Braves Starting Pitching In Retrospect Part 3 Warren Spahn

the original big three3

The Ace of the original big the was Warren Spahn. Please credit graphic created by Fred Owens

You can get an argument about who was the ace of the staff during the streak but there’s no argument about the Braves Ace from 1946 through 1963.

Warren Spahn

Braves fans should know about the legends that built their team. Among those legends two stand out for me above all others; Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn.  This series of posts is about the big three of the Braves rotation from 1952-1962 but Spahn’s career and his meaning to the history of the Braves deserves a bit more.

A testament to the idea of taking what’s offered and moving on, Spahn became a pitcher after failing to make his high school team as a first baseman. His father did whatever was necessary to help his son. he built a pitcher’s mound in the back yard and helped him develop the windup the years later other kids would try to emulate. In 1998 Spahn talked about that in an interview with The Sunday Oklahoman.

“He insisted that I throw with a fluid motion, and the high leg kick was a part of the deception to the hitter. Hitters said the ball seemed to come out of my uniform.”

Dad was obviously right, Spahn went on to become the winningest lefty of all time.

Spahn and the Braves

The Boston Braves signed Spahn in 1940 for $140 and sent him to Bradford in class D ball. In his 12 games there he struck out 62 batters in 66 innings. That earned him promotion to class B ball in Evansville the following year. There he led the Three-I League with 19 wins and a 1.83 ERA.  He made his major league debut against the New York Giants on April 19th of 1942 at the ripe old age of 21. His manager at that time was Casey Stengel who later led the Yankees during their historic 1950s run. Stengel and Spahn didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. Spahn was on the mound the next day facing the Dodgers when Casey told Spahn to throw at Pee Wee Reese. Spahn refused, was yanked from the game and banished to the minors until September.  Stengel later admitted it was the worst mistake he ever made.

I said “no guts” to a kid who went on to become a war hero and one of the greatest left handed pitchers you ever saw. You can’t say I don’t miss ‘em when I miss ‘em.

The two would be pair up again forty years later when the Braves traded Spahn to the Mets managed by Stengel.  Like the 42 Braves the Mets weren’t a good baseball team leading Spahn to reflect on it like this.

“I’m probably the only guy who played for Casey before and after he was a genius.”

In September of 42 he made two starts without a decision and finished with a 0-0 record.  It would be 10 years before he had a losing record  and 12 years after that before his second losing season.

That winter he was drafted into the  Army, assigned to the combat engineers and eventually sent to Europe. Spahn took part in the Battle of the Ardennes – commonly called the Battle of the Bulge – and in March of 1945 during operation Lumberjack, was standing adjacent the Ludenndorff Bridge when the Germans tried to blow it up as American soldiers were crossing. Spahn and the Bridge both survived. and he left the Army with a battlefield commission, a Bronze Star and a Purple heart for a shrapnel wound.

As I noted in part 1 between 1946 and 1951 Spahn and Johnny Sain were arguably the best 1-2 punch in baseball. They led the Braves to the 1948 World Series but lost to the Indians.

Spahn entered the 1952 season at the age of 31 and it wasn’t a particularly good one by his standards. He posted a 14-19 record and would not have been happy about that. Today we understand that his 2.98 ERA, 1.159 WHIP and ERA+ of 122 in 290 innings made him a 6.7WAR pitcher. From 1952 through 1962 Spahn was the most dominant pitcher in the game providing 60.8.WAR in his 3278 with a 2.93 ERA (122 ERA+)and 1398 strikeouts. In 1963 at the age of 42, Spahn was 23-7 throwing 22 complete games, 259 2/3 innings, posting a 2.60 ERA, and ERA+ of 124, a 1.117 WHIP and posting a 4.0WAR. . . did I mention he was 42? Herewith his numbers for that time frame.


















3278 1/3

























In Age He Led the league In
1952 31 Strikoues – 183
1953 32 Wins 23, ERA 2.10, ERA+ 188 WHIP 1.058. H/9 7.1
1957 36 Wins 21,CG 18
1958 37 Wins 22,CG 23, IP 290, BF 1176, WHIP 1.148
1959 38 Wins 21,CG 21, SHO 4, IP 292, BF 1203
1960 39 Wins 21, CG 18
1961 40 Wins 21, ERA 3.02, CG 21, SHO 4, WHIP 1.142
1962 41 CG 22
1963 42 CG 22

That was also the year that he took away Burdette’s claim to fame.

