He was just 30 years old, and he was retiring after a great season—he’d led the Dodgers to a National League pennant and won his third Cy Young Award. But he had chronic arthritis in his pitching arm, and he was afraid that if he kept playing baseball, eventually he wouldn’t be able to use his left hand at all. Koufax’s line in his final season, all while battling the pain: 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts and 77 walks in 323 innings.
“In those days there was no surgery,” Koufax said much later. “The wisdom was if you went in there, it would only make things worse and your career would be over, anyway. Now you go in, fix it, and you’re OK for next spring.”
In 1961, Koufax really hit his stride: He went 18-13 and led the majors in strikeouts, something he would do four times between 1961 and 1966. Meanwhile, during those six seasons he led the league three times in wins and shutouts, and twice he threw more complete games than any other pitcher. He set a new major-league season strikeout record—382—in 1965. (Only Nolan Ryan has since struck out more batters in a single season.) Koufax threw one no-hitter every year from 1962 to 1965, and in 1965 he threw a perfect game. His pitches were notoriously difficult to hit; getting the bat on a Koufax fastball, Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell once said, was like “trying to drink coffee with a fork.”
Koufax is also remembered as one of the outstanding Jewish athletes in American sports. His decision not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur garnered national attention as an example of conflict between professional pressures and personal beliefs. In 1971, the 36-year-old Koufax became the youngest person ever to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.