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Sandy Koufax Almost Quit Baseball Before Becoming a Hall of Fame Pitcher

“I thought after my first six years in baseball, it was going to be, ‘Go out and look for another job.'”

The story of when Sandy Koufax almost quit baseball before turning his career around
Credit-Dodgers/MLB/Joker Mag

Before becoming one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Sandy Koufax was a struggling southpaw who nearly quit baseball to work for an electronics business.

Here’s how he turned it all around, transformed his career, and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

  1. A Losing Record Through Six Seasons
  2. Why Did Koufax Retire So Young?
  3. Legendary Quotes About Sandy Koufax

A Losing Record Through Six Seasons

“Mine was a career that began ingloriously.”

With a 36-40 record in his first six seasons, 24-year-old Sandy Koufax struggled with his command.

He was walking an average of 5.3 batters per game over that span.

His own teammates wouldn’t even get in the batting cage with him.

“He has no coordination and he has lost all his confidence,” said pitching coach, Joe Becker.

“His arm is sound, but mechanically he is all fouled up.”

Dodgers manager Walter Alston routinely pulled him from the starting rotation.

“How can I pitch you when you can’t get the side out?” Alston would ask.

Koufax fired back, “How can I get the side out sitting on the bench?”

After the last game of the 1960 season, Sandy threw his glove and cleats in the trash.

He had a feeling the Dodgers’ front office was ready to cut ties, so he requested a trade.

But that offseason, the team denied his request.

Past the point of frustration, Koufax seriously considered quitting baseball altogether and going to work for an electronics business he’d invested in.

“I thought after my first six years in baseball,” Koufax said, “it was going to be, ‘Go out and look for another job.'”

So how did he turn his baseball career around?

A Sandy Koufax quote that says: "I thought after my first six years in baseball, it was going to be, ‘Go out and look for another job.'"

It took a fortunate series of events that included major surgery and taking some heat off his pitches.

Right before spring training, Koufax had a tonsillectomy.

The common but major surgery caused him to stop eating.

When all was said and done, he lost roughly 20 pounds before meeting the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Florida.

This forced him to work harder to pack the muscle back on.

“I really started working out,” Koufax remembered. “I started running more. I decided I was really going to find out how good I can be.”

That year in spring training, Dodgers catcher Norm Sherry made a suggestion:

“Why not have some fun out there, Sandy? Don’t try to throw so hard and use more curve balls and change-ups.”

Koufax took his advice seriously, and it led to a turning point in his career.

That spring, he:

  • Fixed a hitch in his wind-up
  • Improved his control by “taking the grunt” out of his fastball
  • Began to focus on getting ahead in the count with a first-pitch strike

He also took an unorthodox approach to the mental side of pitching.

Instead of studying opposing hitters for days before the game, he didn’t even think about them until warming up. That way, he could concentrate on them completely.

Sandy Koufax quote that says: "I really started working out. I started running more. I decided I was really going to find out how good I can be."

And rather than obsessing over getting the superstar hitters out, he focused on sitting down the average ones. Even if the star player reached base three times, it wouldn’t matter if no one else got a hit off him.

Lastly, he never blamed any single play or player for costing him a game. Because, sooner or later, that same player would save him from trouble in another game.

With his new approach, the 25-year-old Koufax quickly went from “thrower” to “pitcher”, as Vin Scully would say. And it worked like a charm.

1961 was his breakout season. Sandy led the league with 269 strikeouts and won 18 games.

Then in 1963, he conquered the baseball world.

After striking out a whopping 306 batters and posting a minuscule 1.88 ERA, Sandy Koufax became the first-ever unanimous Cy Young Award winner.

That very October, he helped the Dodgers sweep the vaunted Yankees on his way to winning World Series MVP.

The accolades piled up through the fall of 1966 when Koufax abruptly announced his retirement.

Why Did Koufax Retire So Young?

Sandy Koufax retired at 30 years old because of chronic arthritis in his throwing elbow.

Dodgers team physician, Dr. Robert Kerlan, said at the time, “Sandy pitches in extreme pain that can only be overcome by his motivational urge.”

The damage was so bad that his left arm had actually gotten shorter.

Everyday tasks like combing his hair became painful, and he had to lean over the sink just to reach his face when shaving.

He even started getting his suit jackets tailored to hide the malformation.

By the end of 1966, the bone spurs in his throwing elbow had grown to nearly a quarter-inch.

Yet, he never missed his turn in the rotation that entire year.

According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, “In April of 1966, Koufax was told that he couldn’t go another season, but he did just that – winning a career-high 27 games with a career-best 1.73 ERA.”

He officially retired from baseball on November 18th, 1966.

In 1972, Koufax became the youngest player ever elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

After contemplating a different life path altogether, Sandy Koufax wrote one of the best comeback stories in baseball history.

Legendary Quotes About Sandy Koufax

Quote about Sandy Koufax from Willie Stargell that says "Trying to hit Koufax was like drinking coffee with a fork"

“Trying to hit Koufax was like drinking coffee with a fork.” – Willie Stargell

“He throws a ‘radio ball,’ a pitch you hear, but you don’t see” – Gene Mauch

“When I faced Sandy, I used to say my prayers.” – Manny Mota

“There is hardly a strong enough word for the way the other players feel about Koufax. It almost goes beyond affection…for a man so gentle he seems misplaced in a jock shop.” – Thomas Boswell, Washington Post

“I can see how he won 25 games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.” – Yogi Berra

“There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stood up: The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the second time, I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.” – Al Campanis, Dodgers scout

“I knew every pitch he was going to throw – fastball, breaking ball, or whatever. Actually, he would let you look at it. And you still couldn’t hit it.” – Willie Mays

RELATED: 61 Most Inspirational Baseball Quotes of All Time

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Written By

Division III baseball alum (McDaniel College) and founder of Joker Mag. Sharing underdog stories to inspire the next generation.

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