Friday, April 23, 2021

April 23, 1921: The Pitcher of the Century

In 1999, baseball fans voted for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Two of the pitchers chosen were Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax.

Koufax rarely makes public appearances, but he went to Atlanta for the presentation of the team before Game 2 of the World Series, between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees. Spahn threw out the ceremonial first ball before Game 1, and Hank Aaron did so before Game 2, following the ceremony.

Koufax has never been a quote machine, preferring to let his performance do the talking. This time, he showed a sense of humor, about Spahn's selection: "He should be on the All-Century Team. After all, he pitched for most of the Century."

April 23, 1921, 100 years ago: Warren Edward Spahn is born in Buffalo, New York. He graduated from that city's South Park High School, in South Buffalo. He was signed by the Boston Braves, and made his major league debut on April 19, 1942, at Braves Field in Boston, in relief, in a 5-2 loss to the New York Giants.

He wore Number 16 that year, and made only 4 appearances, with no decisions, and a 5.74 ERA. He got sent back down to the minors, where he went 17-12 with the Hartford Bees of the Eastern League. He was sent down because he refused a demand from his manager to throw at Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1943, that manager would be hit by a cabdriver. A sportswriter would call that driver the person who had done the most for Boston sports during the year. The names of the writer and the driver have been lost to history. The name of the manager was Charles Dillon "Casey" Stengel.

Spahn enlisted in World War II, and was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Stengel later said the way he handled Spahn was the worst mistake of his career: "I said 'no guts' to a kid who went on to become a war hero and one of the greatest lefthanded pitchers you ever saw. You can't say I don't miss 'em when I miss 'em."

Spahn said, "I matured a lot in 3 years, and I think I was better equipped to handle major league hitters at 25 than I was at 22." On July 14, 1946, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Spahn, now wearing the Number 21 he would wear for the rest of his career, finally got his 1st major league win, going the distance in a 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite not getting discharged and returning to the roster until June, he went 8-5 that season.

In 1947, he went 21-10 with a 2.33 ERA that led the National League. In 1948, the Braves won their 1st National League Pennant since 1914, led by the pitching of the lefthanded Spahn and the righthanded Johnny Sain. After a Labor Day doubleheader, where each of them won a game, there were 2 scheduled days off, and then a rainout, and then Spahn won the next game, and Sain the next. Gerald V. Hern of the Boston Post wrote:

First we'll use Spahn
then we'll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
And followed
we hope
by two days of rain.

This became "Spahn and Sain and two days of rain" -- or "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" -- in the public mind. It wasn't fair: Sain may have gone 24-15 and Spahn 15-12, but Vern Bickford went 11-5 and Bill Voiselle 13-13, and each had a better ERA than Spahn.

In 1999, looking at the Boston Red Sox, Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy saw a big dropoff in pitching ability after Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, and wrote, "Pedro and Lowe, and three days of snow."

But the Braves did win the Pennant in 1948. It was almost an all-Boston World Series, but the Red Sox lost a single-game Playoff to the Cleveland Indians. The Indians went on to beat the Braves in the Series in 6 games, and no Boston team would win a Pennant again until the Red Sox in their "Impossible Dream" season of 1967.

In 1949, Spahn went 21-14, leading the NL in wins, complete games and strikeouts. In 1950, he went 21-17, leading in wins and strikeouts. In 1951, he went 22-14, but didn't lead the NL in wins. He did, however, lead in complete games, shutouts and strikeouts.

That year, he gave up the 1st home run of Willie Mays' career. The distance from the pitching rubber to home plate is 60 feet 6 inches, and Spahn told the press, "For the 1st 60 feet, that was a hell of a pitch." Mays hit it over the left field roof at the Polo Grounds. Mays had been 0-for-12 in his career to that point. Many years later, Stan Musial told Spahn, "If you'd just struck him out, we might have been rid of him forever!"

In 1952, Spahn again led the NL in strikeouts, but he went just 14-19, as the Braves flat-out collapsed. No longer able to compete with the Red Sox for New England baseball fans' attention, team owner Lou Perini moved the team to Milwaukee.


