days rest, a seventh-game 3-hit, 10K shutout.

    Koufax is not one of the four most productive Major League players alive. He may not be one of the four (or ten) best players alive even just in terms of peak value. But I don’t think any of the other great pitchers still alive — Clemens, Seaver, Johnson, Martinez, Maddux, Gibson — leapt so far beyond what other pitchers were doing, took fans to a new place and did so in as compelling a fashion as Koufax did during those magical four years.

    That’s his legacy, and, as I have just proven by trying and failing, it can’t be told by looking back at the stats from his era.

  23. Schlepdog says:

    Sandy Koufax, 4-year peak WAR (b-ref): 36.5
    3-year peak WAR: 29.1
    2-year peak WAR: 21.0
    Best WAR: 10.7

    Wilbur Wood, 4-year peak WAR: 35.5
    3-year peak WAR: 29.9
    2-year peak WAR: 22.4
    Best WAR: 11.7

    Koufax’s 4-year peak was Hall-of-Fame worthy – without it he has no chance. While Wood was a good pitcher at his peak, at no time did I (or hardly anyone else) think that he was a Hall-of-Famer because of his 4-year peak.

    So, 1) Is WAR a poor indicator of pitching dominance? Or value? 2) Is Wood grossly undervalued?; or 3) Is Koufax overvalued?

    Or some combination?

  24. ajnrules says:

    It’s remarkable how similar Koufax + Santana is with another pitcher that got snubbed

    Koufax + Santana: 304-165, .648 win pct., 2.97 ERA, 133 ERA+, 50 shutouts, 4,384 Ks, 5 Cy Youngs, 103.9 bWAR

    Pitcher A: 303-166, .646 win pct., 3.29 ERA, 135 ERA+, 37 shutouts, 4,875 Ks, 5 Cy Youngs, 104.3 bWAR

    It’s probably not too hard to figure out who Pitcher A was.

  25. Richard Aronson says:

    The one comment nobody made about Koufax: when he retired, it was widely viewed that he had nothing left to prove, and the constant pain of pitching was no longer worth it to him. He’d pitched with pain for years. If he needed the money or was driven to do more on the field, he might have had the first surgery later known as Tommy John’s. That is the mystique of Koufax: he did all that with pain so bad that his uniforms had to be washed separately from the rest of the team. From Wikipedia: “To get himself through the games he pitched in, Koufax resorted to Empirin with codeine for the pain, which he took every night and sometimes during the fifth inning. He also took Butazolidin for inflammation, applied capsaicin-based Capsolin ointment (called “atomic balm” by baseball players) before each game, and soaked his arm in a tub of ice afterwards.” Butazolidin is now banned for all human use. What Koufax did in 1965 and 1966 was so hard, and so good, that nobody doubted he could have kept it up, or blamed him for retiring while he still had a left arm to use. He did have surgery after Tommy John, and I recall one spring training story from Vin Scully saying Koufax (in his ’50s, IIRC) still dropping in that curve ball, only no longer suffering to do so.

    I completely agree that Koufax is not one of the top four (or even ten) living ballplayers. But if he’d ever been motivated to achieve that, instead of living a life with balance that did not put baseball above everything else, I have no doubt Koufax would have pitched several more years after experimental surgery, and made a much stronger case to be ranked so high.

  26. Crazy old maniac says:

    I can remember, again and again, listening to Larry King’s Sandy Koufax ice cream story (which he told, again and again, on his radio show).

    As long as we’re busting myths here, Larry King’s anecdote is completely made up. Koufax has said that he never met Larry King in Brooklyn, they were not friends, and even as an adult he had never been to New Haven.

    Funny account of King being called on his B.S., getting indignant, then getting embarrassed, and eventually going on and repeating his “Me ‘n Sandy” fairy tale:

    However, it is true that Sandy Koufax asked that his strikeouts be recorded as “K”s to honor his close personal friend Larry K-ing.

  27. Mark Henderson says:

    Great column about why Koufax isn’t the best living pitcher. And it’s hard to disagree. But MLB’s discussion isn’t about “best.” It’s about “greatest.” And I think for most people, discussions about greatest include those other, more ephemeral and certainly less definable, magical categories. Joe names two of those here: the thrill you get from watching a player and the icons of baseball history. Joe has Koufax listed on both of those. 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. And probably would warrant him being listed as “greatest.”

  28. Brent says:

    The whole category of greatest living player is a way for the current older generation to lord it over the younger generations as to why the players in their generation was better. My grandfather’s generation touted Joe Dimaggio as the greatest living player pretty much from the time he retired to his death, when in fact he wasn’t even the greatest living Yankee’s Center Fielder after some point in the mid to late 1950s. Now my father’s genreation is telling us that Sandy Koufax or Willie Mays is the greatest living player. This is usually supported by the “well, you had to see him play to understand”, especially when the stats don’t really back up the statement. Some day, I will be telling my kids that Mike Schmidt or Barry Bonds is the greatest living player, Mike Trout be dam*ed.

    • john4psu says:

      Brent, I feel safe in saying Willie Mays was the greatest all-around baseball player – ever. He did the following five things very well: He could hit for average, he could hit for power, he could run, he could throw and he could field. I’m not one to always think that things back in the day were necessarily better nor am I in that generation that everything now has to be better. There is also such a thing as the eye test.

      Don’t forget Mays played in a terrible ballpark to hit at times. When the wind blew in at Candlestick nothing was leaving the park and he lost two years in his youth to service in the Korean War.