The Greatest Game Ever Pitched II

Back in part 1 I told you about the majestic game between Harvey Haddix and Burdette and that papers called it the greatest game ever pitched.  It held that title until Tuesday July 2, 1963.  The Braves were in San Francisco visiting the defending NL Champion Giants and the game provided not only a  classic confrontation between the two highest leg kicks in baseball history but also two of the finest pitchers to ever take the field. It was played at dear old Candlestick Park where the wind always blew and the temperature meant you always wore a heavy jacket.. or parka…it was chilly on the bay all the time. . especially at night. . ..and the game started at 8PM. There were 15,921 brave souls in Candlestick that night. Among them Bud Selig on his first visit to San Francisco in the summer and he didn’t bring a parka.”I felt like I was in Milwaukee in January,” Selig recalled.  That’s cold.

The Giants lineup was loaded for bear and included the baby bear. Harvey Kuenn, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou and Orlando Cepeda were the first to greet opposing pitchers; not for the faint of heart that bunch. The Braves had Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews in the middle of their lineup and were a solid all around ball club. Long story short, the Giants were on a roll and the Braves were rolling to a stop. Still, whenever “Hooks” was on the mound they had a chance. Spahn earned the Hooks nickname when he first came up for his nose, not his curveball, and it stuck. Hooks started the game 11-3 with a 2.67 ERA and a 1.173 WHIP

The Giants liked their chances when the Dominican Dandy was on the bump as well. At 25 years old he was throwing what my dad called aspirin tablets and boasted a 12-3 record, a 2.16 ERA and a 1.002 WHIP as the game began. Both pitchers were hot. Spahn had thrown a three hitter against the Dodgers three days earlier and Marichal tossed a no-no against the Astros two weeks earlier.

Unlike the Haddix/Burdette affair however, this game had hits; just not many of them.  It also had seven future Hall of Fame players on the field at the same time. Early on it was quiet. The Braves tried to generate a two out rally in the fourth when  Norm Larker walked.  Mack Jones then singled but Larker who ran like Brian McCann carrying Freddie Freeman, only made it to second. Del Crandall – a great catcher and pretty good hitter – rifled a line drive to center and for some reason the Braves tried to score Larker from second with Willie Mays fielding the ball; inning over. On deck was Spahn who was a fine hitter and would have two homers that season.

In the bottom of that inning the Braves lost Matthews to injury and replaced him with Dennis Menke. That loss would prove costly later.  Spahn kept the lid on the Giants however and the Braves mounted another rally in the seventh, with a Crandall single but he tried to steal second and was thrown out. Spahn doubled but was stranded at second.

After walking Aaron in the eighth Marichal retired the next 16 Braves in order before giving up a two out single in the 13th. Giant manager Alvin Dark spoke to Marichal after that inning but left him in the game. Asked about later Dark said that he’s ask how his pitcher was feeling. Marichal pointed to Spahn and said, “You see that old man out there? He’s 42. I’m 23 and I’m not coming out of this game until he does or we win.”

In the bottom of the 13th Spahn gave up a single then promptly picked the runner off and retired the next two hitters. In the 14th Mays and Keunn reached but Spahn got McCovey and Alou to fly out then induced a ground ball to Menke who booted it to load the bases. Spahn ignored the error and got Ed Bailey to fly out to center to end the inning. The Braves went and down in order in the 15th with Spahn hitting for himself and Spahn returned the favor in the bottom of the inning. The Braves went quietly in the 16th and Kuenn started the bottom half by flying out to center and Willie Mays stepped in.

Mays and Spahn went back a long way. Back in 1951 Mays hit his first  major league home run off of Spahn. Here they were 12 years and 381 Mays homers later facing each other again. Mays was 0-5 with a walk (intentional) when he stepped in. Spahn threw a screwball that “didn’t break worth a damn“  and Mays came popped it over the left field fence to end the 4 hour 10 minute pitching masterpiece. Mays had more career home runs off of Spahn than any other hitter, a sure time for a pitching change in today’s game. But not back then and not with Spahn or Burdette.

