Did Boston Stay Separate Warren Spahn from 400 Wins?

This article was written by Dan Schlossberg

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “The Northern Game—And Beyond,” the 2002 SABR convention journal.

 

Had he not pitched for the Boston Braves, Warren Spahn might have won 400 games. For one thing, he had the bad fortune to play for Casey Stengel, in Spahn’s words, “before and after he was a genius.” Stengel won 10 pennants in 12 years as manager of the Yankees from 1949 through 1960 but managed Spahn earlier, with the Boston Braves and, later, with the New York Mets.

He was managing the Braves when Spahn made his major league bow on April 19, 1942, but took an instant dislike to the kid left hander. In fact, Stengel made the worst prediction of his managerial career when he said Spahn had no future in the majors.

After the lefty refused an order to deck Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, the manager sent him to Hartford, then in the Eastern League. Spahn returned in time to pick up his first complete game in the majors but didn’t get a decision.

Leading the Giants, 5-2, in the seventh inning of the September 26 game at Braves Field, Spahn could smell victory. But the smell turned sour when youngsters who had been admitted to the park in exchange for ten pounds of scrap metal (vital to the war effort) stormed the field. Umpire Ziggy Sears forfeited the game to the New York Giants, but all player records counted—with the exception of winning and losing pitcher.

The ’42 Braves went 59-89, finishing a distant seventh in an eight-team league, and certainly could have used Spahn’s services. Things were so bad for the ball club that the Boston Record actually praised the motorist who flattened Stengel, fracturing his leg and idling him for the start of the ’43 season. He was gone after that campaign, while Spahn’s baseball career was placed on hold by the war.

Though the pitcher later became the only major leaguer to receive a World War II battlefield commission, the bars on his collar also extended his stay halfway into the 1946 season. By the time he posted the first of his 363 victories, a record for a left hander, Warren Spahn was 25 years old. Time wasn’t on his side, but tenacity was a factor in his future.

With Spahn on the staff, the Braves finished fourth in 1946, third a year later, and first in 1948, the first time the Boston Braves reached the World Series since 1914.

Then came the fall: fourth in ’49, ’50, and ’51 and seventh in an eight-team league in 1952, the team’s last year in Boston before escaping the shadow of the Red Sox by fleeing to Milwaukee. In fact, the Boston Braves finished over .500 only once (83-71 in 1950) after losing the 1948 World Series to the Cleveland Indians.

All those losing seasons weren’t Warren Spahn’s fault but didn’t help his record either. He lost a career-worst 19 games in 1952 (despite a 2.98 ERA) and dropped 17, the second-worst total of his 21-year career, during a 21-win season in 1950. Since Spahn finished his career 37 victories shy of the 400 plateau, it’s easy to see where a better ball club, a better relationship with his manager, and an earlier military discharge might have fattened his win total.

Had Stengel kept him in 1942, for example, the lefty might have won 12-15 games. Pitching for Hartford instead, the Buffalo native had a record of 17-13 accompanied by a microscopic 1.96 ERA. It was the second year in a row Spahn’s ERA in the minors had been below 2.00.

The winner of a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped the Allies take the bridge at Remagen. He later spent time in Germany with the occupying forces. But his commission caused a delay in his return.

Spahn could have doubled his eight wins of 1946 had the army sent him home sooner; it was July before he won the first of his 363 victories.

The lefty’s win total was also shortchanged in 1952, when Boston’s offense was offensive to the team’s pitchers. He finished with only 14 victories, hardly a Spahn-like total for a full season.

Though he had four of his thirteen 20-win seasons in Boston and twice led the league in victories (1949 and 1950), the southpaw suffered when his team sputtered. Pitching for those bad ball clubs between 1949 and 1952 cost him dearly in the win column. In fact, it seems safe to say Spahn could have topped his career peak of 23 wins, achieved for the Milwaukee Braves in both 1953 and 1963, with decent help from his hitters. In fact, he probably would have won 25 or more in any of the four years 1949-52, when he led the National League in strikeouts.

