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.
—Gerry Hern, Boston Post, September 14, 1948
Nobody would mistake Post sportswriter Hern’s famous lines for “Casey at the Bat” or even poetry except in the broadest sense, but it sums up most of what many people today know about Johnny Sain. That’s unfortunate, because Sain was so much more than someone whose name, fortuitously for Hern, rhymed with “rain” — trainer of fighter pilots, ace pitcher, one of the great pitching coaches, and holder of a little-known but remarkable record attesting to his genius as a contact hitter.
He was born John Franklin Sain in the tiny town of Havana, Arkansas (population 375 in the 2010 census), on September 25, 1917, to Eva and John Sain. An automobile mechanic and a good left-handed pitcher at the amateur level, the elder Sain would profoundly affect his son’s career, encouraging him early on and teaching him to throw a curve while varying his motions and speed.
No one showed much interest in young Johnny as a pitching prospect, and his journey to the majors became a six-year odyssey. According to author Al Hirshberg, Bill Dickey declined Johnny’s father’s request to talk to his son after watching him pitch in a high-school game because he didn’t want to tell the boy he didn’t have it. To make matters worse, Bill Terry tried soon after to talk him out of pursuing a baseball career.
Receiving little encouragement or interest, Sain began a long odyssey to the majors. After graduating from Havana High School in 1935, the 17-year-old Johnny reportedly signed a Class D contract from the Red Sox for $5. However, the Detroit Tigers signed him as an amateur free agent the next year. Whose property was he? It’s a good question. He’d signed with the Red Sox first, but he was under age. He was of age when he signed with the Tigers, but he’d already signed a contract with Boston.
In any case, Sain wound up in the Red Sox’ farm system. Memphis native James “Doc” Prothro, manager of the Red Sox farm club in Little Rock, part of the Class A Southern Association, sent him to Osceola in the Class D Northeast Arkansas League for the 1936 season. The 18-year-old gave up a home run to the first batter he faced in a pro game, but still managed to win the contest and go 5-3 with a 2.72 ERA. The Red Sox dropped whatever association they had with Osceola in 1937, and the team began an affiliation with the St. Louis Browns. Despite the change in affiliation, Sain remained with Osceola, the only player from the 1936 roster to do so. The Indians slipped from second place to fifth (out of six) in 1937, and Sain’s 5-8, 4.13 slate reflected the decline. Osceola left the league after the season, and Sain landed with the unaffiliated Newport Cardinals of the same league.
Coming into his own in 1938, Sain finished up 16-4 with a 2.72 ERA for Newport, good for a spot on the league’s all-star team. Foreshadowing another of his talents, he also batted .257 with a home run and 14 RBIs. Remaining at Newport, now affiliated with the Detroit Tigers, who had originally signed him, Johnny had another strong year in 1939, his 18-10 mark accompanied by a 3.27 ERA; in addition, he and teammate Ed Hughes each set the league record for complete games with 27. Sain, who worked hard to become a good hitter and occasionally played in the outfield when not pitching, topped off his fine season with a .315 average, a pair of homers, and 20 RBIs.
Two good years with Newport weren’t enough to get Sain to the majors, but he was unwittingly approaching the turning point in his career. It started innocuously on December 9, 1939, when Detroit traded second baseman Benny McCoy to the Philadelphia Athletics for outfielder Wally Moses. Citing corruption and cover-ups in the Tiger organization, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis nullified the trade and on January 14, 1940, granted free agency to 91 Detroit players and farmhands.1 Sain was among the fortunate new free agents and one of 23 released players who made it to the majors, although in his case it would take two more years.
Accordingly, 1940 found Sain with the Nashville Volunteers, a Dodgers affiliate in the Southern Association. His 8-4 mark and 4.45 ERA pale beside the Vols’ 101-47 record, good for a .682 winning percentage. The 1941 Vols, no longer a Brooklyn farm club, fell off to 83-70, in second place, and Sain fell much further to 6-12 and a 4.60 ERA. At this point Johnny didn’t seem to be going anywhere, but the woeful Boston Braves, possibly on the advice of Pat Monahan, a longtime scout who worked for many teams, or Prothro, and hungry for pitchers, purchased his contract from Nashville and signed him to a major-league contract in March 1942.
Sain made his debut in the Braves’ home opener on April 17, 1942 — in relief — retiring all seven Giants batters he faced and striking out three in a 4-3 Boston win. For his efforts he was awarded (retroactively) the first save of his career. He picked up his first win on April 29 at Wrigley Field in relief of Al Javery. All told, he went 4-7 with a 3.90 ERA, mostly in relief, for Casey Stengel’s last Boston team, a dismal unit that could manage only a 59-89 record and a seventh-place finish.
