Baseball BeatJanuary 14, 2004
Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series
By Rich Lederer

ESPN Sports Classic replayed the Seventh Game of the 1965 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins last Saturday. Watching the videotape of this game was an enjoyable way to spend a weekend morning in January.

Let me set the stage. The Dodgers had won 13 consecutive games in the second half of September, including seven shutouts, to overtake the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants (fresh off a 14-game win streak at the beginning of the month). Sandy Koufax beat the Milwaukee Braves, 2-1, on Saturday, October 2 to clinch the National League pennant in the second to last game of the season. Koufax, who led the N.L. that year in wins (26), ERA (2.04), complete games (27), and innings pitched (335 2/3), struck out 13 Braves to increase his then modern single-season record to 382.

Over in the American League, the Twins clinched their first pennant on the previous Sunday when Jim Kaat (18-11, 2.83) defeated the Washington Senators, 2-1. Minnesota dominated the A.L. in 1965. After opening day, the Twins were either in first or second place every day that season.

The linesmakers established the Dodgers as a 7:5 favorite to win the World Series. The Dodgers would have been an even heavier favorite if the first game had not fallen on Yom Kippur, causing Koufax to miss the opener and perhaps a third start should the Series go the distance.

In Game One, the underdog Twins knocked out Don Drysdale in the second inning en route to a 8-2 drubbing over the visitors. When Dodgers manager Walter Alston went to the mound to pull Drysdale, the big righthander reportedly quipped, "Hey, skip, I bet you wish I was Jewish today, too."

Kaat drove in Minnesota's first two runs and went on to defeat Koufax and the Dodgers, 5-1, in Game Two. The Dodgers bounced back and took games three through five in Los Angeles behind Claude Osteen's five-hit shutout, Drysdale's CG victory, and Koufax's four-hit shutout.

The Series returned to Metropolitan Stadium with the Twins down three games to two. Mudcat Grant hit a three-run homer and tossed a six hitter to beat the Dodgers, 5-1.

The Rubber Game of the Match

That brings us to Game Seven. Alston has a decision to make. Go with Drysdale in his normal turn in the rotation or bring back Koufax on two days rest? Alston announces at a team meeting the morning of Game Seven a decision he and his coaches had made the previous evening to go with "the lefthander". By starting Sandy rather than the Big D, Alston reasons that the Dodgers can throw a lefty (Koufax), righty (Drysdale), and lefty (Ron Perranoski) combination at the Twins, if need be.

The black and white telecast begins with Kaat, also back on two days rest, striking out Maury Wills. With Jim Gilliam on first base, Willie Davis tries to bunt for a hit. I can't fathom a number three hitter attempting a bunt single with a runner on first and one out in today's environment. Then again, a hitter of Davis' ineptitude would not be batting third either. I mean, can you imagine filling out the lineup card in the most crucial game of the year and writing down a player's name in the third slot with the following regular season stats?

        G   AB  R  H   2B  3B HR  RBI BB  SO  SB  CS AVG  OBP  SLG
Davis   142 558 52 133 24  3  10  57  14  81  25  9 .238 .263 .346  
Yes, that line is correct. The Dodgers #3 hitter had an on-base percentage of .263. The league average was .322 excluding pitchers. He also had an OPS of .609 versus .713 for the league. His OPS+ was 76, meaning he was 24% less productive than the average hitter, adjusted for ballpark conditions. Davis reached base 154 times (including just 14 by base on balls) and made 457 outs! Moneyball, anyone?

In defense of Alston, he didn't have much to choose from. Drysdale was the only player with a higher slugging average (.508) than Lou Johnson's .391 or an OPS (.839) better than Junior Gilliam's .758. And Double D was needed in the bullpen that day. As such, Alston went with Davis, the best "tools" player on the team.

Back to the ballgame. So, what did the "out machine" do? He promptly bunted the ball back to Kaat for an easy out at first. This strategy appears to be predicated on the belief that the Dodgers are looking to score one run anyway they can get it, knowing that Koufax has the potential of whitewashing the Twins once again.

In any event, the Dodgers cleanup hitter Johnson is retired to end the top of the first. Koufax takes the mound for his third start in eight days. The camera pans the field, showing the Dodgers defensively as well as Billy Martin coaching third for the Twins.

Zoilo Versalles, the A.L.'s MVP in 1965, strikes out to lead off the bottom of the first. Joe Nossek steps up and Koufax misses high on more than one occasion--owing to Metropolitan Stadium's "flat mound" as John Roseboro describes it in an audio clip, contrasting the Twins' flatter mound vs. the Dodgers' steeper mound. And you thought ballpark effects were mostly due to the distance of the outfield walls or the amount of foul territory?

Nossek strikes out, but Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew draw back-to-back walks. Koufax is clearly laboring at this point, taking his hat off and wiping his brow with his sleeve after almost every pitch. Drysdale starts loosening up in the bullpen. Sandy buckles down and whiffs Earl Battey to end the inning.

