Warren Spahn – Player Biography
It is difficult to say which baseball scribe coined the term “crafty left-hander”, but it is easy to imagine that he had the great southpaw Warren Spahn in mind when he came up with the phrase. Armed with a dizzying delivery, a sharp-breaking screwball, and an even sharper mind, Spahn consistently baffled and bested major league hitters over the course of a glorious 20-year career, most of which was spent with the Boston/Milwaukee Braves. Widely regarded as the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history, Spahn is on the short list of the game’s greatest hurlers. Were his career not delayed by three years of distinguished military service, it is safe to assume that he would have finished his career second only to Cy Young as history’s winningest pitcher. As it stands, Spahn’s 363 wins are the most ever by a left-hander, and the most by any pitcher since the live-ball era began in the 1920’s. Almost a half-century since he retired, Spahn’s 5,243 innings and 63 career shutouts still stand as records for left-handed pitchers.
But those totals only tell part of the tale. The most remarkable thing about Spahn is not that he put up such stellar numbers, but that he was able to do so consistently throughout such a long career. Spahn won 20 or more games in a season a staggering 13 times, another record among left-handers. He notched the first such season at age 28, and the last at age 42, when he compiled a 23-7 record. Spahn won three ERA titles, one at 26, one at 32, and the last at 40. He threw his first no-hitter at age 39; his second came a year later. At the twilight of his career, a 42-year-old Spahn still had enough left in the tank to hold a scoreless tie with a young Juan Marichal for a grueling 15 innings. Spahn lost the now-famous contest only when Willie Mays homered in the bottom of the 16th. Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell, who was in attendance that night, was so impressed by Spahn’s incredible stamina that he quipped, “He ought to will his body to medical science.”
Such durability must have come as something of a surprise to those who grew up with Warren in his native Buffalo, NY. Born in 1921, the son of an amateur ballplayer, Spahn grew into a tall and lanky 170-pounder, hardly fitting the profile of a power pitcher. Indeed, Warren only turned to pitching when he failed to make his high school team as a first baseman. His father encouraged the shift in position by building his son a pitcher’s mound in the family’s back yard. It was on this makeshift mound, and under his father’s guidance, that Spahn developed his famous delivery, characterized by a deep bow followed by a sky-high leg kick. Such a motion was designed not only to keep runners guessing, but also to deceive the batter. Hitters who later faced Spahn often complained that, in the midst of all those flailing limbs, the ball seemed to just pop out of Spahn’s uniform.
The Spahns’ backyard bullpen sessions paid off when Warren was signed by the Boston Braves organization in 1940. Despite some early arm injuries, Spahn breezed through the minors, so that by 1942 he was invited to start the season with the big league club. His first tour in the majors was frustratingly brief, however: Spahn soon fell out of favor with manager Casey Stengel when the left-hander refused to throw a brush-back pitch at Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Angered by his young pitcher’s obstinacy, Stengel banished Spahn to the minors for the remainder of the season, a decision which Stengel later called the worst mistake of his managing career.
Rebounding from this demotion, Spahn once again shined in the minors, but his imminent return to the major leagues was put on hold by the war in Europe. Drafted by the 176th Combat Engineers Battalion of the United States Army, Spahn saw action in some of World War II’s most storied battles, including the Battle of the Bulge and the taking of the Rhine Bridge at Remagen, Germany. For his bravery and sacrifices on the battlefield, Spahn was awarded a battlefield commission, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. Though his service cost him three years of his physical prime, Spahn never regretted it nor fretted over what might have been. Rather, he felt that the hardships he faced on the battlefield put any troubles he might have faced on the ball field in perspective, and actually attributed his career’s longevity to the maturity he gained from his Army experience.
That career began in earnest when Spahn returned to the Boston Braves in 1946. The following year, he emerged as one of the league’s elite pitchers, winning 21 games and leading the league with a 2.33 ERA. In 1948, as Boston battled to win its first pennant in almost a generation, Spahn teamed up with ace right-hander Johnny Sain to form one of the most famous pitching tandems in baseball history. So dominant was the pair during the Braves’ pennant drive that one local sportswriter joked that the team’s plan for victory should be “Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain.” (In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that their staff mates, Bill Voisele and Vern Bickford, posted a more-than-respectable combined record of 24-18 that year.) Spahn’s grit and guile helped Boston win the NL pennant that year, but his Braves lost the World Series to the Cleveland Indians in six games.
After a decade as perhaps the major league’s best regular-season pitcher, Spahn led the Braves (now in Milwaukee) to another World Series appearance in 1957. He won his only Cy Young Award that same year (in only the second year of the award’s existence), posting a 23-11 record. This time, the Braves emerged victorious, defeating the mighty New York Yankees in seven games. Spahn won 22 games the following year to lead the Braves to another World Series date with the Yankees. Though Spahn went 2-1 with a 2.20 ERA that postseason, it was in a losing effort, as Milwaukee fell to New York in another close seven-game series.
Spahn won 21 games in each of the next three seasons, leading the league each time, and he pitched no-hitters in 1960 and 1961. After going 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA in 1963, Spahn struggled in 1964, after which he was sold to the cellar-dwelling New York Mets. After splitting the 1965 season between the Mets and San Francisco Giants, Spahn finally retired, though for many years afterward he stayed connected to the game, coaching at various levels. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by an overwhelming margin in 1973, his first year of eligibility.
After many years as one of the game’s dignified elder statesmen, Spahn died of natural causes in his Oklahoma home in 2003, at age 82. He is memorialized not only by his plaque in Cooperstown, but also by a majestic bronze statue at Atlanta’s Turner Field. It depicts the lefthander in the middle of his trademark high-kicking wind-up, with his toes pointed skyward, left arm poised to explode on some unseen, unsuspecting hitter. But perhaps the most fitting tribute to Spahn can be found in his hometown of Buffalo, where Warren Spahn Street runs right near South Park High School, where he struggled in vain to get into the lineup, and not too far away from the homemade mound where he first fired that legendary arm.