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Dodgers Congratulating Sandy Koufax

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Remembering Sandy Koufax’s perfect game

Fourth no-hitter in four years for the Dodgers legend, pitched on September 9, 1965 at Dodger Stadium

Fifty-five years ago today, Sandy Koufax pitched the best game in Dodgers history, throwing a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium.

Entering the September 9, 1965 game, Koufax led the National League with 21 wins, matched by Juan Marichal of the Giants earlier in the day. But Koufax also hadn’t won a game in nearly four weeks. He didn’t pitch badly in the five starts and one relief appearance in between, posting a 3.10 ERA in 40⅔ innings, but only had three losses to show for it.

Koufax his first time through the Cubs order struck out four, then his second time through the lineup he fanned three. It was the final flourish that made this game extra special. After one strikeout in the seventh, Koufax struck out the final six batters he faced.

“A Michelangelo among pitchers, Sandy Koufax produced his masterpiece Thursday night when he pitched a perfect no-hit, no-run game against the Chicago Cubs,” Frank Finch wrote to lead his game story in the Los Angeles Times. (1)

The last of Koufax’s 14 strikeouts was pinch-hitter Harvey Keunn, a name burned into the memories of Dodgers fans everywhere. I think I’ve heard Vin Scully’s final call — “It is nine forty-six p.m., two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away. Sandy into his windup, here’s the pitch. Swung on and missed! A perfect game!” — more times than the pledge of allegiance.

Koufax had no room for error all night. Bob Hendley kept the Dodgers off balance all game. Their only run came in the fifth, when Sweet Lou Johnson walked, was bunted to second base, stole third and then scored when catcher Chris Krug threw the ball into left field.

The only thing keeping this game from being a double no-hitter was a bloop double by Johnson in the seventh.

It was the fourth straight season that Koufax threw a no-hitter, and he was the first to throw four. He told reporters after the game, “I knew all along I was pitching a no-hitter, but it never crossed my mind that it might be a perfect game.” (2)

Cubs legend Ernie Banks, who hit .173/.231/.368 against Koufax in his career, played first base and batted fifth that night, behind fellow Hall of Famers Billy Williams and Ron Santo.

“I struck out three times, on nine pitches. There were no wasted pitches at all. One, two, three, gone. One, two, three, gone. One, two, three, gone. He was like a machine on the mound,” Banks said of Koufax on ESPN’s SportsCentury. “It was the first time in my career that I’ve seen an athlete just have it all. I mean, just put it all together. Just one time.”

Koufax vs. Kershaw

It’s hard to argue against either Koufax’s perfect game or Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter as the best pitching game in Dodgers history. Koufax’s perfect game has a game score of 101, one of only 16 games with a triple-digit game score in nine innings in MLB history. The only three games ahead of Koufax are Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game (105), Max Scherzer’s 17-strikeout no-hitter (104), and Kershaw’s no-hitter (102).

The only thing keeping Kershaw from a perfect game was an error by shortstop Hanley Ramirez. He struck out one more (15) than Koufax (14), but strikeouts were far more prevalent in 2014 than in 1965. The National League in 1965 struck out 15.7 percent of the time, and the Cubs (15.3 percent) were basically average. In 2014, the NL struck out 20.9 percent of the time, with the Rockies (20.8 percent) also essentially average.

Believe it or not, the National League averaged fewer runs in 2014 (3.95 per game) than in 1965 (4.03). Dodger Stadium was more pitcher friendly relative to the league for Koufax’s perfect game (a 92 park factor in 1965, with 100 being average) than for Kershaw’s no-hitter (95 park factor in 2014).

Sandy Koufax Holding 4 “Zero” Baseballs
Sandy Koufax threw no-hitters in 1962, 1963, and 1964, then this perfect game in 1965.

So it’s a close call between both games. I’d pick Koufax’s perfect game as the best, but would not begrudge anyone choosing Kershaw’s no-hitter.

Down the stretch

In his appropriately-named “Out on a Limb” column, Jack Williams of the San Bernardino Sun made this prediction in the next morning’s paper: “With San Francisco surging ahead and Cincinnati still giving determined chase, it appears the Dodgers are doomed.” (3)

The standings after Koufax’s perfect game saw the Dodgers a half-game out of first place, tied with the Reds and behind the Giants. Williams looked prescient just a week later, when three straight losses dropped the Dodgers into third place and 4½ games back, but Los Angeles won 15 of its final 16 to capture a second pennant in three years.

Koufax, as you might imagine, was central to that late run. He pitched two shutouts on two days rest, including Game 7 of the World Series. Another shutout in September came on the normal four days after his previous start, but with a one-inning relief appearance in between (saves weren’t an official statistic yet, but he would have earned one).

From his perfect game through the end of the World Series, Koufax pitched 78 innings in 36 days, putting up a 0.92 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 14 walks in 11 games, including 10 starts. He had seven complete games and six shutouts.

And it all started with a perfect night in Los Angeles.

  1. “It’s a perfect night at Dodger Stadium: Koufax becomes first player to pitch four no-hitters,” by Frank Finch. Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1965.
  2. “Sandy Koufax pitches perfect ‘no hitter’,” by Joseph St. Amant, United Press International. Redlands Daily Facts, September 10, 1965.
  3. “Out on a Limb with Jack Williams,” San Bernardino Sun, September 10, 1965.
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