The videotape cuts to the bottom of the third inning. Kaat, while at the plate, is described by play-by-play announcer Ray Scott as "very fast...used as a pinch runner...likes to bunt for a base hit". Add in the fact that Kaat earned 16 consecutive Gold Gloves during his career, and it serves as a nice reminder just how good an athlete he was.

After Kaat is retired, Versalles lines a hanging curveball to center field for a single, prompting Drysdale to begin warming up for the second time. Zorro steals second but is sent back to first because the batter, Nossek, is called out for interference. Third base coach Martin walks toward home plate, arguing to no avail that Koufax is not coming to a full stop in his stretch. The Twins strand Versalles on first and the game heads to the fourth with no score.

Sweet Lou

Johnson leads off the top of the inning with a home run off the left field foul pole, giving the Dodgers a 1-0 lead. The "why do they call it a foul pole?" question rings through my mind. Ron Fairly doubles into the right field corner. Al Worthington, the ace of the Twins bullpen, begins to loosen up. Wes Parker follows with a groundball single to right, scoring Fairly with Parker taking second on Oliva's misplay. Dodgers two, Twins nothing. Sam Mele walks to the mound and points to the bullpen, calling for Worthington. Scott acknowledges that it's the "earliest" Worthington has appeared in a game in 1965.

Can you imagine Mike Scioscia bringing in Troy Percival or Joe Torre motioning for Mariano Rivera in the fourth inning of Game Seven of the World Series? Well, that is exactly what Mele did. Worthington had a 10-7 record with 21 saves (good for sixth in the A.L.) and an ERA of 2.14 in 1965. And, unlike a lot of other relievers in those days, Worthington had not pitched an unusually high number of innings during the regular season (only 80 spread over 62 games, for an average of 1 1/3 IP per game). Yet, in the final game of the season, the Twins "closer" was being asked to stop the bleeding right then and there.

Dick Tracewski, starting at second base in place of Jim Lefebvre (the N.L. Rookie of the Year in 1965), tries to sacrifice Parker to third but pops up to Worthington. Tracewski (.215/.313/.263 over the course of the season) goes 2-for-17 with one BB and no extra base hits in the Series. And modern-day Dodgers fans think Alex Cora and Cesar Izturis are pathetic? Worthington walks Roseboro, then retires Koufax and Wills to keep the game from getting out of hand early.

In the bottom of the fifth, Frank Quilici doubles off the base of the left center field fence. A check of Quilici's season stats (.208/.280/.255) makes Luis Rivas look like an acceptable option at second base. Drysdale gets up in the bullpen for the third time. Koufax walks Rich Rollins, who is pinch hitting for Worthington, on a 3-and-2 pitch, then slams his left fist into his glove. Alston walks to the mound while Vin Scully interjects that Koufax has had success with his fastball only. As Roseboro recalls in "True Blue--The Dramatic History of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Told by the Men Who Lived It":

"Sandy's arm was giving him problems in that last World Series game. He couldn't get his breaking ball over the plate. So I finally went out and said, 'Sandy, what's going on?' He said, 'I can't throw the goddamn curveball.' I said, 'Well, what are we gonna do?' He said, 'Fuck it! Let's just blow it by 'em!' "

The next batter, Versalles, then hits a sharp grounder down the third base line and Gilliam makes a spectacular backhanded catch, forcing Quilici at third and preventing at least one run from scoring. The so-called "NBC Instant Replay" allowed viewers to witness for a second time one of the best defensive plays in World Series history. Koufax gathers himself and retires Nossek on a 6-to-4 force out at second base. Nossek (.218/.250/.306), a righthanded-hitting rookie outfielder who went 4-for-20 in the Series with no walks or extra base hits, started in place of the lefthanded Jimmie Hall (.285/.347/.464) five times against Koufax and Osteen, the two Dodger southpaws. Hey, Sam, can you say "over manage"?

Koufax sets down Bob Allison, Don Mincher, and Quilici in order in the bottom of the seventh, and then gets pinch hitter Sandy Valdespino (a lefthanded reserve outfielder who, according to Scully, threw batting practice for the Twins before the game), Versalles, and Nossek 1-2-3 in the bottom of the eighth. With Drysdale, who has perhaps thrown as many pitches as Koufax, and Perranoski throwing in the bullpen behind Koufax, Scully reminds us that the Twins have Oliva, Killebrew, and Battey due up in the ninth.

In the top of the final frame, Koufax leads off and receives a round of applause from the Twins faithful. That would never happen today unless, of course, it was Roger Clemens' last...err, strike that thought. Nonetheless, Sandy swings and misses at a high fastball and laughs, then fails to check his swing on a breaking ball. Koufax pulls back his bat on a two-strike bunt attempt for ball one before feebly swinging and missing for strike three.

