Surprising Johnny Sain

This article was written by Jan Finkel

This article was published in the 2007 Baseball Research Journal


Most fans with a sense of history know a fair bit about Johnny Sain. Of course, they know all about the doggerel that goes something like “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” They know, too, that he won 20 or more games four times in his war-shortened career, and that he won one of the most dramatic World Series pitching duels, beating Bob Feller, 1-0, in the opener of the 1948 classic. And they know that he was one of a small handful of the finest pitching coaches of all time, turning good pitchers into great ones and fair ones into good ones, and cranking out 20-game winners like so many widgets. Maybe they even know that he trained fighter pilots during World War II. But what they don’t know is that he holds a surprising and unique record.

Sain was a rare commodity, a pitcher who could hit, whose forté was making contact with the ball. So good was Sain that he struck out a mere 20 times in 774 regular season at-bats. That’s the fewest strikeouts for any hitter—position player or pitcher—with a comparable number of at-bats since batters’ strikeouts were first recorded in 1910 in the National League and 1913 in the American League. Moreover, he didn’t hurt his club by being so obsessed with not striking out that he hit into a double play; he hit into only 25 of the rally killers. He also drew 24 walks, not a huge number, but how many pitchers can claim that they walked more than they struck out? Finally, Sain was a productive hitter, leading his fellow pitchers in RBIs five times (1946-1948, 1950, and 1952) and leading the National League in sacrifices in 1948 with 16. Along the same lines, his 101 RBIs puts him in a relatively small group of pitchers who drove in 100 runs in their careers. Indeed, his having done so in 774 at-bats places Sain between Earl Wilson (740) and Jim Tobin (796) as the only pitchers to reach the century mark in fewer than 800 at-bats.

Making Sain’s achievement all the more unusual is that the few writers who have mentioned his hitting have done so in what amounts to a throwaway line. Brent Kelley writes: “He batted .245 for his career, and in 854 total plate appearances (774 at-bats, 24 bases on balls, and 56 sacrifices) he struck out only 20 times.” Mike and Neil Shalin don’t do any better: “He…struck out only twenty times in a career of 774 official at bats.”

Each of Sain’s strikeouts—21, including one in the 1953 World Series—merits a special look.

The first came on April 29, 1942, five days after Sain’s major league debut. Jesse Flores of the Cubs did the honors in Wrigley Field. It wasn’t a total loss for Sain, though, as he came on in relief of starter Al Javery, pitched the last 41⁄3 innings and picked up his first win, 8-3. Although it was Sain’s only strikeout of the year, he didn’t look like much of a hitter, managing only two hits and a walk in 30 plate appearances for an anemic .074 average.

The 1943-1945 seasons found Sain in the Navy, training fighter pilots and developing the mental acuity that would make him a first-rate major league pitcher.

Four years older in 1946, Sain had his first big season, going 20-14 with a career-best 2.21 ERA and almost achieving a pitcher’s dream of winning 20 games and hitting .300. He barely missed, going 28-for-94 with two doubles and a triple for a .298 average and leading National League pitchers with 17 RBIs. However, Sain did manage an unusual feat, as he went the entire season without striking out. Only three National Leaguers with 90 or more at-bats have accomplished this since 1910, when the league began to keep track of hitters’ strikeouts. (No American Leaguers have achieved it since 1913.) Only Lloyd Waner in 1941 and Bill Rariden in 1920 with 219 and 101 at-bats, respectively, made more trips to the plate. They didn’t hit as well as Sain, though, Waner finishing at .292 and Rariden managing a .248 mark. The irony is that Sain, who had told interviewers that he wanted to go a whole season without striking out, apparently forgot that he did so in 1946.

Sain attained the pitcher’s dream in 1947 with a 21-12 mark accompanied by a 3.52 ERA and a .346 average. The Chicago Tribune on March 23, 1948, recognized Sain’s achievement with a note headed “Pitchers Who Can Hurl—And Hit—Are Scarce!” and pointed out that he was the first National league pitcher to do so since the Cardinals’ Curt Davis had won 22 games and hit .301 in 1939. Bucky Walters won 27 that year and hit .325. He showed some power with a career-high seven doubles and a .411 slugging percentage. He had his best year driving in runs, topping all National League pitchers with 18. In the midst of this fine hitting Sain struck out once, falling in Ebbets Field on June 26 to lefty Joe Hatten. He wasn’t involved in the decision in the 8-6 Boston loss. Sain singled in the game, however, beginning a 14-game hitting streak. The streak had a slight hiccup in Sain’s next start, against the Giants on July 1, when he didn’t come to bat for the worst of all possible reasons. He lasted one-third of an inning as the Giants scored eight runs on the way to a 15-3 victory that was halted by rain after seven innings. Over the 14 games, Sain went 21-for-41, a .512 clip punctuated by five doubles, seven runs scored, and six RBIs. He kept the streak alive on July 20 with a pinch-hit single in the seventh for Clyde Shoun in a 9-1 loss to the Pirates. Murry Dickson of the Cardinals ended Sain’s streak on August 24 as St. Louis punched out Sain and the Braves, 9-5.