Even with World War II on, Sain was able to complete the season. Upon receiving his draft notice, he had enlisted for aviation training in the Navy on August 21. However, he didn’t have to report until November 15, whereupon he was sent to Amherst College along with fellow big-league inductees Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Joe Coleman, and Buddy Gremp. Having completed preliminary ground training by May 1943, Sain was transferred to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for preflight instruction. After a few months there, he moved on to Corpus Christi Naval Air Training Base and graduated as an ensign in August 1944. He wound up teaching flying at Corpus Christi through the end of the war, receiving his discharge on November 25, 1945.
The experience proved seminal for the young man, who noted, “I think learning to fly an airplane helped me as much as anything. I was twenty-five years old. Learning to fly helped me to concentrate and restimulated my ability to learn.”2 Shortly before his discharge, on October 1, Sain married Dallas native Doris May McBride. The couple had four children — John Jr., Sharyl, Rhonda, and Randy.
Service in the war benefited Sain in a variety of ways. For one thing, his arm got some rest. He threw whenever he could, though, and pitched on several teams against stiff competition that often included other major leaguers. He went 12-4 with the North Carolina Pre-Flight team, appropriately named the Cloudbusters, in 1943, but it was a war-relief game in Yankee Stadium on July 28 that stood out. The Cloudbusters were facing a team made up of reserves from the Yankees and Indians, whose regulars played a charity, regular-season doubleheader that same day. In the sixth inning, “Yank-Lands” third-base coach Babe Ruth left the box to pinch-hit. Seeing the game as a sort of audition in front of a number of big-league officials, Sain wanted to retire the 48-year-old Ruth, but catcher Al Sabo came out and told him not to throw Ruth any curves and risk embarrassing him. As Sain later said, “Taking away my curveball was like cutting off two of my fingers, but it was Babe Ruth in Yankee Stadium. Then, it became obvious that the home plate umpire wasn’t going to call any strikes on him. So I threw five medium fastballs, almost batting practice pitches. Ruth took one, then hit a long foul ball and then walked on the last three pitches.”3 It was the Babe’s last at-bat in an organized game.
Another benefit of the war years is that a maturing Sain came to realize and accept that although he was large for his era at 6-feet-2 and 180-200 pounds, he didn’t have high-octane velocity. Accordingly, he’d have to rely on mechanics, finesse, and guile, letting batters hit the ball and letting his fielders do their jobs. Moreover, he changed his delivery. Through 1942 he constantly varied his arm action, even occasionally throwing from a crossfire motion. As Sain saw it, there were two problems with this approach: He risked hurting his arm, and it wasn’t effective (63 walks in 97 innings with Boston in 1942 were ample proof). After the war he kept his windmill windup (he was one of the last pitchers to do so) and threw almost exclusively overhand, dropping down to side-arm on occasion if he was ahead of the hitter.
Finally, there was the curveball his father had taught Sain how to throw. Johnny had a good curve before the war, to be sure, but the knowledge of aerodynamics he’d absorbed as a pilot helped him turn his best pitch into so effective a weapon that he earned the nickname the Man of a Thousand Curves.
Showing no signs of rustiness after a three-year layoff, Sain became a star pitcher and Boston’s staff ace in 1946. He turned in a 20-14 slate, a career-best 2.21 ERA, and a league-leading 24 complete games for the Braves, who took a big leap to 81-72 and fourth place under new manager Billy Southworth. Johnny also had the honor on May 11 of pitching the first night game in Boston big-league annals. Facing the Giants in a special “sateen” uniform designed to stand out under the lights, he lost to the Giants, 5-1, in front of 35,945 fans at Braves Field. The pitching highlight of Sain’s year, however, came on July 12 at Cincinnati. In the first inning, Grady Hatton hit a pop fly that dropped among three Braves behind third base for a double. No other Red reached base as Johnny beat Ewell Blackwell, 1-0.
Life was improving for the Braves. Tommy Holmes was an effective contact hitter. Bob Elliott, a hustling, hard-hitting team player, was acquired from the Pirates over the winter and won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1947. And there was a decorated war hero, a southpaw who would be the perfect complement to Johnny Sain and a number of other pitchers over a long career — Warren Spahn.
Spahn and Sain became a factor in ’47. Spahn had his first great year, going 21-10 with a 2.33 ERA, and Sain was close behind, turning in a 21-12 mark and 3.52 ERA (the relatively high ERA partially offset by an outstanding .346 batting average and only one strikeout in 107 at-bats). At 86-68, the Braves moved up another notch to third place. Sain even became a part of history on Opening Day, April 15, becoming the first major-league pitcher to face Jackie Robinson. Robinson went hitless in three trips to the plate as the Dodgers won, 5-3, at Ebbets Field.
Sain’s reward for his fine early-season work was pitching in the All-Star Game at Wrigley Field. Replacing the Cardinals’ Harry Brecheen in the seventh inning of a 1-1 contest, he contributed to his own undoing. He got George McQuinn to ground out. Bobby Doerr followed with a single, then stole second. Sain had Doerr picked off second but fired the ball into center field, sending Doerr to third. He struck out Buddy Rosar, but Stan Spence, batting for Spec Shea, singled, scoring Doerr with the go-ahead run. The American League held on for the 2-1 win, and Sain absorbed the loss. Nevertheless, it proved a good year, leaving the Braves and their fans reason to be optimistic.
