Spahn, Warren Edward

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Spahn, Warren Edward

(b. 23 April 1921 in Buffalo, New York; d. 24 November 2003 in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma), baseball player with the record for most games won by a left-handed Major League pitcher.

Spahn, of German descent and named for President Warren G. Harding, was born and raised in Buffalo, a city on the shores of Lake Erie and known for its brutal winters. Spahn, the son of Edward Spahn, a wallpaper salesman who had played semiprofessional baseball, and Mabel (Maving) Spahn, a homemaker, was the second youngest of six children.

Spahn seemed to have a natural affinity for baseball. With his father’s encouragement and coaching Spahn, who threw and batted left-handed, developed at a fast pace. He concentrated on the two positions on the field most advantageous to being left-handed: first base and pitcher. He was a success early on while playing for the Lake City Athletic Club and the junior team of the Cazenovia Street post of the American Legion. By the time he was fifteen, Spahn was playing for three teams six times a week. When he reached South Park High School in 1936, Spahn was mainly playing first base. Because he was not as good as the current first baseman, Spahn switched to pitching, and a star was born. With an assortment of pitches, including a blazing fastball, Spahn dominated the competition. He was undefeated in his final two high school seasons. Although Spahn’s slight build scared off some big league teams, the scout Billy Myers recommended Spahn to the Boston Braves, who signed the nineteen-year-old high school graduate to a contract that, according to Spahn’s father, included a $150 bonus and two suits of clothes.

Spahn never attended college. Soon after signing his first professional baseball contract, he found himself in the minor leagues pitching for $80 per month for the Bradford, Pennsylvania, Bees in the Class D Pennsylvania–Ontario–New York, or PONY, League. He won five of nine games that season. Spahn began to distinguish himself in 1941 while playing with the Evansville, Indiana, Bees in the Class B Three-I League. That season he won the most games and had the highest winning percentage, most shutouts, and lowest earned run average.

Spahn made his Major League Baseball debut on 19 April 1942 but then was sent down to the minor leagues by the Braves manager Casey Stengel, reportedly for refusing to brush back Brooklyn’s Pee Wee Reese in an exhibition game. Pitching for the Hartford Bees of the Class A Eastern League, the twenty-one-year-old Spahn won seventeen games and had a 1.96 earned run average, which earned him a second trip to the major leagues late in the season.

With World War II underway, Spahn was drafted into the U.S. Army and began serving on 10 October 1942. He fought in Europe with the army’s combat engineers. Over the next four years he was at the heart of the action, including the Battle of the Bulge and the taking of the bridge at Remagen, Germany. Having started out as a private, Spahn was discharged on 2 June 1946 as a first lieutenant, a battlefield commission. He was awarded a Purple Heart, having sustained a shrapnel wound, and received a Bronze Star for bravery. While stationed at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma for basic training, Spahn began dating Lorene Southard. The couple wed on 10 August 1946; they had one child.

Despite missing three complete seasons because of his military service, Spahn returned to the Braves soon after his discharge. He won his first Major League game on 14 July 1946 at the age of twenty-five. It was the beginning of a playing career that lasted twenty years. Spahn finished the 1946 season with an 8–5 win-loss record. His record in 1947 was 21–10. The 1947 season was the first of thirteen seasons in which Spahn, famous for his fluid, high-kicking pitching motion, won at least twenty games, a Major League record for a left-handed pitcher. Spahn had become an established starting pitcher, dependable and durable, and remained so for the Braves until he was in his early forties. In addition to his fastball, Spahn developed a number of off-speed pitches, all thrown with the same windup. “A pitcher needs two pitches—one they’re looking for and one to cross them up,” Spahn was fond of saying.

In the late 1940s Spahn and the right-handed pitcher Johnny Sain formed one of the most famous starting pitching duos in baseball history, made memorable by the rhyme “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” Their thirty-nine combined regular season wins helped the Braves to the 1948 World Series, in which Spahn and Sain each won a game to help the club defeat the Cleveland Indians in six games.

