On September 9, 1965, Californians celebrated the 115th anniversary of their statehood. But in the state that day, the big event happened in Los Angeles. Half a century later, one game between the Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs resonates in baseball history, both for the game itself and for the media’s relationship to it.
In that game, Sandy Koufax pitched for the Dodgers and Bob Hendley for the Cubs. It seemed like a mismatch. The Dodgers were half a game out of first place, tied for second with an 80-61 record; the Cubs were eighth, at 65-77. Koufax entered the game with a 21-7 record on his way to his second Cy Young Award in three years – at a time when one pitcher received the award, not one from each league. Hendley was 2-2 and had been traded to the Cubs earlier that year. It was just another Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, which was a little more than half-filled: 29,139 in the 56,000-seat park.
But it proved to be much more than a normal match. Hendley pitched the game of his life. He allowed only one hit, a double that barely reached the outfield grass, and the Dodgers stranded the runner. He gave up one walk in the fifth inning – to the same batter who later had the hit, Lou Johnson, who then went to second on a sacrifice, stole third, and scored when the catcher threw the ball into left field.
And yet, despite his extraordinary performance, Hendley was the second best pitcher that night. Koufax had trouble warming up, as usual; doctors had diagnosed an arthritic elbow the previous year, and if he didn’t realize at the time that his career would come to an early end, he soon would. But once the game started, Koufax was even harder to hit than usual. He already had pitched three no-hitters – one of the few pitchers in baseball history to achieve that. But as the game rolled on, no one had reached base. A perfect game was within reach.
The voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully, had broadcast the three previous no-hitters. Usually, he would ask the radio station to record the ninth inning of a game like this as a keepsake for the pitcher. But what, he thought to himself, could he do to make it special? Scully began the ninth:
As the count went to 1-2 on the Cubs’ leadoff hitter in the ninth, catcher Chris Krug, Scully said, “It is 9:41 p.m. on September the 9th.” Although minor league teams have begun using a clock to speed up the game, and pitchers have a rarely enforced time limit on when they must pitch, the beauty (some would say curse) of baseball is that it has no clocks. By giving the time, Scully attached a special importance to what Koufax was accomplishing.
Krug struck out. So did pinch-hitter Joe Amalfitano. After the next pinch-hitter, Harvey Kuenn, took a strike, Scully said of Koufax, “He has struck out, by the way, five consecutive batters, and this has gone unnoticed.”
Koufax fell behind Kuenn on the count, then evened it up. Then came the conclusion:
Then came a long pause as the crowd cheered, roaring for several seconds as Scully remained silent. Having begun the story by reminding his audience what Koufax had done before, Scully explained the depths of his accomplishment, and the number of times “K,” representing strikeouts, appeared in the scorebook:
The recording that Scully asked the radio station to make became a vinyl record that the Dodgers promotion director, Danny Goodman, sold at the ballpark and through catalogs. Thousands spread throughout southern California and around the country. To this day, a significant number of Dodger fans happily lapse into Scully’s sing-song cadence for the final out.
Charles Einstein, a writer who covered sports for many years, was then editing the Fireside series of collections of baseball literature, ranging from Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriters Red Smith and Jim Murray to Philip Roth’s baseball fantasy in Portnoy’s Complaint and Thomas Wolfe’s account of a baseball player in You Can’t Go Home Again. He included the transcription of Scully’s call of that inning and later wrote that “one piece…drew the only two negative reader responses over the course of all three fireside books. That piece is Vin Scully’s radio account of the last half of the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game against the Cubs. Both objections went to the same point, accusing me of having edited the thing with an eye toward improving its grammar. No broadcaster, the letter writers said, could conceivably speak that brilliantly ad lib. The letter writers are right: such presentation is improbable in the extreme. But the truth is that Scully’s account, as you will find it here, is taken verbatim from the untouched tape recording of his broadcast.”
Scully recently announced that he is returning to the Dodgers for his sixty-seventh and, as he put it, “realistically” last season; he turns 88 in November, and continues to delight listeners with his literate and literary descriptions of Dodger games, as grammatically precise as his detailing of Koufax’s perfect game half a century ago. Koufax undeniably pitched a brilliant game (as did Hendley). But just as Al Michaels’s “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” as the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviet Union and Red Barber’s “He makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oh-h-h-h, Doctor,” in describing a legendary catch in the 1947 World Series perfectly meshed with the moment, the broadcaster’s account made it even more noteworthy.
So did the events that followed. The Dodgers went on to win the pennant. The first game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins was to be on Yom Kippur and Koufax, though not overly observant, is Jewish. He declined to pitch, then went on to start three games in the series and win the seventh and deciding game on a 2-0 shutout in which he again struck out 14 batters. A few starts within a one-month period secured his already impressive legend.
But the perfect game was part of the mythology of Koufax as the outsider (one of the few prominent Jewish athletes, and with little interest in personal publicity), the great pitcher, and somehow, with the help of Scully’s description, a mythic figure. Jane Leavy, one of the first leading women sportswriters and a novelist, wrote a brilliant biography of Koufax, who had no desire to be interviewed for it, though she described how he was helpful to her. She framed the biography around the perfect game – not his famous decision not to pitch on Yom Kippur, or even his other accomplishments.
Without the perfect game, Koufax would have been a great pitcher and Leavy would have written a fine book. But without Scully’s description, the perfect game would have been less than it was. Fifty years later, all of them are a reminder of how great and simple events are intertwined with the history that surrounds them.