When Warren Spahn returned to the Braves midway through the 1946 season, he was 25, balding and weathered, a decorated World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and the fight over the bridge at Remagen. “He was born old,” a teammate said.
But he felt like a young man on the mound. “Before the war I didn’t have anything that resembled self-confidence,” he told the AP. “Then” — he had had a four-game cup of coffee with the 1942 Braves — “I was tight as a drum and worrying about every pitch. But nowadays I just throw them up without the slightest mental pressure.”1 As Spahn explained to another reporter, “Nobody’s going to shoot me.”2
Despite his three full seasons away from the majors, he was pitching like a world-beater. By the time he got his first Braves Field win, on July 27, Spahn had knocked off the Pirates, 4-1, on July 14, and the Cubs, 6-1, on July 19. In relief, he had given home fans an inkling of how he could go long when he pitched four innings of one-unearned-run ball at the St. Louis Cardinals on June 17 — Bunker Hill Day in New England. “He was all grace,” his biographer Al Silverman wrote, “kicking his right leg high in the air, his left elbow passing his right knee, just as his dad had taught him, then uncoiling and the ball snapping to the plate out of slapping sleeves and trousers, the ball streaking in and on the batter almost before he could measure it, blazing in like a freight train coming out of the darkness.”3
Before Spahn’s July 27 start, all grandstand seats were sold by 5 P.M. and the Braves Field “express” set a record with 36 buses carrying 1,500 customers from outlying communities. What Howell Stevens of the Boston Post described as a near-record “banner throng” of 33,732 “cash customers,” plus 962 “service guests,” attended the night game against the championship-bound Cardinals.4
Spahn showed him, not to mention the Cardinals. It was not just his impeccable control that his father, Edward, had taught him. Nor was it merely his high-kicking, arm-back, over-the-top delivery full of leverage that was hard for a batter to pick up. Because of an old football injury, Spahn had a strange and disruptive way of moving his right arm through a batter’s sight line. All in all, he was a bewildering vision on the mound.
It was Spahn’s fourth outing of the season against the Cardinals, but they still had little idea how to hit him. “The loose lefty with a war record as long as his south paw,” as Will Cloney of the Boston Sunday Herald put it, no-hit the Cardinals through the first six innings, allowing only one baserunner when he walked Stan Musial in the fourth.6 The Braves picked up a run in the second, when Phil Masi singled, took third after Carden Gillenwater’s grounder went through first baseman Musial’s legs, and scored on Nanny Fernandez’ single. The same Braves made it 2-0 in the fourth when Masi singled, went to third on Gillenwater’s hit and scored on a Fernandez fly ball.
The Cardinals tied the score in the seventh, but almost as much through fielding mistakes as their own hitting. Buster Adams doubled and Musial singled him home before the Braves made two errors on Whitey Kurowski’s double-play grounder to Spahn. After Spahn threw wide to shortstop Dick Culler at second, Culler threw wide to first, leaving Musial on one corner and Kurowski on the other. Both Culler and Spahn were charged with errors. Musial scored on Enos Slaughter’s fly.
The Cardinals took their own turn at give-away in the Braves’ seventh. Fernandez singled and Connie Ryan reached when his bunt rolled untouched between pitcher Harry “The Cat” Brecheen and Musial. Brecheen hit Spahn, who was trying to sacrifice, on the left shoulder. With the bases loaded, Culler grounded to shortstop Marty Marion, whose throw home was low for an error, allowing Fernandez to score and the Braves to take a 3-2 lead. Mike McCormick rolled to Brecheen, who threw home to nip Fernandez, but Musial bobbled the return throw to first for another misplay, leaving the bases loaded. Then Johnny Hopp, the majors’ leading hitter with a .379 average at game time, doubled to score Spahn and Culler: 5-2 Braves.
Miscues aside, a great fielding play helped save the day for Spahn. In the Cardinals eighth, Del Rice singled and after Terry Moore flied out, Red Schoendienst hit such a convincing drive to right-center that pinch-runner Joffre Cross had rounded second by the time Gillenwater made a diving catch. Gillenwater easily doubled Cross off first. Instead of having runners on second and third with one out, the Cardinals were out of the inning. Stevens wrote that Gillenwater “contributed one of the greatest catches of the year.”7 Cloney called it “the game’s and perhaps the year’s stickout defensive contribution.”
But most plaudits went to Spahn, and rightfully so. He beat the Cardinals, 5-2, on three hits, striking out six and walking one. It was his third start, third complete game, and third win over 10 days, in which he allowed opponents four runs on 17 hits while striking out 12 and walking five in 27 innings. “He was almost kicking himself in the chin with his knee on his very loose movement, and his curve ball had the Cardinals breaking their backs,” Cloney wrote. The Globe’s Hy Hurwitz added, “A ‘skinny’ 18-year-old schoolboy [actually 19] when he first reported to the Braves in 1941 [spring training], Warren now shapes up as the prize young southpaw of the senior circuit.”8
Spahn took time off to get married on August 10, and went 3-4 after his honeymoon. But overall he went 8-5, with a 2.94 ERA, and impressed opponents plenty. In a conversation captured by a Philadelphia sportswriter, Phillies manager Ben Chapman and slugger Del Ennis traded impressions with New York Giants star Johnny Mize.9
Chapman: “Spahn has one of the greatest overhand curves I’ve ever seen.”
Ennis: “Never mind the curve. What I have to watch for is the change of pace he throws. I swing at it before it is halfway to the plate.”
Mize: “The curve and change of pace are all right, but it’s that fastball. It does tricks as it reaches the plate.”
The fans at Braves Field on July 27 couldn’t have agreed more.
This article appeared in “Braves Field: Memorable Moments at Boston’s Lost Diamond” (SABR, 2015), edited by Bill Nowlin and Bob Brady. To read more articles from this book, click here.
In addition to the other sources cited in the notes, the author consulted Jim Kaplan, The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2011).
Box scores for this game are at baseball-reference.com, and retrosheet.org at:
3 Kaplan, 64.
4 Boston Post, July 28, 1946.
5 Kaplan, 65.
6 Boston Sunday Herald, July 28, 1946.
7 Boston Post, July 28, 1946.
8 Boston Globe, July 28, 1946. Spahn was born on April 23, 1921, which would have made him 19, almost 20 in 1941’s spring training.
9 The three quotations come from Kaplan, 66.