During a 1942 exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Casey Stengel, then manager of the Boston Braves, instructed a rookie pitcher to brush back Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese. When the young pitcher refused, Stengel sent him down to the minors for the remainder of the season.
Stengel, of course, would go on to win nearly 1,905 games as a manager and lead the New York Yankees to seven World Series championships between 1949 and 1958.
But the pitcher Stengel disciplined—a 20-year-old from Oklahoma named Warren Spahn—may have had an even more impressive career.
Spahn spent the rest of the 1942 season pitching for the Class A Hartford Chiefs. He wouldn’t pitch again in the majors until 1946.
Like many professional ballplayers at the time, Spahn was drafted into the Army during World War II. He served for three-and-a-half years, during which time he fought in the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944 and January 1945) and helped capture the Ludendorff Bridge (March 1945). Spahn’s wartime heroics earned him a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart (he was hit by shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge).
Spahn’s time in the military also put his baseball career on hold for three seasons. When he won his first Major League game in 1946, Spahn was 25 years old. But he would make up for the time he missed on the mound toward the beginning of his career, by sticking around until he was 44.
The Winningest Pitcher of His Era or Any Era Since
Warren Spahn played 20 Major League seasons (21 if you count the four games he pitched before getting sent down in 1942), most of them for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves. In his second full season he won 21 games and made his first of 14 National League All-Star Teams, more than any other pitcher in the twentieth century.
Spahn won 20 or more games 13 times during his career and finished with a record of 363-245. His 363 wins are good for sixth all time and are best among left-handed pitchers. All five pitchers ahead of Spahn on the career wins list were out of the Majors by 1930: Cy Young (511 wins, ended his career in 1911); Walter Johnson (417 wins, 1927); Christy Matthewson (373 wins, 1916); Grover Cleveland Alexander (373 wins, 1930); and Pud Galvin (365 wins, 1892).
No one since the Hoover Administration has matched Spahn’s career win total. His 363 stands as a sort of modern-era record that may never be broken. (The only active players with 200 or more wins are in their 40s and near the end of their careers.) In recent years Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens have come close, with 355 and 354 wins respectively. Of pitchers from Spahn’s generation, Early Wynn is closest with 300 victories.
A rare combination of longevity and consistency
Spahn boasted a combination of longevity and consistency that is rare in any sport. During a 17-season peak that lasted from 1947 through 1963 Spahn never won fewer than 14 games and his ERA never exceeded 3.71. In that span he was often among the National and Major League leaders in innings pitched and complete games.
What is most remarkable about Spahn is how he improved with age.
He led the National League in wins for five consecutive seasons when he was in his late 30s and early 40s. In 1963, at the age of 42, he led the National League in complete games for a seventh consecutive season and the Majors for a fifth time in six years. When he was 38, in 1959, Spahn led the bigs in both innings pitched and batters faced.
Spahn was named The Sporting News National League Pitcher of the Year, the highest honor for pitcher prior to the debut of the Cy Young Award in 1956, for the first time in 1953, when he was 32. Four years later he won The Sporting News (TSN) award for the National League and the second ever Cy Young Award for both leagues. (Major League Baseball didn’t name recognize separate American and National League Cy Young winners until 1967.) He was TSN National League Pitcher of the Year again in 1958 and 1961, when he was 40 years old. Spahn threw two no-hitters in his career: the first in 1960 when he was 39, the second in 1961 when he was 40.
In 1965 Stan Musial said of the 44-year-old Spahn, “I don’t think Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame. He’ll never stop pitching.”
Perhaps Spahn’s greatest single-game performance came in a July 2, 1963 loss to the San Francisco Giants. The 42-year-old Spahn faced off against 25-year-old rising star Juan Marichal in one of the great pitchers’ duels in baseball history.
The game was scoreless going into the 16th inning, with both Spahn and Marichal having pitched the entire game. In the bottom of the 16th Spahn gave up a home run to Giants outfielder Willie Mays for the first and only run of the game. According to Marichal, Giants manager Alvin Dark wanted to pull him in the 12th, 13th, and 14th innings, but he told Dark, “Do you see that man on the mound? That man is 42, and I’m 25. I’m not ready for you to take me out.”
Spahn owed his lengthy career in part to his cerebral pitching style. Though he led the National League in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons early in his career (and retired with more career strikeouts than any other lefty), he knew he couldn’t rely on power forever. Spahn prided himself on outwitting the batters he faced. “Hitting is timing,” he once said. “Pitching is upsetting timing.”
An all-time Brave
With the exception of the 1965 season, which he split between the Giants and New York Mets, Spahn played his entire career with the Braves. He played seven full seasons with the Braves when they were in Boston then, together with third baseman Eddie Matthews, was the face of the franchise during the team’s tenure in Milwaukee (1953-1965).
In 1948 Spahn and staff ace Johnny Sain led the Braves to their first National League Pennant since 1914. Spahn’s Braves in 1957 won their first World Series since 1914. (Spahn went 1-1 in that series. Fellow Braves starter Lew Burdette was the series MVP.) The Braves didn’t win another title 1995.
During Spahn’s tenure in Boston and Milwaukee the Braves held their own in a National League dominated by the Dodgers, Giants, and Cardinals. His Braves won three pennants and were runners up five times.
The Braves sold Spahn to the Mets after the 1964 season, little more than a year before the franchise would move to Atlanta. Before they moved the Milwaukee Braves retired Spahn’s number 21. A statue of Spahn, in his famous high-kick pitching motion stands outside of Turner Field in Atlanta.
After his retirement, Warren Spahn managed the Mexico City Tigers. He later worked as a pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Japanese League. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 on the first ballot. His election was delayed a couple years because he pitched some minor league games in 1966 (for Mexico City) and 1967 (for St. Louis’s AAA team).
Spahn died of natural causes at his home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in 2003. He was 82.