October 2, 1963: Sandy Koufax sets World Series strikeout record, fanning 15 Yankees

This article was written by Andy McCue

Sandy Koufax

For the first time in seven years, the Yankees and the Dodgers resumed their World Series rivalry in 1963. In the decade from 1947 through 1956, they had met six times. Since the Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles in 1958, they had missed postseason competition with each other.

The New York Yankees entered their fourth consecutive World Series with confidence. “We’ve got a better all-round ball club than the Dodgers,” said manager Ralph Houk, “and we’re going to win it.”1 The Yankees had won 104 games, beating the second-place White Sox by 10½ games. They were second in the American League in most runs scored and fewest runs allowed while leading the league in defensive efficiency. After a mediocre start, and with a rash of injuries, the Yankees had taken over the league lead for good on June 18 and clinched on September 13.

The Dodgers were quieter. Unlike the Yankees, they had not been picked to win in many of the preseason polls. Their epic collapse at the end of the 1962 season weighed on the prognosticators, and on the team.2 They had started the 1963 season slowly, taking over first place for good on July 2, and seemed to be cruising when the St. Louis Cardinals won 19 of 20 between August 30 and Sunday, September 15. That same weekend, the Dodgers were blowing two games to the Phillies in a carnival of misplays. On the 16th, the Dodgers came into Busch Stadium with the revived “choke artists” label in their ears. The lead was down to one game. But they won all three games from the Cardinals and clinched six days later. They had won 99 games, finishing six ahead of the Cardinals. As per their reputation, they led the National League in fewest runs allowed and lowest earned-run average, while finishing sixth in runs scored. Less noticed was that they finished eighth in defensive efficiency, a weakness hidden because their pitchers avoided letting the ball into play by leading the league in strikeouts.

The experts generally agreed with the Yankees. Expectations, after all, had been set. Said Yankees owner Del Webb: “When we won with [manager Casey] Stengel in 1949, I got 292 congratulatory telegrams. This year I got six.”3 While giving due credit to the Dodgers’ pitching, the analysts emphasized the Yankees’ greater depth, bigger power, and more diversified skills.

The Sporting News was typical, featuring the Yankees’ winning boast on the front page and turning the parallel feature on the NL winners into a Fred Lieb rundown of the Bronx Bombers’ six-to-one domination of the Dodgers in earlier World Series. The cover showed Willard Mullins’s famous Brooklyn Bum, spiffed up with sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt by cartoonist Lou Darvas. He was marveling at the tall buildings and the Yankee stars. In New York, the betting was 3-2 Yankees and the odds for a Dodger sweep were 25-1.4

New York Times columnist Arthur Daley was one of the few to pick the Dodgers, noting that he was risking ridicule by bucking the tide of predictions. For Daley, “the thing that would make it totally embarrassing is the Yankees winning in four straight, which they could do. There’s no conceivable way of seeing the Dodgers doing that.”5

Both managers were thoroughly familiar with Yankee Stadium. Houk, in his third straight World Series, knew to pitch a left-hander in the Stadium with its distant fences in left and short porch in right. Inevitably, his choice was Whitey Ford, making his 20th World Series start with a 10-5 record in the classic. The Dodgers’ Walter Alston, in his fourth World Series and second in Yankee Stadium, also had his top left-hander available. Sandy Koufax, who was named that year’s National League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner, had made one previous World Series start, in a seven-inning, one-run loss to the White Sox in 1959.

The Yankees’ lineup was pretty much set. For the Dodgers, third baseman Ken McMullen had pulled a hamstring and was questionable. Alston moved Jim Gilliam to third base and inserted Dick Tracewski, who had spent most of the year as a defensive replacement, at second. Alston’s big decision was to replace Ron Fairly at first base with former Yankee Moose Skowron. Skowron’s regular-season performance had been abysmal, with a .203 batting average and only four home runs in 256 plate appearances. Alston hoped Skowron, an experienced, if streaky, right-handed hitter, would get hot against the Yankee left-handers. “I hope I can do something to help this team,” Skowron said, “I’ve failed them this year.”6

In 76-degree weather, 69,000 people crammed into Yankee Stadium for the first game. Ford cruised through the top of the first, but Koufax served notice in the bottom half by striking out Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, and Tom Tresh in short order.

In the top of the second, the game turned the Dodgers’ way. With one out, Frank Howard blasted a double to the base of the wall in center field. Skowron followed with a bouncer up the middle that barely eluded Ford and Richardson, scoring the lumbering Howard. An infield single by Tracewski moved Skowron to second. Ford hung a low curve to Johnny Roseboro, who hooked the ball barely fair into the right-field bleachers and the Dodgers led 4-0. It was the worst inning in Ford’s World Series career. It was Roseboro’s first homer off a left-hander that season, when he often didn’t start against lefties.

