Warren Spahn is one of the most underappreciated pitchers in Major League Baseball history.
Spahn won more games  than any left-hander ever to play in the big leagues and is the winningest pitcher of the live-ball [post-1920] era. He won 20 games or more in 13 seasons, including 21 at age 40 and 23 when he was 42—which are all records. A 17-time All-Star, Spahn threw more innings [5,246] than any southpaw ever to play the game. A thinking man’s pitcher, Spahn was superb at mixing his fastball with several off-speed pitches. “A pitcher needs two pitches,” he believed. “One they’re looking for and one to cross them up.” Throughout his career, Spahn got stronger as the season progressed, posting a career winning percentage of .676 in the final three months of the year, .130 higher than in the first half of the campaign. He also improved as he aged, leading the league in complete games from 1957 [when he was 36] to 1963, when he went 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA at age 42.
The fifth-winningest pitcher of all-time and arguably the greatest southpaw in history also hit 35 career home runs. Only one pitcher, Wes Ferrell, has more, with 36. A star on the diamond, Spahn was also a hero on the battlefield. After making his major league debut in the summer of 1942, he joined the U.S. Army after the season and served four years. Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge and participated in taking the Bridge at Remagen, a battle that marked the end of World War II. He was awarded a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Presidential Citation. After earning a battlefield promotion from staff sergeant to second lieutenant, Spahn returned from his tour of duty as the most decorated ballplayer in World War II.
Born in Buffalo, New York, on April 1, 1921, Warren Edward Spahn grew up in the city’s blue-collar East End district. The fifth of six children and older of two sons born to Mabel and Ed, his mother was a homemaker and father a wallpaper salesman. Ed Spahn had been a semi-pro baseball player but, at 5’7” and 130 pounds, was too small to dream of a big league career. Ed Spahn taught the game to Warren, who was the best athlete in the family, instilling the sound pitching mechanics that led his son to a long, injury-free career. Father and son attended Buffalo Bison minor league games together and, in 1934, were teammates on a Lake City Athletic Club baseball squad. Warren Spahn attended South Park High School, where he pitched the baseball team to two city championships. He was undefeated as an upperclassman and threw a no-hitter in his senior season.
Spahn was signed by the Boston Bees [later Braves] out of high school for $80 a month and assigned to their Class-D PONY League affiliate in Bradford, Pennsylvania, in 1940. He spent the following year in Evansville, where he led the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League in wins, shutouts, and ERA while tossing three one-hitters. Spahn made his big league debut in 1942. He appeared in four games, pitching 15.2 innings for Casey Stengel’s [Daily Dose, 4/11/16] Boston Braves. When the season ended in October, he joined the Army.
The 25-year-old Spahn was discharged from the Army and returned to the Braves for the 1946 season, when he won eight games. The following year, he went 21-10 and was named to his first All-Star team. After an incredible stretch run in which Spahn and ace right-hander Johnny Sain pitched Boston to the 1948 pennant, Boston Globe sports editor Gerry Hurn wrote in his column:
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 Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and, four years later, beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. After going 21-11, Spahn earned the 1957 Cy Young Award [Daily Dose, 7/6/16] as the best pitcher in baseball. Milwaukee repeated as NL champs in 1958 but lost to the Yankees in a World Series rematch. Spahn threw his first no-hitter in September 1960, when he was 39. He pitched a second one the following year.
On July 3, 1963, Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal locked horns in one of baseball’s most storied pitching duels. The 42-year-old Spahn was in his 19th season, while the 25-year-old Marichal was in the fourth campaign of his hall-of-fame career. In what has been called “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched,” both hurlers tossed shutouts through 15 innings. In the bottom of the 16th, Willie Mays [Daily Dose, 8/17/15] hit a solo shot off Spahn—only the ninth hit he had surrendered all game–for a walk-off home run and 1-0 Giants victory.
With a fluid, high kicking motion, the ability to change speeds and pinpoint control, Warren Edward Spahn is on everyone’s list of the top ten pitchers in baseball history. “Hitting is timing,” Spahn said. “Pitching is upsetting timing.” He led the NL in wins eight times, strikeouts four times and in ERA for three seasons. Spahn is a member of the All-Century Team and had his number 21 retired by the Braves in 1965. He lost three full seasons to military service and, assuming he averaged 20 wins in those years, would have amassed well over 400 career victories, placing him second only to the great Cy Young on the all-time list. When asked if serving in the Army cost him wins, the humble southpaw responded, “If I had not had that maturity [gained serving], I wouldn’t have pitched until I was 45.”
Mr. Spahn died November 24, 2003, in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He was 82. A few months before his passing, the winningest lefty of all-time attended an unveiling of a statue of his likeness outside Atlanta’s Turner Field.
On this date in 1973, Warren Edward Spahn was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
“I don’t think Spahn will ever get into the hall of fame. He’ll never stop pitching”
– Stan Musial, on Warren Spahn’s longevity