“I can remember Spahn and (Lew) Burdette both in Milwaukee: If they got into the ninth inning and the score was tied, you better not take him out,” recalled second baseman Frank Bolling, who played for the Braves from 1961-66.

According to Dan Brown Marichal threw 227 pitches in that game while Spahn threw 201. However James S. Hirsh in “Willie Mays, the Life, the Legend” puts Spahn’s pitch count at 277 but has no record of Marichal’s pitches. Spahn finished the night with a line that read 15 1/3 innings, 1 run, 9 hits 2 strikeouts and i walk – intentional. Marichal’s line 16 innings no runs 8 hits 4 walks 10 strikeouts.

The next day Dark approached Spahn and ask him if he’d talk to Marichal about how to take care of his body after a marathon like the one they had just experienced. Spahn agreed and the two spoke – in private – about healthy living, lifestyle and no doubt what went on the night before. I’d like to know what was said out in right field that day. Whatever it was must have worked Marichal is in the Hall beside Spahn.

This is what your bat is for Bob.

Unlike the hapless Bob Buhl I wrote about yesterday, Spahn knew exactly what the bat was for.  I recall Spahn being used as a pinch hitter often and no one ever took him lightly. His career line was 194/.234/.287/.520 with 57 doubles, 6 triples and 35 career home runs. Spahn the ball player didn’t hide his dislike of the DH.  In an interview at the1999 All-Star Game Spahn gave the whole situation clarity.

“One of the things I dislike about baseball today is we’ve made nonathletes out of pitchers,” he said. “They pitch once a week. They count the pitches. They don’t hit. They don’t run the bases. That’s not my kind of baseball.”

Can I have an AMEN!!!

Assorted Stuff I think You Should Know

  • Since 1920 16 starting pitchers with over 3000 IP have accumulated more than 80 rWAR. Spahn is 9th on the list with 92.8.
  • National League All-Star: 1947, 1949-1954, 1956-1959, 1961-1963
  • 1953 National League The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year Award
  • 1957 Cy Young Award Winner runner up twice (1958 1960) only one award given for all of baseball at that time
  • 1957 National League The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year Award
  • 1958 National League The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year Award
  • 1961 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award
  • 1961 National League The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year Award
  • Pitched two no-hitters in his career the second at the age of 40
  • Posted 13 seasons with 20 or more wins equaling Cy Young
  • Member of MLB’s All-Century Team
  • His 2583 Career Strikeouts are 25th all time
  • Tied second in Home runs by a pitcher with 35 (Bob Feller)

That’s a Wrap

There’s so much to know and say about Spahn it’s hard to know what not to say but I will stop soon I promise. While dong this research I came across this quote from Fred Haney who managed Spahn.

“The things he can remember about pitching just amaze me. Spahnie studies. He can pitch to a certain hitter in a certain way and get him out. Another pitcher can’t. . . .”

I thought immediately that he could have been talking about Greg Maddux. Then there was this from Spahn himself.

”Home plate is 17 inches wide,” he once remarked. ”I give the batter the middle 13 inches. That belongs to him. But the two outside inches on either side belong to me. That’s where I throw the ball. . .Sometimes I get behind hitters on purpose. That makes them hungry hitters. They start looking for fat pitches. I make my living off hungry hitters.”

That could well have been said about Maddux too, or Glavine or Smoltz.

In my lifetime I’ve had the distinct pleasure of watching the greatest left hander of modern times and the greatest right hander of modern times – Greg Maddux and Warren Spahn – and both wore a Braves uniform at their peak. While Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz – who Spahn said reminded him of himself on the mound – were a more polished trio who will all be in the Hall of Fame soon, between 1952 and 1963 there was no better, no more consistently good pitching trio that Spahn Burdette and Buhl. Warren Spahn was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973 with 80% of the vote. proving that even then there were idiots voting. He died November 24, 2003 at his home in Broken Arrow Oklahoma, he was 82.  The Warren Spahn Award, established in 1999, is presented annually by the Oklahoma Sports Museum in Guthrie, Oklahoma to the top left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball. The award is based on a combination of wins, strikeouts and earned run average during the regular season. This year’s recipient was Clayton Kershaw. Hooks would have loved that.

Tags: Atlanta Braves FanSided

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