April 14 will mark the 50th anniversary of Sandy Koufax‘s only Opening Day start in a Hall of Fame career, and today we celebrate No. 32 as the countdown continues to Dodgers vs. D-backs on March 22 in Sydney, Australia.
Don Drysdale had generally handled the Opening Day assignment for the Dodgers in that era of their 1-2 domination on the mound following the club’s move from Brooklyn. The big right-hander started on Opening Day in 1958-61, ’63 and ’65. Johnny Podres had started it in ’62, the first game at Dodger Stadium. For Koufax, ’64 was his turn and his time.
Koufax had been named Most Valuable Player of the 1963 World Series, leading the Dodgers to a sweep of the Yankees and then receiving a unanimous Cy Young Award as well as National League MVP. Jane Leavy, author of his brilliant biography “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” would write: “He was feted while JFK was mourned.” Indeed, lofty Koufax and Dodger expectations for ’64 were realized immediately as 50,451 fans at Dodger Stadium saw one of the greatest left-handers in Major League history scatter six singles and shut out the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. Bill White led off the fourth for St. Louis and then reached second on a wild pitch, but Koufax retired the next three in order and that was the only Cardinal baserunner to get that far. It was Koufax’s ninth complete game with no walks.
“It just happened that way,” Koufax said on Monday at the Dodgers’ Spring Training camp in Glendale, Ariz., where he returned as a special adviser to team chairman Mark Walter. “It’s kind of called an honor, but a lot depends on what happens in Spring Training. If you have three or four good pitchers, it might depend who you are playing.”
But behind the scenes, an ominous arm problem was developing. Koufax had thrown a high percentage of slow curves and changeups that spring, and his arm had almost doubled in size after one exhibition against the Yankees. Eight days after his Opening Day performance, Koufax would feel something “let go” in his left arm, requiring a few cortisone shots. He would throw his third no-hitter that ’64 season, but would be diagnosed with traumatic arthritis after closing out a 19-win season and would win a combined 53 games while pitching in pain over two final Cy Young seasons.
The great Koufax went out in style, became the youngest former player ever inducted in Cooperstown, and left his mark on Opening Day and Baseball. How great it is to see him back in camp again, asking reporters on Monday if they knew how he fared in that 1964 opener, the game’s history meeting its future in yet another new beginning under the sun.
The 2014 Dodgers follow their March 22-23 Opening Series at Sydney with three games at San Diego and then their home opener on April 4 against the rival Giants. Let us know who should be No. 31 in our countdown in the comments below, and plan your own season at the ballpark. MLB Schedule | Tickets