The 1948 season almost brought baseball Nirvana to Boston and New England. The Red Sox finished 96-58, two games ahead of the hated Yankees. The bad news was that the Indians under the leadership of Lou Boudreau were also 96-58. The first playoff in American League history — a one-game affair — saw the Sox go down, 8-3, in Fenway Park as Boudreau put on a one-man show with two homers and four hits. However, the Braves, Boston’s “other team” and a perennial poor cousin to the aristocratic Red Sox, took the National League flag with a 91-62 mark that would have been good only for fourth place in the American League.
The close pennant race gave rise to Gerry Hern’s often quoted (and misquoted) lines about “Spahn and Sain.” In a way Hern took advantage of a little poetic license. He got the Sain part right, but at 15-12 with a 3.71 ERA, Spahn actually had one of the least effective seasons of his brilliant career, a season more typical of a third or fourth starter than an ace. Vern Bickford (11-5, 3.27) and Bill Voiselle (13-13, 3.63) were a touch more effective.
As for Sain, he was in a class by himself, going 24-15 with a 2.60 ERA. He led the league in wins (24), games started (39), complete games (28), and innings pitched (314⅔). He pitched the Braves into first place on June 15, beating the Cubs, 6-3. It was a historic moment, as the game at Braves Field was the first to be televised in the Boston area. Appearing in the All-Star Game on July 13, he had three strikeouts (Vern Stephens, Bobby Doerr, and Hoot Evers, all in the fifth) over 1⅔ hitless innings. The year also included an extraordinary streak of personal endurance. From August 24 to September 21, Sain started and completed nine games, winning seven of them. Backed by Sain’s efforts, and equally hot hurling from Spahn, the Braves took 21 of their final 27 games to coast to the National League pennant by 6½ games over St. Louis. The Sporting News rewarded Sain by naming him National League Pitcher of the Year, and he was runner-up to Stan Musial in voting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.
The year wasn’t all roses. During the season the Braves signed 18-year-old southpaw Johnny Antonelli for a sum reported to be at least $50,000. As a “bonus baby,” Antonelli couldn’t be sent to the minors for two years; but since he almost never pitched, he was taking a place on the roster that most players believed belonged to a proven veteran while pocketing more money than most could make in several seasons. Not surprisingly, the presence of Antonelli and other bonus babies made for tension in major-league clubhouses. All of the Braves were annoyed, none more so than Sain, who took his frustrations straight to owner Lou Perini in the front office. Mounting what he called the “Golden Staircase” that led to Perini’s door, Sain told the boss that as a proven pitcher he deserved better treatment than an untried teenager. Perini listened, and before the All-Star Game the Braves gave Johnny a new contract for the remainder of the season — and 1949 as well.
The World Series opened in Boston on October 6, with Sain drawing the nod against the Indians’ Bob Feller. It was all a Series contest should be, as both pitchers were at the top of their craft. With the game scoreless in the bottom of the eighth, Bill Salkeld led off with a walk. Phil Masi ran for him, and Mike McCormick sacrificed Masi to second. Feller then intentionally walked Eddie Stanky, with utility infielder Sibby Sisti going in to pinch-run for him. With Sain at bat, Feller turned and fired to shortstop Lou Boudreau in an attempt to pick Masi off second. As the story goes, everyone in Braves Field thought Masi was out — everyone, that is, except second-base umpire Bill Stewart, who had the majority vote and called him safe. Sain lined out, but Tommy Holmes singled past third to score Masi from second and put Boston up 1-0. Sain shut down the Indians in the ninth, and Boston won. Sain had given up four hits on 95 pitches, Feller, two hits on 85 pitches in a game of exemplary efficiency.
After Cleveland won the next two contests, Johnny came back to face Steve Gromek in Game Four at Cleveland and pitched superbly in a 2-1 loss. The Braves staved off elimination in Game Five, but the Indians took Game Six back at Boston, and the Series. Sain was magnificent in defeat — two complete games, a shutout, a heartbreaking loss, nine strikeouts against no walks, nine hits allowed, and a 1.06 ERA.