This is not to say Spahn was a bad pitcher in Boston. Au contraire, monsieur. He led the NL in starts, complete games, innings pitched, wins, and shutouts twice each and ERA once, in addition to the four strikeout crowns. He also established Boston Braves club records with 122 wins, four 20-win seasons, and 1,000 strikeouts.

Though ’48 was his worst overall season until his skills left him in 1964, the high-kicking lefty won the mid-September game that put the Braves into first place for good. Pitching the distance, Spahn beat the Dodgers, 2-1, in 14 innings (later in his career, he pitched complete games that lasted 15 and 16 innings).

Spahn topped 300 innings pitched in 1949, one of two years in his career that he endured such a workload, and had a pair of high-strikeout games for the sad-sack 1952 team that drew only 281,278 fans. He whiffed 13 men in a nine-inning game and 18 in a 15-inning game, both Boston Braves club records. (Spahn later fanned a career-best 15 in a nine-inning game for the Milwaukee Braves while pitching one of his two no-hitters.)

Boston batters were baffled by the Cubs in the 15-inning game on June 15, but Spahn was not. His home run, one of the 35 he hit to set an NL record for pitchers, was the only run in a 2-1 loss.

Spahn’s frustration in 1952 was assuaged a bit with the arrival that season of a rookie slugger named Eddie Mathews. The only man to play for the Braves in three different cities, Mathews would eventually join Spahn in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But not for what he did in Boston. The pitcher was clearly the best player on the last edition of the Boston Braves. He meant so much to the franchise, in fact, that management offered him a contract that would have paid him 10 cents a head, based on the team’s home attendance, Spahn declined, failing to realize the gold mine the team would strike when it suddenly shifted from Boston to Milwaukee during 1953 spring training.

The move to Wisconsin helped the great left hander win a World Championship, a goal that eluded him in Boston. The Braves won only one flag, in 1948, during Spahn’s tenure but failed to defeat the Cleveland Indians, who won in six games. But Spahn picked up a win with 53 innings of one-hit relief in Game Five.

That was the year of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” though the Boston pitching rotation was deeper than the puddles suggested by the rhyme.

Johnny Sain led the league with 24 wins, but Spahn was merely mortal, managing only 15 wins and a fat 3.71 ERA one year after leading the Senior Circuit in that department. “Spahn & Sain & pray for rain” had a nice ring to it, but Bill Voiselle (13) and Vern Bickford (11) filled out a respectable rotation for manager Billy Southworth.

Sain called him “one of the smartest men ever to play the game,” while Whitlow Wyatt seconded the motion by saying, “Every pitch he throws has an idea behind it.”

In his early days, Spahn relied on a fastball, curveball, and good control but later added a slider and screwball to his repertoire. He blamed himself for helping Willie Mays maintain his berth in the major leagues.

In 1951, Spahn yielded the first of Mays’s 660 home runs. “For the first 55 feet, it was a great pitch,” he said later. As an afterthought, the pitcher conceded, “If only I had gotten him out, we might have gotten rid of Willie forever.” Mays had been 0-for-24 before connecting against Spahn in the Polo Grounds.

Spahn, a high school first baseman who switched to pitching only when he couldn’t budge an incumbent, could always counteract an enemy home run by hitting one himself. His desire to help himself may have stemmed from Opening Day 1942, when Spahn saw teammate Jim Tobin connect twice.

By the time Spahn was finished, he would not only rank fourth on the career home list for pitchers but have the exact same number of hits (363) and victories (363). He once hit .300 and won 20 games in the same season, a rare feat.

Without Casey Stengel’s faux pas, the nation’s military needs, and the sudden slide of the Boston Braves from champions to vagabonds, Warren Spahn would have achieved something even more rare: membership in the 400-win club. Only Cy Young and Walter Johnson belong.

“People say that my absence from the major leagues may have cost me a chance to win 400 games,” he once said. “But I really don’t know about that. I matured a lot in three years and think I was better equipped to handle major-league hitters at 25 than I was at 22. And I pitched till I was 44. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise.”

 

Notes

  1. Total Braves (New York: Penguin), 76.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved