The Dodgers unveiled a statue of Sandy Koufax on Saturday, the second such structure in the center field plaza at Dodger Stadium, a stone’s throw away from the Jackie Robinson statue that was sculpted in 2017.
Koufax in his first two major league seasons was a teammate of Robinson with a pair of Brooklyn Dodgers World Series teams, including the franchise’s first championship in 1955.
“Sixty-seven years ago, Jackie Robinson became my teammate and friend,” Koufax said Saturday during the unveiling ceremony. “At that time, sharing the same space with him was absolutely unimaginable. It’s one of the greatest honors of my life.”
Fifty years ago this month, Koufax, Robinson, and fellow teammate Roy Campanella were the first to have their uniform numbers retired by the Dodgers. Another “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn teammate, Gil Hodges, had his number 14 retired on this June 4, the anniversary of that first ceremony.
During Saturday’s ceremony, the bond between Dodgers was abundantly clear. But not just for teammates; the connection spans across generations, too.
Campanella was a special instructor for years, tutoring Dodgers catchers for multiple generations, from his successor John Roseboro to Mike Scioscia, and more. Koufax on Saturday had high praise for Roseboro, who caught nearly two-thirds of his innings.
“Our relationship was incredible,” Koufax said. “When I looked at the sign, that’s really what I wanted to throw. John didn’t create any doubt in my mind.”
Dodgers spring trainings have been littered with former players, passing on their knowledge to future generations, including Koufax himself. There’s Maury’s Pit, first at Vero Beach then at Camelback Ranch, where Maury Wills taught the fine arts of sliding. Another former MVP, and the first Cy Young Award winner, Don Newcombe, was a fixture at Dodger Stadium for years until his death in 2019.
Koufax was 19 years old during his first season with the Dodgers, in 1955, and because he received a bonus of over $4,000 he had to either be placed on the major league roster or be sent to the minors and be exposed to waivers. He pitched only sparingly on what was essentially a super team, appearing in only 12 games, including five spot starts, pitching 41⅔ innings.
“My presence on the roster wasn’t a happy experience for a lot of people. You took somebody else’s job,” Koufax said. “But Jackie went out of his way to make me feel welcome, and I’ll never forget his kindness.”
Newcombe was already a star by then at age 29, a fixture atop Brooklyn’s rotation who won 20 games and started Game 1 of the World Series that year. He would win the first Cy Young Award, along with NL MVP in 1956. Koufax on Saturday advocated for Newcombe to make the Hall of Fame.
“Don Newcombe was probably the outstanding pitcher of that time,” Koufax said. “He took me aside right away and said, ‘Pitching is hard work. If you’re not working hard and making it easy, you’re not doing it right.’ I believed that, and I lived by that after that.”
There is so much interwoven history among Dodgers. You had Don Drysdale mentoring and calling games when Orel Hershiser broke his scoreless streak mark in 1988, feeling the weight of their strong embrace in the dugout in San Diego after the record was finally broken.
But there are no two Dodgers pitchers more inextricably linked than Koufax and Clayton Kershaw. Both left-handed, both with devastating curveballs, both with three Cy Young Awards and an MVP.
Kershaw was one of only a few people who spoke during Saturday’s ceremony. One of the others was Joe Torre, who as Kershaw’s first manager made the comparison of his young left-hander to Koufax. Somehow those impossible expectations were met.
“After getting drafted by the Dodgers, whether you ask for it or not, you become indoctrinated with the history of the organization, all the players that have come before you,” Kershaw explained. “There have been so many incredible pitchers in Dodgers history, and you hear about them a lot. And Sandy stood out. He always did.”
The comparisons of Kershaw to Koufax came fast and furious in those early years, and the two really bonded before and during an event for Torre’s charity in 2010, when Kershaw was 22 years old. (Pictures here!)
“I was sitting there and thought, it was Sandy and Joe, some old ballplayers, and I’m going to have to sit through some ‘Back when we played,’ or ‘This is how I used to do it.’ I thought I was going to sit through that for the whole flight,” Kershaw recalled. “But it was a far cry from that. I got to know Sandy on that flight, and after that night I remember thinking wow, Sandy genuinely cares about how I’m going to do in this game.
“From then on, I was able to talk to Sandy. He’d call me when good things happened to congratulate me, he would call me when bad things that happened to encourage me. He’d call me during the offseason just to check in on Ellen and I, to see how the chaos of our life was going with our four kids.
“Sandy, one day I hope I can impact someone the way you’ve championed me.”
The Dodgers should be so lucky.