On January 19, 1972, former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Just three weeks past his 36th birthday, “The Left Arm of God” became the youngest person ever elected to the Hall, a mark that still stands today (and probably forever).
Every summer — or almost every summer, thank you very much pandemic — all the living Hall of Famers gather in Cooperstown, New York, to welcome the new class of inductees to the Hall. The subset of “living Hall of Famers” is a frequent topic of conversation, at those times and in general discussions about the Hall. Former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had been the oldest living Hall of Famer until his death at age 93 earlier this month, at which point that mantle passed to Willie Mays, who will turn 90 in May.
(It’s worth noting that broadcasters who win the Ford Frick Award and baseball writers who win the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, while honored at the Hall of Fame ceremony, are not officially Hall of Famers but award winners and honorees. So while Vin Scully is older than Mays and I wish he was my grandpa, he’s not technically a Hall of Famer.)
But Mays wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame until he was 47, because he played until he was 42. So while he is the oldest living Hall of Famer, he hasn’t been a living Hall of Famer the longest. That title belongs to Koufax.
And it’s not just currently living Hall of Famers. No one has ever before lived 49 more years after being elected to the Hall of Fame. On December 15, 2010, Bob Feller died at the age of 92, just 38 days shy of the 49th anniversary of his election to the Hall. Whitey Ford topped 46 years, and a few others were in the 44-year range.
But no one had ever before reached 49 years, until Koufax today. It’s understandable, too, because Hall of Famers don’t generally retire when they’re 30 like Koufax did. Sandy retired young and then was elected in his first year of eligibility, so at an age when many people are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, Koufax was already immortalized in Cooperstown.
It’s a record that might last a long time, too. Koufax is only 85 years old, so hopefully he’ll keep adding to his record for another year or ten or twenty. If he can get to 55 years, most Hall of Famers would have to live to 100 to even think about passing him.
On a day when we’re reminded, again, of the fleeting nature of baseball history and its legends with the passing of Koufax’s old teammate Don Sutton, it’s fitting to remember that the man who was once known for being young — debuting at age 19, retiring at age 30, youngest Hall of Famer, etc. — is still with us now that he’s only young at heart.