All told, Sain was arguably the top pitcher in the National League from 1946 to 1948 with a 65-41 record and 2.77 ERA. Indeed, he fit in nicely with his American League counterparts Bob Feller (65-41, 2.75) and Hal Newhouser (64-38, 2.59). Johnny’s decline, however, was swift and sudden. He was up and down — mostly down — from 1949 to 1951, going a combined 37-44 with an ugly 4.31 ERA. The kindest thing one can call the 1949 season is a disaster. Spent from his efforts of the year before and a sore shoulder that Sain blamed on his experimenting with a screwball during the spring, he suffered through a career-worst 17 losses (against just ten wins) with a horrendous 4.81 ERA. He had the dubious honor of leading the league in runs (150) and earned runs (130) allowed. For the only time in his career he walked more than he struck out (75 to 73), and he also surrendered more than a hit per inning (285 in 243 innings pitched), starting a pattern that would continue throughout the remainder of his career. True, he completed 16 of his 36 starts, but he was taking a beating most of the time. In short, there is no way to put the season in a positive light. The defending champs of the National League fell to fourth place with a 75-79 mark.
It wasn’t just Sain’s ailing shoulder at fault; almost everything went wrong for the Braves in 1949. Billy Southworth, whose demands were grudgingly accepted when his teams were winning, reportedly became intolerable during spring training. Claiming credit the players considered theirs and breaking rules that he set, Southworth put the defending National League champs through two-a-day sessions that totaled six hours and instituted a midnight curfew, complete with room checks by clubhouse attendant and watchdog Shorty Young. An early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, Sain usually retired by 9:30. Young checked on Sain just once, waking him out of a sound sleep. Furious, Sain said that if it ever happened again, he’d send the offender out the window. A rumor got out that Southworth had checked up on his star pitcher, that Sain had threatened to throw him out the window, and that Sain and Southworth weren’t speaking. For his part, Sain said he never socialized with his managers.
Although Sain rebounded in 1950 with his fourth 20-win season (20-13), the won-lost record is deceptive. Even in a year replete with heavy hitters, his 3.94 ERA was well off the league pace. While he completed 25 of his 37 starts, he gave up 294 hits in 278⅓ innings. Particularly ominous was Sain’s career-high and league-leading 34 home runs surrendered.4 He was lucky to win more than he lost, largely because he was pitching for a team that went 83-71 in a nice recovery from the debacle of 1949.
All that kept Sain’s 1951 season from being a repeat of 1949 was fewer innings pitched, because the figures were pretty proportional (195 hits in 160 innings and a 4.22 ERA with the Braves). It added up to a 5-13 slate when struggling Boston sold him to the Yankees for $50,000 and a young pitcher who would pay long-term dividends to the Braves and haunt the Yankees a few years hence — Lew Burdette. Sain appeared in seven games for New York, starting four and completing one, while posting a 2-1 mark. The Yanks won the pennant, and Johnny was brought in to relieve starter Vic Raschi in the seventh inning of Game Six of the World Series with two on and nobody out. He retired the Giants without allowing an inherited runner to score, and worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth. The Giants loaded the bases on three singles in the ninth before Bob Kuzava came in and surrendered two runs (both charged to Sain) but saved the game, 4-3, and the Series for the Yankees. It was hardly an auspicious start for Sain with a new team, especially one that had come to consider World Series titles their birthright (this was their third straight).
Making matters worse, the shoulder injury that had ruined Johnny’s 1949 season had never completely gone away. With nothing to lose, he underwent a new radiation therapy from a doctor in Dallas, and was so pleased that he recommended it to others. Teammate Eddie Lopat tried it and was happy. In later years Whitey Ford had it done five times, and Mel Stottlemyre went Ford one better.
One of many keys to the Yankees’ phenomenal success from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s was a genius for resurrecting the careers of players thought to be finished. Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter, for example, had several productive years added to their careers, and Johnny Sain was a chief beneficiary among the pitching fraternity. How the Yankees did it was brilliant in its simplicity, and one wonders why nobody else figured it out. They made him a spot starter and reliever so that a bit fewer than half of his appearances were starts — 16 of 35 in 1952 and 19 of 40 in 1953. He completed half of his starts, eight in 1952 and ten in 1953, and relieved superbly the rest of the time. In 1954, his last full year in pinstripes, all 45 of his appearances were in relief, and he saved a league-leading 22 games to become just the second pitcher (after Ellis Kinder of the Red Sox turned the trick the year before) to win 20 games in one season and save 20 in another. As of 2013, Wilbur Wood, Dennis Eckersley, John Smoltz, and Derek Lowe were the only other pitchers to accomplish the feat.
Adapting to his new role, Sain began to pay dividends in 1952 as both starter and reliever. On May 20 he scattered six hits to beat the White Sox, 4-3. He rescued the Yankees twice at Fenway Park on September 24, coming on in the ninth with the game tied and earning a 3-2 win in the opener of a doubleheader, then saving an 8-6 win in the nightcap. Two days later he got the win in relief in the Yankees’ 11-inning pennant-clinching 5-2 win in Philadelphia. For the year he was 11-6 with a decent 3.46 ERA and seven saves. He pitched capably but didn’t fare well in the World Series against the Dodgers. Taking over in the sixth inning of Game Five for starter Ewell Blackwell with the Yankees leading 5-4, he gave up the tying run in the seventh and the winning run in the 11th to take the 6-5 loss. The Yankees didn’t use him again in their hard-fought seven-game win over their subway rivals.