Although Spahn remained a top-flight pitcher over the next few years, winning at least twenty games a season from 1949 to 1951 and leading the league in strikeouts from 1949 to 1952, the Braves as a team regressed. Fortunes changed when the franchise moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before the 1953 season. Spahn continued his excellence in a new city, and the team soon responded, winning National League pennants in 1957 and 1958. Playing the New York Yankees in both World Series, Spahn won one game to help Milwaukee capture the 1957 championship. In 1958, however, Spahn’s two wins were not enough, and Yankees won the series. The 1957 season may have been the best of Spahn’s career. He won his sole Cy Young Award as the game’s top pitcher as the result of his league-best 21 wins and 2.69 earned run average.

In 1958 Spahn became the first pitcher to win at least twenty games, winning twenty-two, and to have a .300 batting average, hitting .333, in the same season. Spahn finished his career with 363 hits and 363 wins. His thirty-five home runs were the record for home runs by a National League pitcher, and the record was intact at least two years after his death.

As Spahn grew older, his pitching seemed to improve. He won at least twenty games every year from 1956 to 1961, led the league in complete games every year from 1957 to 1963, and in 1963, at age forty-two, won 23 games, lost only 7, and compiled a 2.60 earned run average. Spahn said, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” In one of his most memorable pitching performances, Spahn on 3 July 1963 faced off with Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants. Each pitcher threw shutouts until Willie Mays hit a home run in the bottom of the sixteenth inning to give San Francisco the 1–0 victory. Spahn also threw two no-hitters during this period, the first on 16 September 1960 against the Philadelphia Phillies and the second on 28 April 1961 against the San Francisco Giants.

Spahn’s career seemed over in 1964 after a 6–13 season, but he kept going. He was traded to the New York Mets on 23 November 1964. With the Mets, Spahn compiled a 4–12 pitching record and served as a coach. He was released in mid-July 1965 and signed with the Giants for the remainder of the 1965 season. Spahn coached and pitched for the Mexico City Tigers of the Mexican League in 1966. In 1967, at age forty-six, Spahn made his last trip to the mound as an active player, appearing in three games for and serving as manager of the AAA Tulsa Drillers of the Pacific Coast League.

In twenty-one Major League seasons (1942, 1946–1965) Spahn compiled a 363–245 record, started in 665 games, pitched 382 complete games, had 2,583 strikeouts in 5,243 innings, and had a 3.09 earned run average. Spahn’s victory total made him the winningest left-handed pitcher in Major League history and gave him the National League record for innings pitched, another record that was intact at least two years after his death. A fourteen-time All-Star, Spahn pitched in seven All-Star games, winning the 1953 game. Sporting News named Spahn the National League outstanding pitcher four times (1953, 1957, 1958, and 1961).

After his playing career ended, Spahn managed the minor league Tulsa Oilers, coached the Cleveland Indians in the major leagues, and worked as a minor league instructor with both Cleveland and the California Angels. He also owned and operated a 2,800-acre ranch in Oklahoma. Spahn was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, his first year of eligibility. He also was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 1999. The team dedicated a statue in his honor at Turner Field in Atlanta. Spahn, who had been in ill health for a number of years with internal bleeding and a buildup of fluid in his chest and lungs, died of natural causes at his home in Broken Arrow at the age of eighty-two. He is buried in the Elmwood Cemetery in Hartshorne, Oklahoma.

Spahn was a star on the pitching mound and a hero on the battlefield. The Hall of Fame baseball player Stan Musial joked, “I don’t think Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame. He’ll never stop pitching.” Despite the numerous records he set in his more than two decades in the big leagues, Spahn often said that his years in the military during World War II were the most rewarding time of his life.

Milton J. Shapiro, The Warren Spahn Story (1959), and Al Silverman, Warren Spahn: Immortal Southpaw (1961), are contemporary sources on Spahn’s life. For information on the last four decades of Spahn’s life, the clipping files stored at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, are invaluable. These files include numerous newspaper and magazine stories from throughout Spahn’s long career. Obituaries are in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (24 Nov. 2003) and the New York Times, Washington Post, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Boston Globe (all 25 Nov. 2003).

Bill Francis

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