Sunday, December 30, 2018

How a young Sandy Koufax once enraged Jackie Robinson

Celebrating Sandy Koufax’s 83rd birthday, many tributes will reference his dominance that led to three Cy Young awards in the 1960s. While Koufax made an incredible transformation into a nearly unhittable pitcher at the turn of the decade, as a teenager only a few years earlier, he was the recipient of one prominent teammate’s harsh criticism with the Brooklyn Dodgers.


Glenn Mickens played with the Dodgers in 1953 and vied for a roster spot in 1955 when Koufax joined the club during spring training. He was quick to note that Koufax had yet to tame his lethal fastball.

“He couldn't hit the broad side of a barn when he got there,” Mickens said during a 2011 phone interview from his Hawaii home.

Mickens’ recollection of Koufax’s early struggles was rather mild in comparison to his legendary teammate Jackie Robinson's observations. During 1955 spring training, Robinson sat next to Mickens on the bench after wreaking havoc on the Washington Senators during a “B” game to watch Koufax pitch. As Koufax quickly grew wild on the mound, his nonchalant reaction quickly enraged Robinson.

“We're playing Washington in spring training,” Mickens recalled. “Jackie steals second and steals third, and then [when] it looks like he's going to steal home, he gets Camilo Pascual to balk. It is the only way he knew to play the game. [Charlie] Dressen then takes him out of the "B" game.

"Jackie is sitting next to me on the bench and Koufax was walking the world. His [Koufax’s] attitude was like, ‘So what?’ I can still see Jackie screaming, ‘Throw the ball, you big baby! Throw the ball!’ He couldn't believe that anybody would go out and not compete the way he competed while he was playing the game.”

As one of the club’s elder statesmen, Robinson hoped that his hyper-competitive spirit in a meaningless exhibition game would rub off on the rookies, especially the nouveau riche Koufax. Mickens felt that the southpaw’s ability to let a harsh comment from Robinson roll off his back is what ultimately led to his success.

“Sandy wasn't bothered at all," he said, "That might have been one of the biggest plus factors for him because if he had been frustrated, they might have sent him to the minor leagues or lost him until he got his control,” he said. “Once he did, it was just unbelievable.”

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