Now a vital part of the Yankee machine, Sain was outstanding in 1953. Again dividing his duties between starting and relieving, he posted a 14-7 mark with nine saves and a 3.00 ERA while earning a spot on the All-Star team. Once again, the Yankees and Dodgers squared off in the World Series. Relieving starter Allie Reynolds in Game One with one out in the sixth and the Dodgers threatening, Sain stopped the damage, pitched the final 3⅔ innings, and picked up the 9-5 win, even contributing a double and a run scored. He was not as effective in his other appearance, in Game Four, but the Yankees nonetheless captured their fifth straight world championship.
By 1954 Sain was a full-time reliever, going 6-6 with a 3.16 ERA and the aforementioned 22 saves. The Yankees had their best season under Casey Stengel with a 103-51 record, but it was only second-best to the Indians’ 111-43 mark, the American League record at the time. Johnny wouldn’t get a chance to pitch in his fifth World Series.
Shortly into the 1955 season, after three appearances and a 6.75 ERA, the Yankees determined that Sain was finished. On May 11 New York traded Johnny and future Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter (he was hitting .111 at the time) to the Kansas City Athletics for journeyman pitcher Sonny Dixon and cash. Sain appeared in 25 games for Kansas City, winning two and losing five while posting one save and an ERA of 5.44. He pitched his final game on July 15 and was released the next day.
For someone who toiled in the minors for six years, lost three more years to the war, and got started at an age when most players are entering their peak, Sain had a fine career: 139 wins against 116 losses,5 a solid 3.49 ERA; an award as The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year; four 20-win seasons; three trips to the All-Star Game; four World Series; the league lead in wins once; the league lead in saves once; and league leads in other categories.
That’s just the pitching side of the Sain ledger. An outstanding contact hitter, Johnny had always helped himself with the bat. He sported a .245 career average, led the league with 16 sacrifice hits in 1948 (the first pitcher to lead his league in an offensive category), led his league’s pitchers in runs batted in five times, and struck out a mere 20 times in 774 lifetime at-bats. Those 20 strikeouts are extraordinary, the fewest for all hitters with between 500 and 800 at-bats from 1910 (when the National League began keeping strikeout records) and 1913 (when the American League followed suit) to the present.
While his playing days were over, Sain wasn’t really through. He returned to Arkansas, to Walnut Ridge, and raised his children there. He’d had a prospering Chevrolet dealership in the town since 1952, but at heart he was a baseball man and was happy to get back into the game in 1959 as pitching coach for the Kansas City Athletics. Working with a veteran staff on a team that could do no better than 66-88, he got adequate seasons out of Ned Garver, Bud Daley, Ray Herbert, and Johnny Kucks. Sain resigned after the season to concentrate on business at home.
Catching on in the same capacity with the Yankees when Ralph Houk replaced the fired Casey Stengel for the 1961 season, Sain showed what he could do with good material. Persuading Houk to go with a four-man rotation, he transformed Whitey Ford from a perennially very good pitcher into a great one. Ford, who credited Sain with rejuvenating his career, posted a 25-4 mark and a 3.21 ERA in 1961, good enough to garner his only Cy Young Award; he followed that up with 17 wins in 1962 and 24 in 1963. Ralph Terry found his groove in 1962, leading the league with 23 wins. Jim Bouton, who called Sain “the greatest pitching coach who ever lived,” had a career year in 1963 with a 21-7 slate and a 2.53 ERA.
Two contradictory versions exist as to why Sain and the Yankees parted company. Sain said in 1993 that he had heard that Houk was going to move into the Yankee front office, with Yogi Berra taking over as manager. Since Sain doubted that Berra would be effective managing recent teammates, he claimed he resigned. His misgivings were well-founded in that Berra was fired after one season despite leading the Yankees into the World Series.
The alternate version is that Houk showed his appreciation for Sain’s helping him to three World Series appearances and two world championships in three years by firing him after the 1963 season. The move mystified many people, but Bouton offered a possible explanation: “What general — Houk started thinking of himself as a general — wants a lieutenant on his staff who’s smarter than he is?”
After sitting out for a year, Sain joined the Minnesota Twins in 1965. Helping this club to its first pennant, he got Jim “Mudcat” Grant to achieve a 21-7 mark, good enough to lead the league in wins. Under Sain’s tutelage, lefty Jim Kaat went 25-13 with a 2.75 ERA in 1966 to lead the American League in wins and help the Twins finish second. Twins manager Sam Mele was so happy with Sain’s contribution that he fired him.
