Warren Edward Spahn (April 23, 1921 – November 24, 2003) was an American left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball who played for 21 seasons, all in the National League. He won 20 games in 13 different seasons, including a 23-7 record when he was aged 42. Spahn was the 1957 Cy Young Award winner, and was the runner-up three times, all during the period when just one award was given. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
Spahn was regarded as a "thinking man's" pitcher who liked to outwit batters. He once described his approach on the mound: "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
Spahn won more games (363) than any other left-handed pitcher in history, and more than any other pitcher who played his entire career in the post-1920 live-ball era. He is acknowledged as one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball history. The Warren Spahn Award, given to the major leagues' best left-handed pitcher, is named after him.
His major league career began in 1942 with the Braves and he spent all but one year with that franchise, first in Boston and then in Milwaukee. He finished his career in 1965 with the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants. With 363 wins, Spahn is the fifth-winningest pitcher in history, trailing only Cy Young (511), Walter Johnson (417), Grover Cleveland Alexander (373), and Christy Mathewson (373) on MLB's all-time list.
Spahn also threw two no-hitters, and won 3 ERA titles. He appeared in 14 All-Star Games, the most of any pitcher in the 20th century.
Spahn acquired the nickname "Hooks", not so much because of his pitching, but due to the prominent shape of his nose. He had once been hit in the face by a thrown ball that he was not expecting, and his broken nose settled into a hook-like shape. In Spahn's final season, during his stint with the Mets, Yogi Berra came out of retirement briefly and caught 4 games, one of them with Spahn pitching. Yogi later told reporters, "I don't think we're the oldest battery, but we're certainly the ugliest."
Spahn was known for a very high leg kick in his delivery, surpassed perhaps only by eventual Giants teammate Juan Marichal. Photo sequences show that this high kick served a specific purpose. As a left-hander, Spahn was able not only to watch any runner on first base, but also to not telegraph whether he was delivering to the plate or to first base, thereby forcing the runner to stay close to the bag. Spahn adapted over the years. As his fastball waned, Spahn relied more on changing speeds and location, with the help of a devastating screwball. He led the NL in wins from age 36 through 40.
Spahn was also a good hitter for a pitcher, hitting at least one home run in 17 straight seasons, and finishing with an NL career record for pitchers, with 35 home runs. Wes Ferrell, who spent most of his time in the American League, holds the overall record for pitchers, with 37.
First signed by the Boston Braves before the 1940 season, Spahn reached the major leagues in 1942 at the age of 21. He famously clashed with Braves manager Casey Stengel, who sent him to the minors after Spahn refused to throw at a batter in an exhibition game. Spahn had pitched in only 4 games, allowing 15 runs (10 earned) in 15-2/3 innings. Stengel later said that it was the worst managing mistake he had ever made. The 1942 Braves finished next to last, and Stengel was fired the following year. Spahn was reunited with his first manager 23 years later, for the even more woeful last-place New York Mets, and later quipped, "I'm probably the only guy who worked with Stengel before and after he was a genius.
In 1947, Spahn led the National League in ERA while posting a 21–10 record. It was the first of his thirteen 20-win seasons. Spahn also won two more ERA titles, in 1953 and 1961.
In 1951, Spahn allowed the first career hit to Willie Mays, a home run. Mays had begun his career 0-for-12, and Spahn joked, "I'll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out." (In 1962, another Hall of Famer hit his first career home run off Spahn: Sandy Koufax, who only hit one other.)
"Pray for rain"
Spahn's teammate Johnny Sain was the ace of the pennant-winning 1948 Braves staff, with a win-loss record of 24–15. Spahn went 15–12 while, contrary to legend, teammates Bill Voiselle (13–13), and Vern Bickford (11–5) also pitched well. In honor of the pitching duo, Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern wrote this poem which the popular media eventually condensed to "Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain":
First we'll use Spahn
then we'll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
by two days of rain.
The poem was inspired by the performance of Spahn and Sain during the Braves' 1948 pennant drive. The team swept a Labor Day doubleheader, with Spahn throwing a complete 14-inning win in the opener, and Sain pitching a shutout in the second game. Following two off days, it did rain. Spahn won the next day, and Sain won the day after that. Three days later, Spahn won again. Sain won the next day. After one more off day, the two pitchers were brought back, and won another doubleheader. The two pitchers had gone 8–0 in twelve days' time.
In 1957, he was the ace of the champion Milwaukee Braves. Spahn pitched on two other Braves pennant winners, in 1948 and 1958. He had 2,583 strikeouts, which at the time of his retirement was the second-highest total in baseball history after Walter Johnson. Spahn led the NL in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons, from 1949 to 1952, including a career high of 18 (then the NL record) in a 15-inning appearance on June 14, 1952. For several decades, Spahn's Hall of Fame plaque contained a typographical error, crediting him with 2,853 strikeouts.
Spahn maintained that "A pitcher needs two pitches - one they're looking for, and one to cross 'em up." He was thus able to maintain his position as one of the game's top pitchers until his 19th season in the sport. This was exemplified by his start on July 2, 1963. Facing the San Francisco Giants, the 42-year-old Spahn became locked into a storied pitchers' duel with 25-year-old Juan Marichal. The score was still 0–0 after more than four hours when Willie Mays hit a game-winning solo home run off Spahn with one out in the bottom of the 16th inning. Marichal's manager, Alvin Dark, visited the mound in the 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th, and 14th innings, and was talked out of removing Marichal each time. During the 14th-inning visit, Marichal told Dark, "Do you see that man pitching for the other side? Do you know that man is 42 years old? I'm only 25. If that man is on the mound, nobody is going to take me out of here." Marichal ended up throwing 227 pitches in the complete game 1-0 win, while Spahn threw 201 in the loss, allowing nine hits and one walk. Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, who was in attendance that night, said of Spahn, "He ought to will his body to medical science."
Spahn threw his first no-hitter in 1960, when he was 39. He pitched his second no-hitter the following year. By the last two seasons of his career, Spahn was the oldest active player in baseball. He lost this distinction for a single day: September 25, 1965, when 58-year-old Satchel Paige pitched three innings.
Following the 1964 season, after 25 years with the franchise, Spahn was sold by the Braves to the New York Mets. He was released by the Mets on July 22, 1965 and immediately signed with the San Francisco Giants, with whom he finished the season.