On April 14, 1953, at Milwaukee County Stadium, the Braves played their 1st game as a Milwaukee team. They beat the St. Louis Cardinals 2-0 in 10 innings. Spahn went the distance for the win. That season, he went 23-7, with a 2.10 ERA, leading the NL in both wins and ERA.

He went 21-12 in 1954, 17-14 in 1955, and 20-11 in 1956. In 1957, Spahn went 21-11, leading the NL in wins and complete games. He was named the winner of the Cy Young Award, from 1956 to 1966 given to the top pitcher in both Leagues. (He finished 2nd in the voting in 1958, '60 and '61, and 3rd in '56.)

That season, the Braves put it all together. With Spahn, righthanded starter Lew Burdette, and sluggers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock, they won Milwaukee 1st Pennant. And with Burdette winning 3 games and Mathews hitting a walkoff home run in Game 4, the Braves beat the Yankees in the World Series.

In 1958, despite being 37 years old, Spahn went 22-11, leading the NL in wins, winning percentage and complete games. Again, the Braves won the Pennant. This time, though, the lost the World Series to the Yankees. Oh yes: Both times, the Yankee manager was Spahn's former Boston Braves manager, Casey Stengel.

The Braves just missed another Pennant in 1959. Spahn kept going and going and going: That season, he went 21-15, leading in wins, complete games and shutouts. In 1960, he went 21-10, leading in wins and complete games. On September 16, 1960, he did something he hadn't done before: He pitched a no-hitter, blanking the Philadelphia Phillies, 4-0 at County Stadium. At 39, he was the oldest pitcher ever to pitch a no-hitter in the major leagues.

The next no-hitter pitched in MLB came on April 28, 1961. That one was also pitched by Spahn, 5 days past his 40th birthday, a 1-0 win over the San Francisco Giants at County Stadium. That record of being the oldest to throw a no-hitter would last until Nolan Ryan did it at 43 in 1990, and again at 44 in 1991.

Later that season, on August 11, he beat the Chicago Cubs, 2-1 at County Stadium, for his 300th career win. That season, including the no-hitter and the milestone, he went 21-13, leading in wins; his 3.02 ERA also led the NL; and he led in complete games and shutouts. In 1962, he went 18-14, but still led in complete games.

On July 2, 1963, the Braves played the Giants at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Spahn started against Juan Marichal, a Dominican righthander who, like Spahn, was known for a high leg-kick. The goose eggs kept going up on the scoreboard. It was as if Spahn was unwilling to let this kid beat him. During the top of the 14th, Giant manager Alvin Dark went out to take Marichal out, but Marichal said, "Do you see that man pitching for the other side? Do you know that man is 42 years old? Im only 25. If that man is on the mound, nobody is going to take me out of here."

Marichal threw 227 pitches in the game. Spahn threw 201. His 201st came in the bottom of the 16th inning, and Willie Mays -- yeah, him again -- hit it out for a game-winning home run. Giants 1, Braves 0. Spahn allowed 9 hits and 1 walk in those 16 innings. In 2011, Jim Kaplan wrote a dual biography of Spahn and Marichal, focused on this game, titled The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century.

Spahn finished that 1963 season 23-7, tying his career high in wins. His ERA was 2.60. And his 22 complete games -- at age 42 -- led the National League. He appeared in his 17th All-Star Game. But in 1964, he finally seemed to slow down, going 6-13 with a 5.29 ERA.

On November 23, 1964, the New York Mets bought him from the Braves. This reunited him with his 1st major league manager, Casey Stengel. With the Yankees, Casey had won 10 American League Pennants and 7 World Series. Now, he was managing the worst team in baseball. Spahn said, "I'm probably the only guys who played for Casey before and after he was a genius."

Yogi Berra had become a coach under Casey, and even played 4 games, going 2-for-9 at the plate. On May 5, 1965, Casey wrote Yogi in as Spahn's catcher. The combination of pitcher and catcher is known as the "battery," and somebody asked Yogi if he and Spahnnie were the oldest battery ever. Yogi said, "I don't know if we're the oldest, but we're certainly the ugliest." Yogi had once been called "The Ape," and early in his career, Spahn was nicknamed "Hooks," not for his curveball, but for his nose. At Shea Stadium, Spahn went the distance, but lost 1-0 to the Phillies.

