A Personal Remembrance of Sandy Koufax’s Perfect Game 55 Years Ago Today!
My mom’s beef stroganoff was always a hit for our whole family. Michael, my younger brother, and I always tried to out eat each other at every meal, that was especially true with beef stroganoff. But, tonight I bowed out of our beef stroganoff eating competition early because I had an important appointment with our big GE console stereo in our living room.
Earlier in the day, September 9, 1965, Juan Marichal had shutout the newly named Houston Astros 4-0 for his league-leading tenth shutout. It was Juan’s 21st win and was the Giants sixth straight victory. The win moved the Giants one game ahead of the Dodgers and Reds, both of whom would play later that night. That was why I had my important date with our big console stereo, I needed to listen to the Dodgers game in L.A.
The Giants and their longtime rival, the Dodgers, were locked in a nerve-wracking exciting five team race to represent the National League in the 1965 World Series. Before the start of play that day the Giants, Reds, Dodgers, Braves and Pirates were separated by merely four games with a little more than three weeks left in the season. Keep in mind, this was before divisions or wild card teams. This was a pure old-fashioned ten team dogfight, with perfect balanced schedules, for the National League pennant! Any one of these five teams could realistically win the pennant!
The Dodgers had their great ace, Sandy Koufax, on the mound. He was matched up with 26 year-old ex-Giant Bob Hendley. Bob was making his second start after being called up from the minors when rosters expanded. Hendley had been traded by the Giants with catcher Ed Bailey and outfielder Harvey Kuenn to the Cubs earlier in the year in late May for outfielder Len Gabrielson and catcher Dick Bertell. Hendley had a decent season with the Giants in 1964. The key guy in the trade, from the Giants perspective, was left handed batter Len Gabrielson. Gabrielson had a good remainder of the season with the Giants, hitting ,301 after the trade.
Sandy Koufax was in his fourth year of unprecedented pitching excellence. He was signed as a ‘bonus baby’ in 1955 by the Dodgers. For the next six years he struggled with his control. He would show flashes of brilliance, like when in 1959 he would strike out 18 of my Giants at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, to tie the MLB record at that time. But, he remained a mediocre pitcher through the 1960 season.
All that changed because of a simple piece of advice from a Dodgers backup catcher. Here’s that backup catcher, Norm Sherry, describing his advice to Sandy that would give MLB batters nightmares for the next six years.
“It was 1961 in Orlando, where we went to play the Twins in an exhibition game. We’d talked on the plane going over there, and he said, “I want to work on my change-up and my curveball.” We went with a very minimal squad because one of our pitchers missed the plane. Gil Hodges went as our manager. [Koufax] couldn’t throw a strike, and he ended up walking the first three guys. I went to the mound and said, “Sandy, we don’t have many guys here; we’re going to be here a long day. Why don’t you take something off the ball and just put it in there? Don’t try to throw it so hard. Just put it in there and let them hit it.”
I went back behind the plate. Good God! He tried to ease up, and he was throwing harder than when he tried to. We came off the field, and I said, “Sandy, I don’t know if you realize it, but you just now threw harder than when you were trying to.” What he did was that he got his rhythm better and the ball jumped out of his hand and exploded at the plate. He struck out the side. It made sense to him that when you try to overdo something, you do less. Just like guys who swing so hard, they can’t hit the ball. He got really good.” That was an understatement!
In 1965 Koufax would capture his fourth straight NL ERA title. His second Cy Young award would be bestowed on Sandy shortly thereafter. Before the game that night he had already set the NL season strikeout record with three weeks left in the season and would soon shatter Bob Feller’s MLB record of 348, with 382 by the end of the season. My personal favorite pitcher, obviously, was the great Giants right hander Juan Marichal. But even at 12 years old, I recognized Koufax as the best pitcher I’ve ever seen before or since. For me, Sandy Koufax was the Willie Mays of the mound. Here’s a classic photo of the best pitching to the best at Candlestick Park.
I tuned the radio to KFI AM 640 as best I could with the dial. The signal from Los Angeles crackled with static and faded out completely intermittently. This didn’t bother me because I was an incredibly baseball crazed 12 year-old boy that literally lived and breathed baseball. I lived and died with my Giants!
Jerry Doggett started the pre-game show by reporting that the Reds had won their game with the Mets at Crosley Field moments before. The Mets were the doormat of the National League, but I’d had high hopes as they were starting rookie lefthander Tug McGraw, a Bay Area native. Fellow rookie Tony Perez ended the game with a walk-off home run with two gone in the ninth. Damn, there would be at least one team only a half game behind the Giants and I was NOT optimistic the lowly Cubbies could beat the great Sandy Koufax either.
