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Warren Spahn

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Boston/Milwaukee Braves
1942; 46-64
New York Mets 1965
San Francisco Giants 1965

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.

-The Boston Post: September 14, 1948

In recent years the legends of baseball's Golden Age have begun to leave us.  First it was Mickey Mantle, then fellow Yankee great Joe DiMaggio who was followed by his nemesis, Ted Williams.  In November, they were joined by Warren Spahn.  Spahn is the winningest left-hander in history and possibly the most underrated player of all time.  Despite not earning his first big league victory until age 25, he went on to record 363 victories, including a record 13 seasons with at least 20 wins.

Born on April 23, 1921 in Buffalo, NY, Warren Edward Spahn began his major league career just days before his 21st birthday.  Signed by the Boston Braves in 1940, Spahn's first stint in the majors ended when he refused manager Casey Stengel's orders to brush back the Dodger's Pee Wee Reese in an exhibition game.  After fashioning a 17-13 record at minor league Hartford, the left-hander was recalled by the Braves that September.  He pitched sparingly however, posting a 5.74 ERA in 15 2/3 innings.

Like most able-bodied young men of the time, Spahn was called into action by Uncle Sam.  Acting as platoon sergeant in the 276th Engineer Battalion, Spahn received a purple heart after a piece of shrapnel became lodged in his foot.  After having the fragment removed, Spahn continued his military career.

With the war over, Spahn returned to Boston in 1946 and posted an 8-5 record and solid 2.94 ERA in 24 appearances (16 starts).  The promising hurler came into his own in 1947, winning 21 games including a league best seven shutouts and 2.33 ERA for the third place Braves.

Although his stats dipped a bit in 1948 (15-12, 3.71 ERA), Spahn, along with teammate Johnny Sain, led the Braves to the NL pennant, prompting the "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" poem written above.  In the World Series against Cleveland, Spahn pitched well, but the Braves fell to the Indians in six games.

The 1949 season began a remarkable 15 year stretch for the southpaw in which he won 20 or more games 12 times, led the NL in wins eight times, complete games nine times, and never posted an ERA above 3.50.  In 1953, after years of poor attendance, the Braves moved west to Milwaukee and began their rise to prominence.  After winning 23, 21, 17, and 20 games from 1953-56, Spahn and the Braves were primed for greatness in 1957.

With young superstars Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews reaching their prime, the steady Lew Burdette and ace Warren Spahn, the Braves captured the NL pennant and defeated the mighty New York Yankees in a thrilling seven game World Series. Following the season, Spahn (21-11, 2.69 ERA) took home the Cy Young Award, and teammate Aaron was awarded the MVP.

In 1958, Spahn won 22 games and the Braves repeated as NL champs.  Their rematch with the Yankees in the Fall Classic went seven games once again, but this time it was New York who prevailed.  1959 marked the last time in Milwaukee that the Braves would seriously contend for a pennant.  Tied with Los Angeles at the season's end, the Braves fell to the Dodgers in a playoff.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Spahn is his longevity.  After beginning his career as a fireballer, Spahn fought off old age by learning new pitches like a screw ball and eventually a knuckler.  After not winning a single game before his 25th birthday (because of military service), the ageless wonder won 177 after turning 35.  On April 28, 1961, five days after his 40th birthday, Spahn no-hit the Giants.  Just over a year later the veteran notched his 300th career win.

Spahn's 1963 season ranks as one of the most amazing in history.  The 42-year-old fashioned a 23-7 record, 2.60 ERA, and pitched a league leading 22 complete games.  On July 3, he dueled with future Hall of Famer, Juan Marichal, for 16 innings of scoreless ball before giving up a solo homer to Willie Mays.

Soon after that remarkable season, father time began to finally catch up with Warren Spahn.  After 6-13 season in 1964, Spahn was unceremoniously sold to the New York Mets. His reunion with Casey Stengel in New York was brief however, as the Mets released the 44-year-old in July.  San Francisco quickly snatched the veteran hurler off the waiver wire, it was there he finished the season.

Although he still expressed the desire to pitch, Spahn was unable to find work in the big leagues, so he took his act south of the border to Mexico and eventually back to the states as a minor leaguer. In 1967, at the age of 46, he finally retired.

In his big league career, Spahn won 363 games, fifth most of all time.  The four men ahead of him retired before 1930, meaning that Spahn has won more games than any other pitcher in the last 70+ years.  Although he was never really known as a strike out pitcher, Spahn did lead the NL in that category four straight years (1949-52) and finished his career with 2,583 K's.  Spahn also completed 382 of his 665 starts.  To put that into perspective, Roger Clemens, the active leader in complete games as of the 2003 season, completed 117 of his 606 starts.

In 1973, his first year of eligibility, Spahn was inducted into the Hall of Fame, receiving 83% of the vote.  This past August, the Braves unveiled a nine foot statue of Spahn, showcasing his trademark high leg kick.  Spahn, who had been confined to a wheel chair because of failing heath, reportedly seemed uncomfortable, if not embarrassed, by all of the attention.

On November 24, 2003 Warren Spahn passed away peacefully at his home in Broken Arrow, OK.  He was 82.

-David Zingler, December 2003

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