The 1948 season was the high point of Sain’s career. The top right hander in the National League, he led the Braves to the pennant with 24 wins against 15 losses and a 2.60 ERA, including a stretch of nine complete games and a 7-2 mark over a 29-day period. Sain ended the strikeout drama early, going down on Opening Day (April 20) in Philadelphia to Dutch Leonard. The strikeout was emblematic of the game, as Leonard cruised to a 3-1 complete-game win. He went down twice more in 1948, neither occasion hurting him. Gerry Staley of the Cardinals nailed him in St. Louis on August 24, but Sain got a pair of hits (driving in a run with a double) in his 9-3 complete-game win.

The same thing happened at home against the Cubs on September 14, when he fell prey to southpaw Cliff Chambers. Sain had two hits, one a triple, as he pitched a complete game, winning his 20th game, 10-3. His triple came in the second inning with two out and started the scoring, driving in two runs against starter Hank Borowy. The Braves continued the onslaught, scoring six more runs against the right hander. Helping his cause further, Sain led the league with 16 sacrifice outs. Weary from his efforts of the last year, Sain had a miserable season in 1949, winning but 10 games while losing 17. It wasn’t a case of bad luck, either, as he posted a horrendous 4.81 ERA. Even his hitting tailed off, as his average dropped to .206, his lowest since his rookie year. He remained a tough strikeout, though, failing to make contact just twice and not doing so until September 5 in Ebbets Field. Pinch-hitting for Warren Spahn in the ninth inning of a 7-2 loss, he fell to lefty Paul Minner. Then on September 22, in one of the few hard-luck games he had that year, Sain struck out facing the Pirates’ Murry Dickson in Forbes Field. Sain and Dickson pitched complete games with Dickson taking the 1-0 decision.

The Man of a Thousand Curves, as Sain was known, rebounded in 1950 to go 20-13 despite a higher than average ERA of 3.94. His hitting didn’t improve as he matched his 1949 average of .206. Nevertheless, he led National League pitchers with 15 RBIs, walked a career-best six times, and hit his first major league home run. The big fly came on September 23 in Boston, a bases-empty shot in the bottom of the eighth against the Giants’ Larry Jansen. The homer tied the game at three, but Sain lost in the 10th when Sam Jethroe lost Don Mueller’s fly in the sun. Mueller landed at third with a triple, and Hank Thompson followed with a single for the 4-3 Giants win. On the other hand, none of Sain’s three strikeouts hurt him. Howie Pollett took him down in St. Louis on May 7 on his way to pitching a 15-0 laugher. Cubs southpaw Johnny Schmitz struck him out in Boston on August 6, but Sain still won, 5-2, with both men going the distance. Finally, he struck out against Frank Smith in Cincinnati on August 29, but helped himself by driving in a run in a 4-0 shutout.

Sain seemed to be in decline in 1951. He managed only a 5-13 slate and 4.21 ERA with the Braves. He raised his average to a less-than-robust .212 and hit his second home run. The victim was Pirate left hander Bill Werle, as Sain teed off in Forbes Field on June 12 with a solo blast in the sixth inning of a 13-3 win. Still, he struck out only three times. The first came against Bubba Church in Philadelphia on April 22. Sain drove in a run in the game but lost 6-5 in the ninth when Willie Jones singled with the bases loaded. Sain and Church pitched complete games. Pirate lefty Paul LaPalme struck him out in Boston on June 5, as his teammates rocked Braves pitchers for 21 hits while winning, 8-0. And he went down at home to Cincinnati’s Howie Fox, not figuring in the decision in a 6-5 Braves win on August 25.

Sain’s tenure in Boston came to a sudden end four days later as the Braves traded him to the Yankees for a young Lew Burdette and $50,000. The cash helped the Braves in the short run, and Burdette helped over the long haul, coming back to haunt the Yankees in the 1957 World Series. The deal didn’t look good for New York, as Sain went 2-1 with a 4.14 ERA, but he would pay dividends over the next three years. Nobody in the new league managed to strike him out in 14 trips to the plate.

Showing his value and versatility, Sain went 11-6 with a 3.46 ERA as a spot starter and frequent reliever for the powerful Yankees, who were on their way to their fourth straight World Series triumph. He completed half of his 16 starts, finished 15 games, and saved seven. He raised his average to a respectable .268 and notched his third home run, but he struck out a career-high five times! He got the homer before striking out, victimizing Boston left hander Bill Wight with one on in the bottom of the third inning on May 9, helping the Yankees to a 7-4 win.