Sain moved from Minnesota to Detroit in 1967. Working with manager Mayo Smith’s staff that year, he turned Earl Wilson into a 20-game winner for the first and only time in his career. In 1968, Sain crafted his masterpiece — Denny McLain, whose 31 wins were the most since Lefty Grove achieved the same total in 1931, and haven’t been challenged since. With just six losses and a 1.96 ERA, McLain took home the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. With lefty Mickey Lolich picking up three wins in the World Series, the Tigers beat the Cardinals and Bob Gibson. Sain kept McLain sufficiently focused in 1969 to go 24-9 and share the Cy Young Award with southpaw Mike Cuellar of the Orioles.
World Series victory aside, Sain and manager Mayo Smith were barely speaking. Sain’s tenure with Detroit soured for good in 1969. One day Johnny took some time off to attend to some personal business. In his absence, Smith had the pitchers run, angering Sain, who asked Smith if he wanted to stick with what worked or with what hadn’t worked for 25 years. Smith made his preferences clear on June 15, 1969, when he sold Sain favorite Dick Radatz to Montreal. By August 10, Sain was fired.
The rest of Sain’s life was taking a bad turn as well. His marriage had fallen apart, as he later explained: “My first wife went back to college and got her degree at age 50 and it changed the tone of our relationship. My life in baseball seemed more and more trivial to her. The divorce was an enormous financial strain on me. I pretty much lost almost everything I had, to the point that I had to declare bankruptcy.”
Attempting to dig out from under, Sain spent the 1970 season until late September as a roving minor-league pitching instructor for the California Angels, becoming friends with Angels minor-league manager Chuck Tanner. Next, Johnny was off to the White Sox, where he managed to stay for six years, in no small part because Tanner was manager the whole time and had the sense to let Sain go about his business. The approach produced incredible results. Wilbur Wood, who started out as a reliever, became a workhorse starter and won 20 games each year from 1971 to 1974. Wood’s ERA in 1971 was a minuscule 1.91, and his work in 1972 earned him The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year Award. Reunited with Sain, Jim Kaat won 21 and 20 in 1974 and 1975, respectively. Stan Bahnsen, Rookie of the Year with the Yankees in 1968, reached his peak in 1972 with a 21-16 slate. Making Sain’s achievement remarkable is that the White Sox usually were a middle-of-the-pack club during his tenure, while the Yankees, Twins, and Tigers had all been contenders or pennant winners.
The years on the South Side of Chicago paid an even greater dividend than all those 20-game winners. On July 3, 1972, now divorced, Sain was introduced to Mary Ann Zaremba, the 35-year-old widow of a Chicago policeman, at a club in the suburbs. Johnny was smitten. Mary Ann remembered, “He called me the next day and said, ‘You have to marry me.’” That seemed a little impetuous, so they compromised on a date at Comiskey Park on the Fourth. The date must have gone well, for they were married on August 24.
Sain coached the Atlanta Braves pitchers in 1977, but on a miserable team that went 61-101, he had only one first-rate pitcher, future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Stints with several clubs in Atlanta’s farm system followed, and he went back to the Braves for one final fling from 1985 to 1986, where he was reunited with Chuck Tanner on a pair of second-division teams.
Most of Sain’s coaching career followed a pattern: Almost immediate success, the lifelong loyalty and devotion of his pitchers that he reciprocated, inevitable conflict with management (and managers), and the search for another job. Often it seems to have been insecurity and jealousy on the manager’s part, knowing that the pitchers listened to and respected Sain more than they did him. Sometimes a manager simply thought he knew more or better than Sain, and didn’t want to be challenged.
On the flip side, some of the difficulty was Johnny’s fault. To begin with, he encouraged pitchers to demand to be paid what they were worth, to mount the “Golden Staircase,” as he had done back in 1948. Naturally, this didn’t sit well with management. In the second place, he was extremely protective of his charges and wouldn’t tolerate interference from anybody, including the manager. His refusal to speak ill of any of his pitchers led Detroit skipper Mayo Smith to conclude that he could never get a straight answer from Sain on a pitcher’s physical condition, state of mind, or anything else. Ironically, Houk, Mele, and Smith all won a Sporting News Manager of the Year Award with Sain as their pitching coach, then left town not long after Sain’s departure.
Always willing to stick up for his pitchers, he further endeared himself to hurlers by not making them run. Some baseball people found this strange, but Sain had two reasons for the tactic, one practical and the other philosophical or pedagogical. On the practical side he noted, “You don’t run the ball up to home plate.” On the philosophical or pedagogical side, Sain said, “I’ve always felt that a lot of pitching coaches made a living out of running pitchers so they wouldn’t have to spend that same time teaching them how to pitch.” On the other hand, he believed that pitchers had to keep their arms strong, so he had them throw almost every day, even after a long stint on the mound the day or night before. To keep pitchers mentally focused, he had, as an example, Wednesday’s pitcher chart pitches for Tuesday’s game; that way, the pitcher could observe both his teammates and the opposing pitchers and hitters. It seems of obvious benefit, and most managers and pitching coaches now have their pitchers chart the game, but Sain seems to have been the first to make it a practice.