The Mets released him on July 17. Two days later, the Giants signed him. On October 1, 1965, the Cincinnati Reds clobbered the Giants at Candlestick, 17-2. Gaylord Perry was one of a few Giant pitchers who got hit hard, and Spahn relieved him in the 7th inning. He walked Johnny Edwards, allowed a ground ball by Leo Cardenas that turned into a run-allowing error, which led to Edwards trying to score and being thrown out at the plate, and then an RBI single by the opposing pitcher, Sammy Ellis. Manager Herman Franks took Spahn out. It was a hard end to a great career.

He retired with a record of 363 wins and 245 losses. Those 363 wins remain, to this day, the most by a lefthanded pitcher, and the most of any pitcher in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era. His ERA was 3.09, his ERA+ 119, and his WHIP 1.195. His 2,583 career strikeouts were, at the time, more than any lefthanded pitcher ever. This would be surpassed by Mickey Lolich, and there are now 3 lefthanders in the 3,000 Strikeout Club: Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson and CC Sabathia.

When Spahn first took the mound in a major league game, there were 16 teams, none further south than Washington or further west than Los Angeles. There were no black players. The newest stadium in MLB was Cleveland Municipal, which opened in 1931. The President was Franklin Roosevelt. Radio ruled media, television was in its infancy, and we were in the middle of World War II. 

When he last took the mound, there were 20 teams, coast to coast and border to border (well, Minneapolis to Houston, anyway). There were black players, some of them Hispanic, and his last game was also the last game for the 1st Asian-born MLB player, Masanori Murakami. The Astrodome had just opened. The President was Lyndon Johnson, most American-made TV shows had switched to color, and people were starting to get worried about the war in Vietnam.


While serving in World War II at Camp Gruber, outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, he met LoRene Southard, a secretary for a local oil company. She would become his wife and his business manager, and they would become quite rich, running a ranch outside Hartshorne, Oklahoma. Together, they had a son named Greg and 2 granddaughters. LoRene died in 1978. Eventually, Spahn sold the ranch, and lived the rest of his live near a golf course in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

He managed the Tulsa Oilers from 1967 to 1971, winning the Pacific Coast League Pennant in 1968. (Yes, I know: Tulsa is nowhere near the Pacific Coast.) He also coached for the Cleveland Indians, the California Angels, the Mexican League's Mexico City Tigers, and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan's Central League.

In 1982, at age 61, Spahn pitched for a National League team against an American League team at an Old-Timers Game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. He gave up a home run to 74-year-old Chicago White Sox Hall-of-Famer Luke Appling. Granted, because of the configuration of RFK Stadium at the time, the left-field fence was just 260 feet from home plate. But Appling was not a slugger, much more a singles hitter, hitting just 45 round-trippers in a 21-season career.

As I said, he was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. That same year, The Sporting News named him to their 100 Greatest Baseball Players -- appropriately enough, ranking him 21st, 6th among pitchers, 1st among lefthanders. (Lefty Grove came in 23rd, Sandy Koufax 26th, Steve Carlton 30th, and Randy Johnson was still in the middle of his career and didn't make the Top 100.)
Spahn was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame the same year, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1991, and the Miller Park (now American Family Field) Walk of Fame in Milwaukee in 2001.

The Braves retired Spahn's Number 21 in 1965, right after he retired as a player. However, they didn't start a team Hall of Fame until 1999. They immediately elected Spahn. They dedicated a statue of him outside Turner Field in 2003, which was moved to the new Truist Park in 2017. Copies of that statue stand outside Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, along with statues of Oklahoma natives Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench and Joe Carter; and at the Hartshorne Events Center near his ranch.

Warren Spahn made his last public appearance at the dedication of his Atlanta statue, although he had never played in Atlanta, as the Milwaukee-based team moved to Atlanta in 1966, just after his retirement. On November 24, 2003, he died at his home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, of natural causes, at the age of 82.

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