By 1965 it was obvious to most fans, including me, that Vin Scully was clearly the best play-by-play broadcaster in baseball. His mastery of the English language and beautiful poetic way he described the game that I loved so much, impressed me very much, even at my tender age of 12! I listened to Vinny every chance I got.
While an Uncle John’s sausage commercial played, there were a LOT of those on Dodgers broadcasts then, I went to my bedroom to get my mitt and a baseball. Returning to the front of the big stereo I laid down on my back with my head pointed towards the speakers. The game began and I started tossing the ball in the air and then snagging it in my glove. This was the way I listened to hundreds of Giants on KSFO and Dodgers on KFI night games. In 1965 the Giants only telecasted, on KTVU, the nine games from Dodgers Stadium. Radio was how West Coast fans got their baseball in that era.
As the two lefties set down both teams in order through the fourth inning my mind drifted back to how I had foolishly turned down my dad’s offer to meet the Dodgers at his work two years before when I was ten years old. Now that I was so much older at twelve (LOL) I regretted that stupidity.
My father was a maintenance foreman for American Airlines at the San Francisco airport. The Dodgers had bought a Lockheed Electra turboprop airplane in 1961. American Airlines serviced the plane every time the Dodgers came to San Francisco.
The plane would be taxied to outside the American Airlines hangar where the Dodgers would board their charter buses to take them to their downtown hotel. Some of the mechanics and foremen would bring their kids to get autographs as the players got off the plane.
I refused to go, out of loyalty to my Giants! Who wanted to meet Dodgers anyway? Today, I kick myself each time I think of that short-sighted juvenile decision. Surely, I could’ve got Koufax’s autograph and a photo with the best pitcher I’ve ever seen. Maybe Vin Scully would’ve given me his autograph and taken a photo with me. What I wouldn’t give for those two autographs and photos today?? Damn!
In the bottom of the fifth Hendley walked the leadoff hitter, Lou Johnson, after going to a full count. Ron Fairly promptly laid down a bunt on the first offering from Hendley and Johnson moved to second. With Jim Lefebvre up, Johnson stole third and scored when Cubs rookie catcher Chris Krug threw the ball into left field. I immediately thought this 1-0 game was as good as over, knowing how dominant Koufax was then. He’s the only pitcher that I literally thought could pitch a no-hitter every time he toed the rubber. Like most great pitchers, you better get to him early or it was GAME OVER! It felt like that kind of night for Sandy, he’d set down the first 15 Cubs and racked up six K’s through five innings.
When Sandy set down the Cubs in order in the top of the sixth with another strikeout I began to sense history in the making. Bob Hendley retired the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the sixth and I realized he hadn’t given up a hit yet either! Could this be baseball’s first double no-hitter? Hendley was pitching the game of his life, yet he was still losing.
The tension was at its height in the top of the seventh when Koufax went to a 3-0 count on Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams. I was saying out loud, “Ball four!” with the next pitches. After all, there was a pennant at stake. If the Cubbies could comeback to win my Giants would be one game ahead of the Dodgers. Williams flew out to close out the top of the seventh.
In the bottom of the frame Hendley retired the first two Dodgers. Then Lou Johnson lifted a weak humpback pop up behind first base. It fell in and bounded into foul territory. By the time Billy Williams retrieved the ball Johnson had motored into second. The first hit of the ballgame was bloop double! Had Hendley got four more outs without giving up a hit and the Cubs didn’t get a hit in their final two innings it would’ve been baseball’s first DOUBLE no-hitter … amazing!
In the eighth Koufax became simply unhittable, as I feared he would. Hall of Famer Ron Santo went down looking. The next Cubs Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks, was blown down with three straight blazing fastballs. Rookie Byron Browne went down swinging on four fastballs. Eleven fastballs and three K’s for Koufax!
After the hardluck Hendley had retired the Dodgers in the bottom of the eighth I sat up facing the stereo to concentrate on rallying the Cubs. It was the top of the ninth, could the amazing Koufax do it??
Dick Tracewski replaced Lefebvre at second base for his defense. Rookie catcher Chris Krug, who’s throwing error in the fifth inning had led to the lone run, stepped into the box. Vin Scully sensing history had called the KFI studio to have the engineer make a recording of his ninth inning play-by-play. Rather than me describe the action, take a listen to Vin Scully’s beautiful poetic call of the historic ninth inning! Click here to listen:
Here’s a photo of Sandy being mobbed by his teammates after he completed the sixth perfect game in the World Series era and only the second in the National League, Jim Bunning had pitched the senior circuit’s first perfecto the previous season. Koufax was the first left hander to pitch a perfect game in the 20th century.