Finally, Sain brought his own brilliant creation to the table. Noted baseball author Roger Kahn described it in The Head Game:
The Yankees hired Sain in 1961 as pitching coach. He showed up with a briefcase full of inspirational books and tapes and a machine he was patenting as the “Baseball Pitching Educational Device,” which everyone soon called “the Baseball Spinner.” Baseballs were mounted on rotating axes — one axis per ball — and you could snap one in a variety of fastball spins and the other in rotations for sliders and curves. The baseballs were anchored. Except for rotating, they didn’t move. Using John Sain’s Baseball Pitching Educational Device, you could practice spinning your delivery at home or in a taxi or in a hotel room without endangering lamps, mirrors, or companions.
What Sain achieved as a pitching coach (sixteen 20-game winners in all or part of 17 seasons) is impressive, given the diversity of talents he worked with. Some, like Whitey Ford and Denny McLain, had experienced considerable success. On the other hand, Jim Bouton, Jim Kaat, Mudcat Grant, and Stan Bahnsen had yet to show how capable they were. Then there was Wilbur Wood, undergoing the transformation from reliever to starter.
The project that best epitomizes Sain at work has to be Denny McLain. The quintessential flake, McLain had all the tools to be a great pitcher except seriousness of purpose, sense, and maturity. Sain took Denny for what he was and worked his magic indirectly. Learning that McLain was working to obtain a pilot’s license, Sain helped him prepare for the required tests, and even went up in the air with him. From that basis the two moved to McLain’s pitching so smoothly that he was the best pitcher in the American League in 1968 and 1969, winning 55 games, a Most Valuable Player Award, and two Cy Youngs. At 25, he already had 114 wins under his belt and seemed on path for the Hall of Fame. What McLain’s career might have been had he had Sain’s guidance for a few more seasons is pure speculation, but the train wreck — erratic and criminal behavior; suspensions from baseball; prison for drug dealing, racketeering, and extortion; poor health in the form of obesity and heart trouble; and who knows what else — that has been McLain’s life in the more than 40 years since is indisputable. Denny needed grounding, and Sain gave it to him for a magical couple of years.
Out of baseball, the Sains settled down to a quiet life in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, Illinois. John lectured and consulted with various teams and players, happy to talk with anybody who wanted to listen about the fine art of pitching. Mickey Lolich, a beneficiary of Sain’s tutelage, could have been speaking for scores of pitchers when he described his mentor: “Johnny Sain loves pitchers. Maybe he doesn’t love baseball so much, but he loves pitchers. Only he understands them.”
Over the years there has been talk of enshrining coaches in the Hall of Fame. Writing of Sain in Newsday, Roger Kahn noted, “The Hall of Fame admits broadcasters, umpires, entrepreneurs, even newspaper writers. For goodness sake, let’s enshrine a great coach.”6 Mike Shalin, Neil Shalin, and Brent Kelley, authors of books about players who were not in the Hall of Fame at the time of writing, have indicated support for the cause. Former White Sox GM Roland Hemond, Jim Bouton, Jim Kaat, and others have spoken up for Sain. There have been some letter-writing campaigns. Nevertheless, the movement has never gained sufficient traction.
Cooperstown notwithstanding, the Boston Braves Historical Association saw that Sain was honored for his years in their city. Sain, Warren Spahn, and Sibby Sisti were inducted into the Boston Braves Hall of Fame on October 16, 1994. Four years later, on October 4, 1998, the Association sponsored a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Braves’ championship season. Bob Feller came to town, and the two aces revisited their pitching duel and the pickoff play that “failed.”
After suffering a stroke on March 31, 2002, Sain spent his remaining years in ill health. On August 31, 2002, he became the seventh player inducted into the Braves’ franchise Hall of Fame at Turner Field. Mary Ann wrote an acceptance speech for him; they couldn’t attend the induction, but Hank Aaron read the speech at the ceremony in Atlanta.
Johnny Sain died on November 7, 2006, in Resthaven West Nursing Home in Downers Grove. Surviving him were Mary Ann, his four children, 11 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Returning to Havana, he was buried in Walker Cemetery after a ceremony attended by many of his former pitching “pupils” and other friends he had made in the game. Several teams sent gorgeous floral arrangements; in death, all the hard feelings were forgotten.
The last pitcher to face Babe Ruth and the first to face Jackie Robinson, Sain started the first night game in Boston and the first game televised in New England, unleashed the potential of pitchers like Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, Earl Wilson, and Mickey Lolich, and coached probably the last 30-game winner. In the words of baseball historian Maxwell Kates “a veritable Forrest Gump in baseball history,” Johnny Sain left a rich legacy.7
Gabriel Schechter, former research associate at the Hall of Fame, provided me with copies of the National and American Leagues’ daily sheets detailing each of Sain’s games and files of pitchers who came under Sain’s tutelage.
Bob Brady sent me copies of the articles by Ed Rumill, thoroughly and thoughtfully reviewed my work, and provided me with invaluable material that I had missed.