Koufax continued his work with slight variation in the second, striking out Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and getting American League Most Valuable Player Elston Howard to pop up to Roseboro. As he left the plate, Mantle turned to Roseboro and said, “How in the fuck are you supposed to hit that shit?”7 In the next inning, Skowron singled in Willie Davis for the last Dodger run.

Now the story became Koufax. Clete Boyer got the Yankees’ first fair ball in the third, a groundout that Koufax deflected to Tracewski; Elston Howard got the first hit, an opposite-field single in the fifth with two outs. It started a troublesome inning for the Dodger hurler. Joe Pepitone followed with a single and Tracewski’s diving, backhand knockdown of Boyer’s line drive single kept Howard from scoring. Koufax rallied to strike out Hector Lopez, pinch-hitting for Ford.

“I felt a little weak in the middle of the game. Then I got some of my strength back, but I was a little weak again at the end,” said Koufax.8 The left-hander’s elbow had started to tighten, said Dodgers pitching coach Joe Becker. Koufax pressed and reached back for more, which led to the base hits in the fifth and two consecutive walks in the sixth. So Koufax dropped the curve and relied on his fastball the rest of the game.9 In the Yankees eighth, a Kubek single and Tresh’s home run to left gave the Yankees their only runs of the afternoon.

Koufax took the mound in the bottom of the ninth with a three-run lead and the knowledge that he had a chance to break Carl Erskine’s record for strikeouts in a World Series game. Exactly 10 years earlier to the day, the Dodgers’ Erskine had struck out 14 Yankees. Koufax already had 14. Howard lined out to start the inning, and Pepitone’s second single was followed by a fly out from Boyer. Up to the plate came right-handed pinch-hitter Harry Bright. With two strikes, Bright managed a soft roller down the third-base line, which Gilliam allowed to roll foul. With a fastball, Koufax put Bright away for the new record.

The strikeout record dominated the headlines the next morning. Roseboro, who also snared three foul pops, also set a record – for putouts by a catcher in a World Series game (18). Only one out was recorded by a Dodgers outfielder. The Yankees’ Richardson, who had 22 strikeouts in 668 plate appearances during the regular season, was kayoed three times. Said Clete Boyer: “Bobby just doesn’t strike out. Not three times. That’s an act of God.”10

Other Yankees were impressed. Yogi Berra on Koufax: “I wonder how come he lost five games this year.”11 Said Mickey Mantle: “Koufax just showed me that everything written about him is true.”12

 

Sources

In addition to the sources mentioned in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and the following books, video, and digitized box scores:

Koufax, Sandy, with Ed Linn. Koufax (New York: Viking, 1966).

Leavy, Jane. Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

Spink, C.C. Johnson, compiler. Official Baseball Guide for 1964 (St. Louis: Charles C. Spink & Son, 1964).

“Major League Baseball Presents the World Series of 1963” (retrieved Aug. 17, 2020, at youtube.com/watch?v=HFjFv00JagA)

retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1963/B10020NYA1963.htm

baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA196310020.shtml

 

Notes

1 Til Ferdenzi, “‘We’re Going to Win It,’ Yanks Chorus,” The Sporting News, October 5, 1963: 1.

2 The 1962 Dodgers had a four-game lead as late as September 17, then faded into a tie with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants won a three-game tiebreaker series to take the 1962 NL pennant.

3 “They Said It,” Sports Illustrated, September 30, 1963: 18.

4 “Odds Favor Yanks, 7½-5,” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1963: C1.

5 Arthur Daley, “Look Ma, No Hands,” New York Times, October 1, 1963: 64.

6 William Leggett, “Koo-Foo the Killer,” Sports Illustrated, October 14, 1963: 18.

7 Jane Leavy, The Last Boy (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 262.

8 “Sandy Felt ‘Tired and Weak’ While Setting Strikeout Mark,” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1963: B1.

9 Leonard Koppett, “Koufax Stopped Throwing Curve When Elbow Began to Tighten in Mid-Game,” New York Times, October 3, 1963: 55.

10 Will Bradbury, “The Yankees in Defeat: Subdued and Impressed but Hardly Shaken,” New York Times, October 3, 1963: 56.

11 Shirley Povich, “Yanks Agog at Sandy: ‘How’d He Lose Five?’ – Yogi,” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1963: B5.

12 Bradbury, “The Yankees in Defeat.”

Additional Stats

Los Angeles Dodgers 5
New York Yankees 2
Game 1, WS


Yankee Stadium
New York, NY

 

Box Score + PBP:

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