Dodger owner Walter O’Malley had a bottle of champagne delivered to Koufax in the clubhouse. Sandy showed he was a true ballplayer when he passed up the champagne and asked for a beer.
Koufax: “I knew all along I was pitching a no-hitter but it never crossed my mind that it might be a perfect game. The one against the Phillies last year was the best of the first three, but this one had to be the topper.” There were only three ground-outs and Koufax said “this indicated I had good stuff. I had a good fastball, especially late in the game. I felt loose and my control was better than it had been all year.”
His first pitch was a curve that bounced off the plate and rolled to the backstop. Glenn Beckert, the second batter, hit a line drive down the left field line that was foul by six inches. Rookie outfielder Byron Browne lined sharply to Willie Davis in center to end the second inning.
Koufax admitted his “heart skipped a beat when (Wes) Parker had to scoop up Maury’s (Wills) low throw ” after Krug’s ground ball in the sixth inning. After that, Koufax said he had his best stuff. “In the last couple of innings I just tried to keep the ball away from everyone. They had their big guys coming up, Santo and Banks, the guys who could beat me. “Sure, I knew about the no-hitter. You always do. All you have to do is look at the Scoreboard. Then, along about the seventh inning, you begin to think — well, maybe there’s a chance. “I never thought about the perfect game. Naturally, I tried not to walk anybody. After all, I had only a one-run lead. It’s great to have a tight game early. It makes me bear down more. But later on, it’s nice to have a four or five-run lead. I can sympathize with Hendley—it’s a shame to lose a game the way he did,” said Koufax.
Losing pitcher Hendley said they didn’t even try to bunt, “We figured Sandy was just too fast.” Hendley was downcast but not wracked with grief. In what may be the understatement of the year, he said, “That’s the best any guy has pitched against me in my career. It’s the first time I lost, to a no-hitter.”
Five days later on September 14, 1965 Hendley got a measure of revenge when he out-pitched Koufax and won 2-1 at Wrigley Field. It was Sandy’s last lost of the season.
Sandy’s last three no-hitters were caught by different catchers. John Roseboro caught the first two, Doug Camilli the one against the Phils and Jeff Torborg Thursday. Torborg, a sophomore, was far more nervous than Koufax. He was still shaking in the clubhouse. “I kept telling myself when (Harvey) Kueen stepped up — ‘only three more pitches.’ Then, I realized how long that would be. Wow, three more pitches! I thought it would never end.”
Torborg confirmed that Koufax’ best pitch early was his curve “and later on, when he loosened up, his fast ball was great. He was exceptionally fast when he wanted to be. He started with (Ernie) Banks in the fifth inning. He struck him out on a fast ball that was unbelievable.” Banks was a three-time strikeout victim and Billy Williams and Hendley went down swinging twice.
Said the Cubs’ third baseman, Ron Santo, “I’ve never seen Sandy throw as hard as he did when he struck me out in the eighth. He threw one fastball right by me and I was waiting for it. He seemed to get a burst of energy in the late innings.”
“He was just great — it was beautiful,” said Cub veteran Ernie Banks. “He was getting the curve over real good the first five innings. Then he got tremendous momentum. I thought he might weaken some later on. but he just kept throwing the ball right on through. And he was throwing strikes.”
“I thought this was the best of all his no-hitters,” said Dodger manager Walter Alston. Harold (Lefty) Phillips, the Dodger pitching coach, called Koufax “a better competitor than any pitcher in baseball. “Most pitchers hate to be matched against a Juan Marichal. a Jim Maloney or a Bob Yeale, but Sandy welcomes the challenge. And he pitches just as hard against the bottom clubs as he does the pennant contenders.
This was the tightest of Sandy’s quartet of gems. The first was against the Mets. June 30, 1962, and the score was 5-0. No 2 was 8-0, against my Giants, May 11, 1963. The previous year, on June 4, it was 3-0 against the Phillies. it was the only one not at Dodgers Stadium.
Here’s a few photos of Sandy’s no-hitter of my Giants in 1963. Our neighborhood gathered to watch that game on our next door neighbor’s new color TV, the first in our neighborhood.
I will admit that I was rooting like hell for the two former Giants, Joey Amalfitano and Harvey Kuenn, to break up Sandy’s perfecto in the ninth. Looking back though, I wouldn’t be writing about this historic game if Joey or Harvey had spoiled Koufax’s masterpiece. Every year since the Internet has become a part of all our lives I’ve listened to Scully’s historic call of the ninth inning. Each time I do, it takes me back to being an innocent 12 year-old baseball crazed boy listening to the best baseball announcer call the ninth inning of the perfect game by the greatest pitcher I ever saw over a weak static-filled radio broadcast! It’s my personal baseball time machine!