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Warren Spahn's Finishing Kick

By Rob Neyer, September 1, 2013
Original artwork by Dick Perez

In 1961, Milwaukee Braves left-hander Warren Spahn threw a no-hitter. In those days, a no-hitter was more newsworthy than today. This one, though, was doubly newsworthy because the future Hall-of-Famer was 40 years old.

Two years later, Spahn was still pitching for the Braves, and on July 2, 1963, he and San Francisco Giants ace Juan Marichal — another future Hall of Famer — locked up in the most famous pitching duel of the decade. In the bottom of the 16th, the Giants finally broke a scoreless tie when Willie Mays hit a home run. Both Spahn and Marichal had gone the distance; Marichal threw 227 pitches, Spahn 201. The ancient southpaw had allowed nine hits, and just one walk.

Early in his career, Spahn threw real hard and led the National League in strikeouts for four straight seasons beginning in 1949. By the ’60s, Spahn could still reach back for something extra on his fastball, but by all accounts he had become a different sort of pitcher.

Warren Spahn joined Major League Baseball’s exclusive “300 Wins Club” on August 11, 1961 with a 2-1 victory over the Cubs in front of a record Milwaukee crowd of 48,642.  

Spahn’s no-hitter in 1961 also had been against the Giants and ended with a 1-0 score. Afterward, Mays said of Spahn, “He’s not fast, not even sneaky fast. He never puts the ball where you could get much bat on it. He’s always pitching you low and away, and he mixes them up real good. You never know what to expect.”

That quote appeared in the very first issue of Mickey Mantle’s Baseball Magazine dated June 1962, in a story by Tom Henshaw titled “A Slugger’s-Eye View of Warren Spahn,” From the same piece, a scouting report:

The Braves’ ace now has a basic assortment of six pitches. There’s his fastball, the two curves, the screwball, a palm ball and a slider, which he added in the spring of ’58. All are thrown with virtually the same motion.

Recently, he has been working on a knuckleball, but Richie Ashburn, the veteran outfielder who will play for the New York Mets this season, has voiced the suspicion that Spahn already has a seventh pitch in his stable. It’s one that’s spoken of in whispers in baseball circles — a spitball. Once Richie asked Warren about it.

“It was a slider,” insisted Spahn.

“It didn’t spin like a slider, and I didn’t like the way it broke,” said Ashburn, who is sorry now that he brought up the subject. Whatever the pitch was, Richie sees a lot of it every time he faces Warren.

Spahn lost that 16-inning marathon in ’63, but didn’t lose much else. His 23-7 record matched exactly his career best, from precisely a decade earlier; his 2.60 earned-run average was his lowest since ’53. He tied his career high with seven shutouts. He also led the National League in complete games for the seventh straight season.

Did I mention that Spahn was 42? Still, there wasn’t any real reason to think he wouldn’t keep pitching well. Sure, no 43-year-old pitcher had ever done anything particularly brilliant before. But the same had been true of 42-year-old pitchers, until Spahn pitched brilliantly.

In 1964, Spahn lost it.

Statistically, the problems were (or are now) obvious: Spahn’s strikeout rate increased slightly, but his walk rate jumped nearly 60 percent.  The bigger issue, though, was home runs. Spahn had never in his long career given up one home run per nine innings. But in 1964, he surrendered 23 homers in 174 innings, or 1.2 per nine innings. That’s not a terribly large figure, but it just didn’t work in conjunction with Spahn’s tiny strikeout rate (four K’s per nine innings).

Spahn had first signed with the Braves, then known as the Boston Bees, in 1940. But in November ’64, after a season in which he went 6-13 with a 5.29 ERA, Spahn was sold to the New York Mets, managed by Casey Stengel and one of the worst teams anyone could remember.

Spahn’s career came full circle when he joined the New York Mets following the 1964 season.  The Mets manager was Casey Stengel, his first skipper with the Braves back in 1942.

This wasn’t the first time that Spahn pitched for Stengel. Back in ’42, Spahn headed north with the Braves, then managed by Stengel. In just his second major league appearance, Spahn failed to knock down Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, as ordered by Stengel. When the manager arrived at the mound to remove his young hurler, he supposedly growled,  “After your shower, pick up your railroad ticket to Hartford.”

Perhaps that’s apocryphal, and perhaps it isn’t. But Spahn did go to Hartford, where he pitched brilliantly, and made it back to Boston for two appearances late in the season. He spent the next three seasons in the U.S. Army — by one account, he was the most decorated major leaguer in the service, seeing plenty of action in Europe — and by the time he returned to the Braves in 1946, Stengel was gone. 

The two men would meet again in 1957 and ’58, when Stengel’s New York Yankees battled Spahn’s Milwaukee Braves in the World Series. But fate really brought them together in ’64, Stengel’s third year as the Mets’ skipper. Before that season, Al Hirshberg ghosted a first-person story in Sport magazine with Spahn’s byline, titled, “I Still Can Win.”

Spahn argued that “they” had been saying for years that he wasn’t getting any younger. But of course he had just kept on winning, especially in 1963. But now, after his rough ’64 campaign, again they were saying he was through.

“They’re wrong. I’m not through. I think I have at least one more 20-game season in me,” Spahn said in the Sport magazine story. “In a pitcher, age isn’t a factor; as Satchel Paige proved. Nobody knew how old he was when he helped pitched the 1948 Indians to a pennant, but he was almost certainly older than I am now. And Satch had two things going for him that I’ve got going for me: He was in good physical condition, and there wasn’t anything wrong with his arm.