Scully, as only Vinny can do, then describes the defensive alignment for Wills, saying he "must feel like (third baseman) Killebrew's dentist". The Dodgers shortstop works Jim Perry for a walk. Scully, speculating as to whether Wills will try to steal, tells us that he has stolen three bases in the Series. Maury runs on the first pitch and is out on a good throw from Battey. Gilliam grounds out to end the inning.

Bottom of the Ninth

John Kennedy replaces Gilliam, the defensive star of the game, at third. Scott takes over the microphone and informs the viewers that the Twins must now face Sandy Koufax, "generally regarded as baseball's best pitcher".

Oliva steps in, swings and misses, losing his bat in the process as he was wont to do back then due to a bone chip in his hand. Tony O. hits an easy chopper to Kennedy for out number one. Koufax has now retired 12 in a row. Killebrew promptly lines a single to left. Battey walks to the plate, representing the tying run. The Twins catcher looks totally overmatched in his first two swings and then goes down looking. With two outs and a runner on first, up steps Allison. Scott chimes in, "It's Koufax's game to win or lose". Koufax blows down Allison swinging for his tenth strikeout of the game and second consecutive shutout, this time for all the grand marbles as the Dodgers beat the host Twins, 2-0, to wrap up the 1965 World Series championship. Game Seven was the only contest won by the visiting team. Alston and the Dodgers had won their fourth World Series title in eleven years.

After witnessing Sandy's clutch performance, I couldn't help but think poor ol' Grady Little must be wishing that he could have kibitzed with Koufax rather than Pedro Martinez in that all-important ALCS game last October. And that thought leads me to believe Sandy Koufax's place in baseball history has actually been undervalued by sabermetricians as a whole.

Brilliant If Not Brief

I recognize that Koufax benefited by pitching during the 1960s when runs were more scarce and by starting approximately half of his games in the expanse of Dodger Stadium, one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks of the past 40 years. However, sabermetricians routinely undervalue Koufax's counting stats during his peak years and fail to give proper credit for pitching on two or three days rest, especially at critical junctures in the season such as Game Seven of the 1965 World Series.

According to Jane Leavy in her masterfully written book, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy", the Dodger great pitched on two days rest eight times in his career. He had six victories, including three complete game wins with a combined total of 35 strikeouts.

How valuable is it to get one additional game out of a pitcher like Koufax in a seven-game series? That's a 50% increase over the more normal two starts. If that extra game is what makes the difference between winning and losing the World Championship, how do we quantify that?

Since 1950, there have been only three starting pitchers besides Koufax who won Game Seven of the World Series on only two days of rest. All four pitchers won the fifth and seventh games on a Monday and Thursday. In 1957, Lew Burdette of the Milwaukee Braves defeated the New York Yankees, 1-0 and 5-0. In 1964, Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Yankees, 5-2 and 7-5. In 1968, Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers beat the Cardinals, 5-3 and 4-1.

You may recall that Josh Beckett pitched a complete-game five-hitter, striking out nine to win Game Six and the 2003 World Series title on three days rest. Beckett's gutsy effort is sure to become part of World Series lore.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Christy Mathewson pitched three complete-game shutouts over the course of six days in the 1905 World Series, winning games one, three, and five. Mathewson's totals included three shutout wins, 18 strikeouts, 14 hits allowed, and only one walk in what may be the most remarkable pitching performance in World Series history.

For The Record

In Koufax's case, the two Series shutouts gave him a total of 29 complete games and 10 shutouts for the entire season. He threw 360 innings, striking out 411 batters along the way against only 76 walks. Sandy's won-loss record was 28-9 and his combined ERA was 1.93. He also had two saves in the only two games he didn't start that year.

Koufax's ERA for the regular season was 1.50 below the league average. His 2.04 ERA in a league context of 3.54 is better than a 3.00 ERA in today's league context of 4.50 because the former represents .576 of the league average versus .667 for the latter. Granted, the ballpark effects need to be evaluated but so do the incremental innings that Koufax pitched not only in the regular season but also in the postseason, an area that tends to get very little, if any, attention from the sabermetric crowd.

Factoring in park effects, Koufax's ERA was still an impressive 1.22 better than the league average. Based on the number of innings pitched, Koufax's superiority was worth about 56 runs on an actual basis and 45 runs on an adjusted basis vs. an average pitcher. And therein lies one of the problems when measuring Koufax's greatness. Average pitchers don't throw 300+ innings. A team might be able to change out 10 or 20 or even 25 innings at or close to an average rate, but it becomes a much more difficult proposition to replace the additional 50, 75, or 100 IP that Koufax provided his team.

Now I like Pedro Martinez as much as the next guy. On the basis of adjusted rate stats, Pedro compares favorably to just about any pitcher in the history of major league baseball. However, I think sabermetricians need to make sure they don't overlook just how dominant Sandy Koufax was during his heyday, too.

Soaking up Game Seven of the 1965 World Series 38 years later serves as a beautiful reminder of what once was.