Koufax pitches through pain for third Cy Young Award

Written by: Justin Alpert

Statistically, Sandy Koufax was in the prime of his illustrious career. The 30-year-old had just completed a 1966 campaign in which his 1.73 ERA, 27 wins, 27 complete games, 323 innings and 317 strikeouts all led baseball. Koufax had also paced the sport in those categories in 1965, when he won his second Cy Young Award in three seasons.

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Introduced in 1956, the prestigious award wasn’t given to a pitcher in both leagues until 1967. Still, nobody across 20 teams could compete with Koufax. On Nov. 1, 1966, the unhittable lefty won yet another Cy Young Award.

“Sandy Koufax, with the kind of unanimity that wins elections in Russia, yesterday won the Cy Young Award for an unprecedented third time,” reported the Daily News.

The news came weeks after a forgettable World Series loss to the Orioles. Baltimore had limited the Dodgers to two total runs in the four-game sweep, benefitting from shutouts by Jim Palmer and Wally Bunker in Games 2 and 3, respectively. Koufax, meanwhile, had started the second game, yielding four runs (one earned) in six innings.

“This award should have been split up and given to about four of those Baltimore pitchers,” Koufax joked to the Daily News.

By Koufax’s lofty standards, 1966 got off to a rocky start as he failed to record more than nine outs in two of his first six outings. But from May 10 to July 5, Koufax was all but untouchable, going 12-2 with a 1.16 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning. Opponents hit just .194 off the lefty in that 14-start span.

Then, on July 27, Koufax allowed one run and struck out 16 Phillies as he dueled fellow Hall of Famer Jim Bunning for 11 innings – the Dodgers eventually won 2-1 on a walk-off in the 12th. It was Koufax’s sixth career start of at least 11 innings.

From Aug. 21 through the end of the season, Los Angeles never led the National League by more than three-and-a-half games. Koufax willed the club to the pennant as he went 8-2 with a 1.73 ERA in his last 11 starts. Don Drysdale (4-3, 2.50) and a rookie Don Sutton (2-1, 1.37) also dominated during that stretch, and the Dodgers finished a game and a half ahead of the Giants.

Physically, however, Koufax’s magical left arm was running out of steam.

“For an athlete who has suffered from a finger malady and an arthritic pitching elbow, Koufax has posted pitching statistics that read more like fiction than fact,” wrote the Daily News.

Koufax had long been developing arthritis in his elbow, but an awkward dive into second base in 1964 worsened the condition and ended his season in mid-August. The elbow grew swollen to the point of resembling an “inflated tire,” wrote Jon Weisman in his book Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers’ Extraordinary Pitching Tradition.

While continued excellence in 1965-66 concealed the pain Koufax pitched through every four days, speculation grew about his future on a mound. “I certainly intend to keep pitching as long as I’m able, but my physical condition is the factor that will determine how long I last,” Koufax told the Daily News after winning Cy Young Award No. 3.

Just a couple weeks later, on Nov. 18, Koufax announced his retirement and grew more transparent about the elbow condition. “I began to think about retirement more and more as the pain became more continual,” he told the Daily News. “I think there was only one game this past season when my arm didn’t hurt.”

Koufax was the first three-time winner in the Cy Young Award’s young history – 10 others have since joined him on the exclusive list. Considering his physical woes, however, Koufax’s run from 1963-66 is as impressive as any in major league history. And in 1972, the Brooklyn native became the youngest player inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Justin Alpert was the 2023 social media intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Leadership Development

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