TCS Daily

A Brave Soldier Fades Away

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 26, 2003 12:00 AM

It was 1942 and America was in some of the darkest days of World War II. More than 5000 American soldiers died on the Bataan "Death March." Gasoline rationing was in full effect. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave major league baseball the nod to continue despite the war so that Americans could "have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work." For the first time, the Star Spangled Banner -- usually performed on special occasions like opening day or the World Series -- was played before every major league game.

In Boston, on September 26, the Braves hosted the New York Giants, and as a patriotic gesture, the club allowed a free pass to any kid who brought at least 10 pounds of scrap metal to the ballpark. On the mound for Boston in his first starting assignment was a gangly kid with a sort of homely hound-dog face named Warren Spahn.

It wasn't a promising start, but in the bottom of the eighth, with the Giants leading 5-2, Spahn was rescued. Sort of. The streets of Boston had been pretty much picked clean of scrap metal that day and the thousands of kids in the stadium had been growing more and more unruly. They swarmed onto the field, running, fighting with each other, begging players for autographs. Police were unable to clear the field. The head umpire, John Sears, finally called the game. Under the rules, the Braves got a 9-0 forfeit victory. The puzzled young Spahn got credit for pitching a complete game but not a victory. He would end his first major league season with no wins, no losses and an ERA of 5.74.

Yesterday, at his home in Broken Arrow, Okla., Warren Spahn died at the age of 82. He had managed to improve somewhat on the record of his first year as a big league pitcher. Check the sports pages and read all about it. He won 363 games and lost 245 in 21 years on the mound. He completed 382 games (Remember when pitchers used to do that?) and he wasn't bad at bat, either, hitting more homeruns (37) than any other National League pitcher.

If Spahn was anything, he was consistent. In the 17 years between 1947 and 1964, he won at least 20 games 13 times. And, get this; he pitched at least 245 innings in all 17 seasons. No other left-hander has ever come close to his performance. He didn't have much speed, but his odd, almost histrionic high-kick delivery often produced a baffling screwball that left batters caroming easy outs to the infield or walking back to the dugout with a "What the hell?" furrow on their brow.

He usually wore a good-natured grin beneath his somewhat bulbous nose. He never seemed to be pressing, but he just got more masterful with his modest pitching mix as the years wore on. The screwball grew to be downright wicked. In 1957, when he was 36 years old, he won 21 games, got the Cy Young Award and pitched in the World Series as the Milwaukee Braves beat the Yankees in seven games. Lou Burdette, was the star pitcher for the Braves in that exciting series, but Spahn pitched game four, the famous "shoe polish" game.

Spahn pitched 10 innings, but in the bottom of the 10th, with New York leading 5-4, he was removed for a pinch hitter. The batsman was Vernal "Nippy" Jones and the Yankee pitcher was Tommy Byrne. Jones appeared to be hit on the foot by a Byrne pitch. New York disputed. Umpire Augie Donatelli examined the ball and Jones eagerly pointed to a shoe polish stain on it. He was awarded first base. Johnny Logan doubled Jones home to tie the game and Eddie Matthews eventually won it with a two-run homer, giving Spahn the victory.

In 1958 he won 22 games. In 1959 he won 21 games. In 1960 he won 21 again, and, at the age of 39, pitched his first no-hitter. On September 16 he struck out 15 Philadelphia Phillies and walked only two as the Braves won 4-0. The following spring, Warren Spahn was back in uniform for the Braves. He was a year older and that old left limb was still working. On April 28, he pitched his second career no-hitter, beating the San Francisco Giants 1-0. On August 11 of that year, he won his 300th game, 2-1 over the Chicago Cubs. On September 24, he beat the Cubs again, 8-0, reaching the 20-game mark for the 12th time in his career.

In 1962 -- the year Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers grabbed the headlines by winning 25 games and the Cy Young -- Spahn managed an 18-14 record. As the 1963 season opened, he was 42 years old and could have been excused for cruising into the twilight. But he kept kicking that right foot and sending those weird pitches spinning over the plate. On July 2 at Candlestick Park, he got into a duel with a 25-year-old hurler named Juan Marichal. It went 16 innings and took 4 hours and 10 minutes. Spahn scattered nine hits and walked only two. But Willie Mays finally secured the 1-0 victory to Marichal with a home run.

On September 8 Spahn pitched his 20th win of the season, tying Christy Mathewson for the modern NL record. As usual, he pitched a complete game, beating the Phillies 3-2. The Dodgers' Sandy Koufax was the headliner that year, winning 25 games (Marichal won 25 as well), but Spahn delivered 23 wins against 7 losses.

Like many who loved the game, Spahn stayed too long, posting records of 6-13 and 7-16 his last two years. But he could be excused for trying to stay in. Maybe he was trying to recapture something irretrievably lost -- three of the best years of his life. In 1943, Warren Spahn went to war. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. He was at the Remagen Bridge when G.I.s secured it to cross the Rhine in 1945. He was wounded and came home with the awards that, to his credit, you never heard much about, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

After that, Warren Spahn really didn't need to prove anything. But he did, and baseball is the better for it.


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