On this day in 1972, 36-year-old Sandy Koufax, the former Los Angeles Dodgers star, becomes the youngest player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “This is the only thing that’s made having to retire early a little easier,” says Koufax, who retired at age 30. “This is the biggest honor I’ve ever been given, not just in baseball, but in my life.”
Koufax made his Major League Baseball debut in 1955, but was inconsistent early in his career. Before 1961, his biggest claim to fame was leading the majors in wild pitches in 1958. In 1961, however, Koufax led the National League with 269 strikeouts and made the all-star team.
He was the most dominant pitcher in Major League Baseball over the next several seasons, winning three Cy Young Awards and the 1963 Most Valuable Player Award. He also led the league in ERA for five straight seasons, helping the Dodgers to three NL pennants as well as World Series titles in 1963 and 1965.
The left-handed Koufax was known for his fastball and a curveball that often broke a foot or more, as well as for his commitment, as a Jew, to not pitching on the Sabbath.
After a 1964 baserunning injury, Koufax was diagnosed with traumatic arthritis in his throwing arm, but he continued pitching through constant pain. On September 9, 1965, he threw a perfect game, the first by a lefthander since 1880 and a then-record fourth career no-hitter.
Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it coincided with Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday. But he went on to make three appearances in the Series: a loss in Game 2, a complete-game shutout in Game 5, and a second shutout, on just two days’ rest, to win Game 7 and earn his second World Series MVP.
Despite his doctor’s warning that his arm could not handle another season, Koufax threw 323 innings in 1966, more than any pitcher in the majors, and led the league in wins (27), strikeouts (317) and ERA (1.73). Also, he pitched a complete game on two days’ rest to win the NL pennant, but the Dodgers went on to lose the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles in four games. Koufax retired a few weeks later.
Koufax, in his first year of eligibility, entered the Hall alongside pitcher Early Wynn and New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who had famously said of Koufax’s 1963 season: “I can see how he won 25 games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”