His first strikeout came on June 25 in St. Louis against the Browns’ Satchel Paige when he pinch-hit for Bobby Hogue in a 10-9 loss. On July 22 he relieved Vic Raschi in a 7-3 win in Cleveland but couldn’t manage anything against southpaw Lou Brissie. September was not a good month for Sain the hitter. Relieving Ewell Blackwell in the second game of a doubleheader on the 2nd, he struck out for the first time in Yankee Stadium against Sid Hudson. The Yankees didn’t need Sain’s bat as they swept the Red Sox, 5-0 and 4-0. A week later, on the 9th, he struck out in St. Louis against lefty Dick Littlefield. Sain got a hit and drove in a run in his other time at bat, but it was to no avail as the Yankees lost, 5-4, when Ray Scarborough hit Clint Courtney with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. And in Philadelphia on the 28th he fell to Carl Scheib while pinch-hitting for Bill Miller in the seventh inning of a 9-4 loss. The strikeouts nothwithstanding, Sain led American League pitchers with 14 RBIs.

The Yankees took an unprecedented fifth consecutive World Series in 1953, and Sain was there to help them, going 14-7 with a fine 3.00 ERA. He started 19 games and completed 10 of them, and finished 19 games while saving nine. He struck out twice—once in the regular season and once in the World Series. The Indians’ Bob Lemon struck him out in Cleveland on July 21 on his way to winning a complete game, 8-3. Sain got a hit off the Indians ace, but it wasn’t enough. In game one of the Series at Yankee Stadium, he relieved Allie Reynolds in the sixth against the Dodgers. Clem Labine got him on a called third strike in the seventh, but Sain doubled in a pair of runs in the eighth, helping to ice a 9-5 win.

Remaining powerful in 1954, the Yankees roared to 103 wins, their best total under Casey Stengel. Ironically, they came in eight games behind the Indians, who won a then-American League record 111 games. Once again Sain was a major contributor. No longer a starter, he appeared in 45 games, finishing 39 and saving a league-best 22, everything adding up to a 6-6 mark and 3.16 ERA. His .353 average didn’t hurt either. Mopping up in a 7-4 win over the Athletics at Yankee Stadium on May 9, he struck out for the final time in his career, against Art Ditmar.

Following the 1954 season, the Athletics moved to Kansas City. Sain appeared in three games for New York in 1955, pitching ineffectively with a 6.75 ERA. On May 11, in what must have been a humiliating exchange, the Yankees traded Sain and future Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter to Kansas City for Sonny Dixon and cash. Appearing in 25 games for the A’s, Sain went 2-5 while surrendering 5.44 earned runs per game. Kansas City released him on July 23. In his brief stopover in Kansas City, Sain came to bat eight times with no hits and no strikeouts. Surprisingly, pitchers Lou Sleater (13 ABs), Bob Davis (10 ABs), and Sain are the only players who never struck out in a Kansas City Athletics uniform.

Sain’s final batting numbers reveal several noteworthy items. He never struck out twice in one game; no pitcher ever struck him out twice. For a right-handed batter, though, he seems to have struck out more often against southpaws than one might expect. In addition, the list contains two Hall of Famers (Paige and Lemon), a handful of good pitchers in Leonard, Staley, Dickson, Pollett, Schmitz, Brissie, Labine, and Hudson. The rest were pretty much journeymen, although Chambers and Ditmar each had a couple of solid seasons and Chambers threw a no-hitter in 1951. Finally, listed at 6-foot-2 and between 185 and 200 pounds, Sain was a large man for his time, so his 28 doubles, four triples, and three home runs don’t show much power to go with his decent .245 average. On the other hand, he homered in Braves Field, Forbes Field, and Yankee Stadium, ballparks that were anything but friendly to right-handed hitters. Still, those 20 strikeouts stand out, giving Sain a record not likely to be broken.

As The Man of a Thousand Curves, Johnny Sain obviously had a lot of surprises for hitters. Not so obviously, with a bat in his hands, the man had a few surprises for pitchers.

 

Sources

Allen, Thomas E. If They Hadn’t Gone: How World War II Affected Major League Baseball. Springfield, MO: Southwest Missouri State University Press, 2004.

Kahn, Roger. The Head Game: Baseball Seen from the Pitcher’s Mound. San Diego, Harcourt, 2001.

Kelley, Brent. The Case For: Those Overlooked by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992.

Shalin, Mike, and Neil Shalin. Out by a Step: The 100 Best Players NOT in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Lanham, MD: Diamond Communications, 2002.

Gabriel Schechter, research associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, kindly provided me with copies of Sain’s daily sheets, an indispensable gift.

Membership in the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) gave me access to ProQuest, enabling me to examine the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times for box scores and game reports.

Paper of Record (www.paperofrecord.com) afforded me similar entry to The Sporting News and its box scores and game reports.

Also invaluable were Retrosheet (www.retrosheet.org) for game data and statistics, and The Baseball Index (TBI) (www.baseballindex.org) for source material.

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