Was Paige older in 1948 than Spahn in 1965? No, he wasn’t. In 1948, Paige made his major league debut two days after his 42nd birthday; Spahn would turn 45 shortly after Opening Day in ’65. But Spahn’s general point still stands because Satchel pitched quite well for the St. Louis Browns in 1952, when he turned 46. It’s an incredibly rare hurler who can do something like that, but Spahn had seen that it wasn’t impossible. And considering that he had already done so many incredibly rare things, it wasn’t unreasonable for him to think he could do more of them.

When Bill Veeck purchased the St. Louis Browns in 1951, one of the first things he did was sign Satchel Paige. Despite his age — 45 — Paige was so effective with the Browns in 1952 that he became the first black pitcher named to an American League All-Star team.

Spahn’s explanation for his struggles in ’64 was simple: bad mechanics. “My troubles last year began in spring training when I got into a bad habit of finishing my pitch on the heel of my right foot, and that threw my timing off.” he wrote. “In order for my timing to be perfect, I’ve got to get my arm out in front of my body, and to do that my stride must be exactly right.”

According to Spahn, it took him a while to diagnose the problem — and once he had done so, he still “had to pitch often and regularly to regain my control and my timing. But by then I had nothing to say about how often or regularly I would pitch.”

Spahn noted that after getting yanked from the rotation in the middle of August, he “didn’t get many starts from then on, and ended up with only four complete games. This was ridiculous. Only a year earlier, I had started 33 games and finished 22 of them.”

Obviously, Spahn wasn’t real thrilled with Bobby Bragan, the manager who yanked him from the Braves’ rotation, saying “something about wanting to look at some of his young pitchers.”

On Aug. 11, Spahn got yanked in the top of the fifth after Walt Bond hit a two-run homer to put Houston ahead 5-3. Spahn got a no-decision, but that still left him with a 6-11 record and a 5.51 earned-run average. Spahn’s Braves were in sixth place, and it was reasonable to guess he would not be back the next season. And Bragan did have a young pitcher worth a look: 20–year–old lefty Wade Blasingame, who started eight games after the 11th and pitched well enough to earn a slot in the rotation in ’65 (when he pitched even better).

For Bragan, it was probably as simple as this: Spahn just wasn’t improving. After a solid April (consisting of only three starts), Spahn's ERAs over the next four months were 4.56, 6.56, 5.97 and 6.65. Spahn, of course, believed that if he could have just kept pitching, he would have turned things around. He also believed Bragan should have let him work himself out of more jams early in the season. But most of the evidence suggests that Spahn just didn’t have good stuff in 1964.

He wasn’t ready to give up, though.

“I don’t think I’m ready for the scrap heap yet,” Spahn said in Sport. “I told that to Johnny McHale, Braves general manager, when he called me into his office on the last day of the 1964 season to talk about my future. I explained then that I had already turned down a radio offer in another city for 1965 because I wanted to pitch, and that I wasn’t yet interested in a job announcing or as a minor league manager. He told me I could do radio for the Braves if I liked, but I said no to that because I think I can still be a winning pitcher.

“I hated every minute I spent in the bullpen, but I learned a lot about myself there. For the first time in years I went back to the fundamentals of pitching. It was in the bullpen that I became convinced that I haven’t reached the end of the line. I threw everything I had, as well as I ever had and for long periods of time. I think I left several pretty good ballgames out there, I might have won if I had actually pitched them…

“I’m not kidding myself when I insist there’s some good pitching left in me. I don’t ever want to leave any of it in the bullpen again. I’m not through yet. When I am I’ll know it and nobody will have to tell me to quit. I’ll do it myself.”

Spahn probably was through, although it’s not clear that he (a) knew it, or (b) didn’t have to be told to quit. In November ’64, the Braves sold his contract to the Mets, and Spahn signed a new deal to pitch and also to coach the pitchers. The March 1965 issue of Baseball Magazine featured a wonderful full-page photo of Spahn in the middle of his windup, right foot high above his head, in the middle of the Polo Grounds diamond. He’s wearing a suit and tie; behind him, is Yogi Berra, similarly attired and arms folded. Berra had just been fired as manager of the Yankees and hired by the Mets as a player-coach.

With a legendary arm and unique high kick wind up, Warren Spahn became the winningest left-handed pitcher in history with 363 wins over a 21-year career.

In the article, written by Francis Stann of the Washington Evening Star and titled, “Is Spahn all done at 44?” the great lefty says, “I’m a pitcher — a starting pitcher — first. After that, I’m a pitching coach. I think I can win 400 games before I quit.”

Working for Casey Stengel, Spahn got exactly what he wanted: regular work. In his first six outings, five of them starts, Spahn pitched three complete games and posted a 2.83 ERA. He remained in the rotation for half the season. But in his last two starts before the All-Star break, Spahn gave up 14 hits, four walks, and six runs in five innings. 

The Mets released him, and Spahn signed with the Giants, who would finish the season only two games behind the first-place Dodgers, and you might argue that Spahn cost them the pennant. He made 11 starts for the Giants, and they lost six of those games. Only three were particularly close, and Spahn pitched decently enough in two of those.

It would have been a great story if he’d helped pitch the Giants to the World Series, and it might have been enough to get him a big-league job in ’66. It just didn’t happen. And his fundamental numbers — strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed — were almost exactly the same in ’65 as in ’64.

In 1966, Spahn coached the Mexican League’s Mexico City Tigres. In ’67, he managed the Pacific Coast League’s Tulsa Oilers. In each season, he pitched in three games. None of which led to a major league comeback but did lead to Spahn’s Hall of Fame eligibility being delayed by two years (the rule has been changed since so minor league action doesn’t count).

The main legacy of Spahn’s time with the Mets is one of the all-time great lines: “I’m the only guy to play for Casey Stengel before and after he was a genius.”



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