By Jon Weisman
Imagine a world without the Internet, without social media, without wall-to-wall sports coverage, and you pick up your morning paper from the driveway to find this:
“VERO BEACH — Sandy Koufax, greatest left hander in the game, flew back to Los Angeles Thursday for examination of his stiff and swollen elbow — the one on his million dollar pitching arm which he injured last season,” wrote Frank Finch of the Times.
This April 2, 1965 story showed that things were different 50 years ago in more ways than one. As we noted last week, Koufax’s 1964 season ended in mid-August. Nevertheless, on March 30, in the middle of Spring Training — nearly two weeks before Opening Day — Koufax pitched his second straight complete game for the Dodgers, striking out 10 in a 2-0 loss.
Two days later, the 29-year-old was on a plane to see Dr. Robert Kerlan.
“If there are no complications Sandy will take the first plane back to Dodgertown Friday,” general manager Buzzie Bavasi told reporters. “The swelling is above and in the back of his elbow, but it’s not swollen nearly as much as when he had to quit pitching last season. I think he’ll be all right.
“Sandy didn’t seem too worried when I talked to him today, but in a phone conversation with Dr. Kerlan I was advised to send Sandy home. … I’m concerned, of course, and this development is a real blow to the club. I sort of anticipated it, but through wishful thinking I hoped it wouldn’t happen.”
The next day, the Times headline was even bigger:
KOUFAX SIDELINED BY ELBOW ARTHRITIS
Southpaw’s Future in Doubt
Kerlan told the Times that Koufax had “a traumatic arthritic condition of the left elbow which tends to flare up under repeated stress … that will be an off-and-on occurence all year long,” adding that “it is very doubtful” whether Koufax could pitch in the season opener April 12.
“It is too early to tell what the results of treatment will be and too early to tell when he will be able to pitch,” Kerlan said. “I am going to be neither over-optimistic nor over-pessimistic at this time.”
Still, doomsday talk wasn’t far away. “It doesn’t take a genius to know that the Dodgers are in trouble if Sandy Koufax can’t pitch,” Leo Durocher, who was gearing up to be part of ABC’s announcing team in 1965, told Times columnist Sid Ziff. Durocher predicted that Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Philadelphia all had better chances at the National League pennant than Los Angeles.
A week later, Koufax was in Washington D.C. for an exhibition series between the Dodgers and the American League’s Senators. He played catch with pitcher Jim Brewer in the outfield on April 9, then took the mound two days later and threw three one-hit innings, striking out five. The next day, the Times said, he woke up “without a trace of swelling in his celebrated left elbow.”
Said Koufax: “It’s greatly encouraging, and now I’m going to try something new; I’m going to throw less between starts to save my arm for when it counts.”
Koufax made his 1965 regular-season debut in the Dodgers’ fourth game, 18 days after he flew home from Dodgertown to be examined by Dr. Kerlan. You’ll not be shocked to learn what happened next.
“Less than a month ago Sandy Koufax wondered whether he was washed up as a pitcher,” wrote Finch. “His left elbow resembled a pink balloon, and his $70,000-a-year job with the Dodgers was in jeopardy.
“But Sandy made a triumphant return to the wars Sunday when he scored his ninth straight victory over the Phillies, 6-2, in the most frigid 49-deg. weather you can imagine.”
In those extreme conditions, after that extreme Spring Training, Koufax faced 37 batters in a complete-game six-hitter with five walks, while striking out seven.
“There is no pain at all,” Koufax said after the game. “I was very pleased and I hope to get better.”
Amazingly, Koufax would finish 1965 with 335 2/3 innings in 43 games (41 starts), plus 24 more innings in three World Series starts — in the second-to-last season of his career.