This is the time of year in baseball, because of Hall of Fame voting, that one of the national pastimes in the national pastime is measuring greatness in the game. It is why this seems as good a time as any to talk about the greatest starting pitcher in baseball history that no one talks nearly enough about, and that is Warren Spahn.
He won 363 games in the big leagues, which is the third most in the last 100 years, after Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. That is a remarkable number, of course, one made far more remarkable because Spahn really did not begin his career until the age of 26, even having made his debut with the Boston Braves five years earlier in 1942. The reason is that he was busy being a World War II hero, at historic settings like the Battle of the Bulge and Battle of the Hurtgen Forest and the taking of the bridge at Remagen. He would eventually be awarded the Purple Heart.
Spahn would often address the notion that he would have won 400 games if not for his war years.
“I matured a lot in those years,” Spahn said once. “If I had not had that maturity, I wouldn’t have pitched as long as I did.”
Then he added, “After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work. You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy threatened territory.”
He returned to the Braves in April of 1946 and went 8-5 that season. The next season he won 21 games. Spahn would go on to have a dozen more 20-win seasons, with the last coming at age 42 in 1963, when he was 23-7. All this time later, the numbers he put into the books still give off a beam of light. He has eight more victories than Greg Maddux, nine more than Roger Clemens, 34 more than Steve Carlton and 39 more than Nolan Ryan.
Spahn also has the most shutouts (63) by a left-hander in the last 100 years. His lifetime ERA was 3.09. He had 382 complete games. He won the way he won without ever striking out 200 batters in a season. And when he was 42 years old, on his way to one more 20-win season, he was part of one of the extraordinary pitching duels in the history of the sport: the 16-inning, 1-0 game he lost to Juan Marichal in San Francisco.
Marichal threw 227 pitches that night. Spahn threw 201. The last, with one out in the bottom of the 16th, was one Willie Mays hit out of Candlestick Park to beat him.
Later Marichal, with such great admiration for Spahn, would say, “If that old man wasn’t coming out of that game, neither was I.”
Spahn would finish his career as a Giant, in 1965, at the age of 44. He only won three games that year, but he still had enough arm left to start 11. At the end of this extraordinary career, Spahn had a 3.39 ERA in his final season.
Joe Torre caught Spahn when he was a kid catcher in Milwaukee. One Spring Training day when Torre was still managing the Yankees, he was sitting in the manager’s office at the ballpark in Jupiter, Fla., and, with very little encouragement, began telling Spahn stories.
“Stan Musial didn’t have a tough time with many pitchers,” Torre said, “but he had a tough time with Spahn. Warren would drop down a little bit and come at him from the first-base side and I got used to seeing Stan’s front leg buckle just a little bit. But finally came this day when he starts him off with that pitch and Stan stood right in there as he took it and I’m thinking, ‘Uh oh.’
“Warren threw it again and Stan is all over it. He hits this screaming line drive back up the middle that hits my guy in a place, let’s just say, where he wasn’t wearing a cup. And down goes Spahnie.”
“What happened next?” somebody asked.
Torre smiled. “Mr. Spahn, the old soldier, crawled on his hands and knees and got to the ball and threw him out at first.”
Spahn started two games for the Braves in the 1957 World Series that they won in seven games over the Yankees. He started three games -- winning two -- the next year when the Yanks came back and beat the Braves in seven.
In his second-to-last year, he even found his way to the Mets as a player-coach, struggling through a 4-12 season. But on his way in the door, Spahn was still stubbornly refusing to give in to age, the way he’d never given in to hitters.
“Physically, I'm sound,” he said at the time. “You just don't go from a 23‐game winner to a six‐game winner in one year, you don't go from a middle‐aged man to an old man in one year.”
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973. This is the beginning of how his plaque in Cooperstown reads:
“A star on a pitching mound and a hero on the battlefields ...”
Not necessarily in that order, if you’re taking the true measure of Warren Spahn.