In this new, ongoing series, we explore various sets on the PSA Set Registry, featuring the trading cards of iconic athletes. Select cards will be highlighted and the requirements of each set will be included.
According to Willie Stargell, “Hitting against him is like eating soup with a fork.” That’s high praise coming from the Hall of Fame left fielder. But the pitcher Stargell was referring to wasn’t always an imposing figure on the mound. In fact, there was a far less spectacular start to his career.
No, Sandy Koufax isn’t your typical big league success story. Rather than besting batters from the moment he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Koufax had a pretty unremarkable beginning to his career; he didn’t really figure things out until about six years into his tenure. In fact, the start of his career was so underwhelming, the lefty even considered hanging up his cleats after going 8-13 during the 1960 season.
Then, Koufax hit his stride, and what a stride it was. The late bloomer heeded some advice from backup catcher Norm Sherry, who told the hard-throwing lefty to ease up on the gas and not try to “throw every pitch harder than the last one.” The simple advice paid off, and rather than trying to throw surface of the sun-level heat each and every pitch, Koufax focused on throwing strikes. And he threw a lot of strikes.
The effects of Koufax’s new pitching mindset were seen immediately, resulting in one of the most dominant five-year stretches from a pitcher the game has ever seen, to the tune of a 111-34 record, 1.95 ERA and 1,444 strikeouts. He was untouchable.
Koufax’s league-wide tear peaked from 1963 to 1966, when he captured three Triple Crowns and just as many Cy Young awards. The forgettable beginning of his career faded with each new pitching record and benchmark season.
But as quickly as his star ascended, it would fade. Koufax had to call it a career after the 1966 season as a result of worsening arthritis in his throwing arm. Despite his injury-shortened career, the pitcher retired at the height of his game and left a lasting mark. Thanks in no small part to his late-career supremacy, Koufax cards are sought after and, in many cases, extremely valuable.
The following are four of Koufax’s key cards, starting with his iconic 1955 rookie card.
If there was one card to chase of the legendary lefty, this is it. Koufax’s key rookie card also happens to be one of two keys to the 1955 Topps set, along with the Clemente rookie. To ascend to key card honors in this iconic set is quite a statement, as 1955 Topps baseball is widely regarded as one of the company’s best releases. This iconic issue features a profile shot of Koufax next to an illustration of him with his cap off, peering out from the dugout. In any grade, this card will cost you, but especially when we approach PSA 8 and beyond. Condition obstacles, centering and print defects are some of the grading challenges this card poses, though many collectors probably wouldn’t mind an example of this card in any grade.
PSA Good 2: $275.81
PSA Excellent 5: $740.12
PSA Near Mint-Mint 8: $10,162
Koufax’s sophomore issue features another horizontal format of his dueling likenesses, only this time the bust shot was positioned on the right side of the card and the action shot on the left, a reversal of the year prior. Speaking of his profile shot; Topps recycled the head-shots from 1955’s set for several players in its 1956 release, but Koufax was not one of them. He got a new, unique shot for his second-year release. Just like the 1955 issue, Koufax’s facsimile autograph is prominently featured. Though the set is packed with stars – Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Mickey Mantle, to name a few – the young pitcher again holds his own as one of the key cards of the issue.
PSA Good 2: $67.08
PSA Excellent 5: $162
PSA Near Mint-Mint 8: $1,200
Another classic Koufax card, another key to a popular Topps set. This was the year Topps switched to full-color photography – via action shots or bust portraits, rather than its customary hand-painted images. We were left with a vertical profile shot of the left-handed hurler, cracking a genuine smile. Like the previously mentioned cards, this card also has its condition issues, namely centering and print snow, a common occurrence with this set.
PSA Good 2: $74
PSA Excellent 5: $153
PSA Near Mint-Mint 8: $1,500
Now onto our last featured card, issued the year before the lefty called it a career. Though Koufax was struggling with arthritis and forced to use heat on his elbow before starting each game, he was still good enough to earn another Cy Young and Triple Crown. The card itself sees Koufax staring directly at the batter, all business, framed by an orange border. Centering and print bubbles on those orange borders can hurt this card in the grading room.
PSA Good 2: $14
PSA Excellent 5: $40
PSA Near Mint-Mint 8: $772
Remaining Cards in the Set
- 1958 Topps Sandy Koufax #187(3.50)
- 1959 Topps Sandy Koufax #163 (350)
- 1960 Topps Sandy Koufax #343 (2.50)
- 1961 Topps Sandy Koufax #344 (2.50)
- 1962 Topps Sandy Koufax #5 (2.50)
- 1963 Fleer Sandy Koufax #42 (3.00)
- 1963 Topps Sandy Koufax #210 (4.00)
- 1964 Topps Sandy Koufax #200 (2.50)
- 1965 Topps Sandy Koufax #300 (2.50)
- 1966 Topps Sandy Koufax #100 (3.00)
Take a look at each of these cards in the PSA Set Registry.
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
It took him a bit to get started, but from 1962 to 1966, Koufax was such a force on the mound, you can liken his dominance to any legendary athlete in their respective sport. And he only needed two primary pitches to do it, a tricky four-seam fastball and a physics-defying 12 to 6 curveball that would drop as much as 24 inches by the time it hit the plate.
With his back and career against the wall, he persevered and authored one of the most dominating stretches of any pitcher in any era. Whether it’s a real-life overcoming the odds story, or the brilliance he displayed during his peak, it’s easy to love this unlikely sports hero. Koufax remains a favorite with collectors and sports fans in general, and for good reason.
Want to set your sights on compiling a card set of a pitching legend? Look no further than this 13-card challenge. You can target low-grade cards to start and upgrade them as your collecting journey unfolds. Keep your eye on the ball. You got this.
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