‘Spahnie’ one of greats

Warren Edward Spahn was one of my favorite baseball players when I was a whole lot younger because he could do so many things so well—top-notch pitcher (including every once in a while in relief) and Milwaukee Braves managers Charlie Grimm, Fred Haney, Chuck Dressen, Birdie Tebbetts and Bobby Bragan even used him as a pinch hitter sometimes.

“Spahnie” finished his Major League career with 35 homers, a league record for pitchers, and all the more remarkable because he was the winningest left-hander in baseball history with a career record of 363-245, one Cy Young Award, two no-hitters and 13 seasons of 20 wins or more.

Warren Spahn of high leg kick fame died last week at his home in Broken Arrow, Okla. He was 82. Warren Spahn, who teamed with Johnny Sain in the famous “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” refrain.

“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” was the shortened version of the poem. In 1948, the Boston Post ran a poem by sports editor Gerald Hern that led to the famous phrase about the Braves’ two dominant pitchers. `”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.’’

Before they were the Milwaukee Braves (now the Atlanta Braves), they were the Boston Braves, and Spahn helped pitch the Braves to National League pennants in 1948, 1957 and 1958. The Braves played seven-game World Series against the New York Yankees in the latter two years, winning the first one and losing the second.

“As a young Milwaukee Braves fan during the 1950s, I have many wonderful and vivid memories of the great Warren Spahn on the mound at County Stadium,’’ commissioner Bud Selig said in an Associated Press story about Spahn’s death. “He is one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game. More importantly, he was my friend. I will miss him.’’

I could have been at some of those County Stadium games with the future baseball commissioner because in 1957 and 1958, I saw as many Braves games as I did Cubs games in Wrigley Field. Sometimes, I got to see both when they played each other at Wrigley or County Stadium.

After the Braves beat the Yankees to capture the ’57 series with Lew Burdette winning three of the four games, a couple of us went to Milwaukee on the night of Oct. 10 to join in the celebrating down on Wisconsin Avenue. It was wild and got out of hand.

A workhorse who pitched until he was 46, Spahn won 20 games 13 times, matching Christy Mathewson for the most in NL history. Spahn was a 14-time All-Star who pitched 21 seasons in a career interrupted by World War II.

Spahn went into the Army in 1943. He served in Europe, where he was wounded, decorated for bravery with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and was awarded a battlefield commission. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge and in the battle for the bridge at Remagen, Germany, where many men in his company were killed.

He began pitching in the majors in 1942, when the Braves were in Boston, and stayed with the team through its move to Milwaukee in 1953. He left the Braves after the 1964 season, ending his career the following year with San Francisco and the New York Mets.

Spahn was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, his first year of eligibility, receiving 315 votes of 380 votes, nearly 83 percent. He was 25 before he got his first Major League win. He did not think the three years he missed during World War II hurt his career.

“I think I was better equipped to handle Major League hitters at 25 than I was at 22,” he said.

After leaving the majors, Spahn pitched in Mexico and the minors before finally retiring in 1967 at 46. When he was criticized for pitching that long, he said, “I don’t care what the public thinks. I’m pitching because I enjoy pitching.”

And pitch he could.

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