Jim Sandoval and Rod Nelson, co-chairmen of SABR’s Scouts Committee, guided me through the intricacies of scouts, contracts, and franchises — all as they applied to Sain.
Saul Wisnia and James Forr edited versions of this article. They made it better.
I’m grateful to everyone for their kindness, generosity, and friendship.
Allen, Thomas E., If They Hadn’t Gone: How World War II Affected Major League Baseball (Springfield: Southwest Missouri State University, 2004).
Bailey, Jim, “Sain stood out as pitcher, excelled as coach.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. November 16, 2006.
Eig, Jonathan, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007).
Fagen, Herb, “Johnny Sain Did It His Way … As a Pitcher and Coach,” Baseball Digest. December 1993.
Gilbert, Bill, They Also Served: Baseball and the Home Front: 1941-1945 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1992).
Hirshberg, Al, The Braves: The Pick and The Shovel (Boston: Waverly House, 1948).
_____, “What Really Happened to the Boston Braves?” Sport. January 1950.
James, Bill, and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches (New York, London, Toronto, and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2004).
Johnny Sain files at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff, eds. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. 3rd ed. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 2007).
Kaese, Harold, The Boston Braves, 1871-1953 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004). Reprint of 1948 original and 1954 reprint issued by Putnam.
Kahn, Roger, “A Slide Rule Can’t Measure a Ballplayer,” New York Newsday. July 29, 1994.
_____, The Head Game: Baseball Seen From the Pitcher’s Mound (San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt, Inc., 2001).
Kates, Maxwell, “Van Lingle Mungo.” Baseball Analysts (baseballanalysts.com), November 13, 2006.
Kelley, Brent, The Case For: Those Overlooked by the Baseball Hall of Fame (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992).
McCann, Mike, “Mike McCann’s Page of Minor League History,” geocities.com/big_bunko/minor.html.
O’Donnell, Jim, “Mind over Batter: Ex-Major League Baseball Star and Coaching Legend Johnny Sain Never Was One to Do Things by the Book,” Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1993. Reprint from Chicago Tribune archives at chicagotribune.com.
Peary, Danny, ed., We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era, 1947-1964 (New York: Hyperion, 1994).
Professional Baseball Players Database Version 6.0
Rumill, Ed, “Johnny Sain — Hero of the Hub,” Sport Pix, February 1949.
_____, “Twenty for Sain, Baseball Magazine, January 1947.
Sandoval, Jim, and Bill Nowlin, eds., Can He Play? A Look at Baseball Scouts and Their Profession (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2011), Electronic book.
Shalin, Mike, and Neil Shalin, Out by a Step: The 100 Best Players NOT in the Baseball Hall of Fame (London, South Bend, New York, and Oxford: Diamond Communications, 2002).
Siegel, Arthur, “Sain Is Product of Own Planning to Be Box Star,” Sports Parade. October 13, 1948.
Thorn, John, and John Holway, The Pitcher: The Ultimate Compendium of Pitching Lore: Featuring Flakes and Fruitcakes, Wildmen and Control Artists, Strategies, Deliveries, Statistics, and More (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, and Tokyo: Prentice Hall Press, 1988).
Tourangeau, Dixie, “Spahn, Sain, and the ’48 Braves,” The National Pastime 18 (1998), 17-20.
Vincent, David, Lyle Spatz, and David W. Smith, The Midsummer Classic: The Complete History of Baseball’s All-Star Game (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).
Westcott, Rich, Masters of the Diamond: Interviews with Players Who Began Their Careers More Than 50 Years Ago (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994).
Wright, Craig R., and Tom House, The Diamond Appraised (New York and London: Fireside Books at Simon & Schuster, 1989).
1 McCoy and Connie Mack made out nicely in the whole affair. Attracting bids from several clubs, McCoy signed with the Athletics for a $45,000 bonus and a two-year contract at $10,000 a year. Mack kept Moses and obtained the second baseman he wanted in the first place.
2 Thomas E. Allen, If They Hadn’t Gone: How World War II Affected Major League Baseball (Springfield: Southwest Missouri State University, 2004), 136.
3 Jim O’Donnell, “Mind Over Batter: Ex-major League Baseball Star And Coaching Legend Johnny Sain Never Was One To Do Things By The Book,” Chicago Tribune (October 10, 1993).
4 Sain, Ken Raffensberger of the Reds, and Preacher Roe of the Dodgers all gave up 34 homers in 1950. It was the third highest number of home runs surrendered up to the time. Murry Dickson of the Cardinals gave up 39 in 1948, and Larry Jansen of the Giants was tagged 36 times in 1949. Jansen also gave up 31 homers in 1950.
5 Allen, 139. Allen projects a 45-33 slate with a 3.21 ERA for the three seasons Sain missed due to the war, but such projections seem to be enjoyable speculations.
6 New York Newsday. July 29, 1994.