      Earlier someone pointed out how Frank Robinson’s stats were superior to Roberto Clemente’s. Yet when both had their chance to shine against one another when the spotlight was its brightest, The Great One, number 21, outperformed Robinson and everyone else.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        Your argument about Clemente v. Robinson is rather specious, at least if I understand you to say that the 1971 World Series proves that Clemente was the better player. You might be able to argue that he was better, although I doubt it, but to base it on one series of seven games is classic cherry picking. Yes, Clemente had a great series and outplayed Robinson but that hardly proves he was the superior player over their careers. And it wasn’t as if Robinson sucked in the 1971 Series. Clemente was a great player but I get a little tired of the deifying of Clemente, as if people have to make up for him being underrated during his career by overrating him now. The problem with the “eye test” as you call it is that it’s necessarily selective. People remember what they have seen and want to remember. But it is hardly a comprehensive analysis and it doesn’t really prove much. Mays may well have been the best player ever-you could certainly do worse. But the eye test doesn’t prove it unless you have seen every other player ever over a long period of time.

        • john4psu says:

          Marc, agreed on your points. However, when it comes to the five things a ballplayer does: hit for power, hit for average, running, throwing and fielding the only thing Robinson had over Clemente was hitting for power.

          • Marc Schneider says:


            That’s a legitimate argument but hitting for power is a pretty important area. You could say the same thing, I suppose, about Hank Aaron. I will concede that Roberto was perhaps better than Robinson, and maybe Aaron, in those other categories. But both had several hundred more home runs than Clemente and I would argue that overrides Clemente’s advantage in hitting for average.

            My real point, as I noted, is that it’s unfair to judge the relative merits of one player vs. another on one series of games. And I’m not even necessarily saying that Robinson was better than Clemente but we almost never hear anything about Robinson as a player anymore.

            Let’s face it, when you are talking about Aaron vs. Mays vs. Clemente vs. Robinson vs. Mantle, etc., you are really splitting hairs. It’s like comparing super models and asking who is more beautiful.

          • john4psu says:

            I assure you Marc, I do not take the value of hitting for power lightly but consider the value of defense, arm strength, speed and hitting for average. Clemente was not without power and playing in cavernous Forbes Field, particularly left and center field (457 feet to dead center), for all but three seasons of his career and hitting third, Clemente was not asked to be a home-run hitter.

            One cannot overlook performing in the big moments and coming through in the clutch against high quality opponents and I can tell you that Clemente played in 14 World Series games and had at least one hit in each of those games, a 14-game World Series hitting streak if you will.

            I agree with you Marc on splitting hairs and it being like arguing who is the more beautiful super model. I’d take Clemente over Robinson and you may pick Robinson over Clemente and we’d both be winners and happy.

  29. Rick says:

    Prior to 1967 the Cy Young did not go to a pitcher in each league. It went to only one pitcher in baseball Thus Koufax was the best pitcher in all of baseball in 1963, 1965, 1966. If there were awards for each league he might have won for 1964 (4 years in a row) since Dean Chance of the AL won in 1964.
    Also, unless you were there you cannot understand Koufax’s dominance, mere numbers don’t begin to explain it. Gibson was great, but as they say, if I needed a pitcher for one game, it was Koufax.

  30. I haven’t looked into the rules of the greatest living player thing, but why are we just talking about retired players? I would personally include Kershaw, Pujols, and Miggy in the conversation for sure. But if we are focusing on peak pitchers with short careers, we need to include Kershaw, and probably King Felix too.

  31. Bill James made a point today over on his website that I’ve never seen made before, which I think explains a lot of the mystique that surrounds Koufax. Somebody asked him how it was that in a very tough National League from 1963-68, the Dodgers and Cardinals won all the pennants, and the Dodgers came within an inning of winning in 1962, despite the very solid teams in San Francisco, Milwaukee/Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. His Cardinal answer isn’t relevant here.

    For the Dodgers, he said simply Sandy Koufax. If Koufax had merely had a standard Cy Young season in 63, 65,and 66, if he’d won 20 games with a sub-3.00 ERA, there is no way the Dodgers could have won those pennants. And I believe him, because Koufax was the one absolute constant on that club. Drysdale had a great 62 and 65 but no better than a solid #2 the others; Osteen came along in 65 but was barely a #2 starter, the offense had zero power and relied on the stolen base, and their best hitter, Tommy Davis, broke a leg in early 65, missed all of that year, and was never the same again. As Bill put it, Koufax wasn’t terrific, he was five or six games beyond that, and if he hadn’t been stopped by a circulatory problem that kept him from winning a game after July in 1962, they would have won that pennant, too.

    And Bill makes the point that this is completely unique in modern baseball — a player at such a fantastic level that his team won three pennants against tough competition that they had no business even sniffing. Clemens, Pedro, Seaver, and the Unit certainly had better careers as a whole and in some cases — Pedro the obvious one — even had higher peaks than Koufax. But they didn’t — none of them — drag a mediocre team to three and almost four pennants against very tough competition. Walter Johnson couldn’t; Pete Alexander couldn’t; Christy Mathewson comes closest but he was on a team that won four pennants, three of them (1911-13) when they were clearly the class of the league, winning by an average of 10 games over the three years. The great Yankee teams never had a dominant pitcher.

    So the special feeling for Koufax, I think, is that people sense this (I was a Dodger fan at the time and of course I was aware of what I was watching, but never in quite the way that Bill expressed it). The only other player who I think has been touched by even a little of that pixie dust is Yaz, who single-handedly lifted the Red Sox to a pennant they had no business winning in 1967, and was adored in Boston for the rest of his career for it.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      To some extent the Dodger hitters were underestimated due to the park effects, but still, the Dodgers’ best hitter in 1965 was pitcher Don Drysdale, who was the team’s only .300 hitter and, with 7 homers, was only 5 away from the team leaders.

      These guys weren’t that bad, but they weren’t really all that good.

      Except Koufax.

  32. JOSEPH BALDINO says:


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