THE BEST SEASON IN
BOSTON'S BASEBALL HISTORY
He was born John Franklin Sain in the tiny town of Havana, Arkansas (population 375 in the 2010 census), on September 25, 1917. No one showed much interest in young Johnny as a pitching prospect, and his journey to the majors became a six-year odyssey.
The Boston Braves purchased his contract and signed him to a major-league contract in March 1942. Sain made his debut in the Braves’ home opener on April 17, 1942 – in relief – retiring all seven Giants batters he faced and striking out three in a 4-3 Boston win. For his efforts he was awarded (retroactively) the first save of his career. He picked up his first win on April 29 at Wrigley Field in relief of Al Javery. All told, he went 4-7 with a 3.90 ERA, mostly in relief, for Casey Stengel’s last Boston team, a dismal unit that could manage only a 59-89 record and a seventh-place finish.
Even with World War II on, Sain was able to complete the season. Upon receiving his draft notice, he had enlisted for aviation training in the Navy on August 21, 1942
Service in the war benefited Sain in a variety of ways. For one thing, his arm got some rest. He threw whenever he could, though, and pitched on several teams against stiff competition that often included other major leaguers. He went 12-4 with the North Carolina Pre-Flight team, appropriately named the Cloudbusters, in 1943, but it was a war-relief game in Yankee Stadium on July 28th that stood out. The Cloudbusters were facing a team made up of reserves from the Yankees and Indians, whose regulars played a charity, regular-season doubleheader that same day. In the sixth inning, “Yank-Lands” third-base coach Babe Ruth left the box to pinch-hit. Seeing the game as a sort of audition in front of a number of big-league officials, Sain wanted to retire the 48-year-old Ruth, but catcher Al Sabo came out and told him not to throw Ruth any curves and risk embarrassing him. It was the Babe’s last at-bat in an organized game.
Another benefit of the war years is that a maturing Sain came to realize and accept that although he was large for his era at 6-feet-2 and 180-200 pounds, he didn’t have high-octane velocity. Accordingly, he’d have to rely on mechanics, finesse, and guile, letting batters hit the ball and letting his fielders do their jobs. Moreover, he changed his delivery. Through 1942 he constantly varied his arm action, even occasionally throwing from a crossfire motion. As Sain saw it, there were two problems with this approach: He risked hurting his arm, and it wasn’t effective (63 walks in 97 innings with Boston in 1942 were ample proof). After the war he kept his windmill windup (he was one of the last pitchers to do so) and threw almost exclusively overhand, dropping down to side-arm on occasion if he was ahead of the hitter.
Finally, there was the curveball his father had taught Sain how to throw. Johnny had a good curve before the war, to be sure, but the knowledge of aerodynamics he’d absorbed as a pilot helped him turn his best pitch into so effective a weapon that he earned the nickname the Man of a Thousand Curves.
Showing no signs of rustiness after a three-year layoff, Sain became a star pitcher and Boston’s staff ace in 1946. He turned in a 20-14 slate, a career-best 2.21 ERA, and a league-leading 24 complete games for the Braves, who took a big leap to 81-72 and fourth place under new manager Billy Southworth. Johnny also had the honor on May 11th of pitching the first night game in Boston big-league annals. Facing the Giants in a special “sateen” uniform designed to stand out under the lights, he lost to the Giants, 5-1, in front of 35,945 fans at Braves Field. The pitching highlight of Sain’s year, however, came on July 12th at Cincinnati. In the first inning, Grady Hatton hit a pop fly that dropped among three Braves behind third base for a double. No other Red reached base as Johnny beat Ewell Blackwell, 1-0.
Life was improving for the Braves. Tommy Holmes was an effective contact hitter. Bob Elliott, a hustling, hard-hitting team player, was acquired from the Pirates over the winter and won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1947. And there was a decorated war hero, a southpaw who would be the perfect complement to Johnny Sain and a number of other pitchers over a long career – Warren Spahn.
Spahn and Sain became a factor in ’47. Spahn had his first great year, going 21-10 with a 2.33 ERA, and Sain was close behind, turning in a 21-12 mark and 3.52 ERA (the relatively high ERA partially offset by an outstanding .346 batting average and only one strikeout in 107 at-bats). At 86-68, the Braves moved up another notch to third place. Sain even became a part of history on Opening Day, April 15th, becoming the first major-league pitcher to face Jackie Robinson. Robinson went hitless in three trips to the plate as the Dodgers won, 5-3, at Ebbets Field.
Sain’s reward for his fine early-season work was pitching in the All-Star Game at Wrigley Field. Replacing the Cardinals’ Harry Brecheen in the seventh inning of a 1-1 contest, he contributed to his own undoing. He got George McQuinn to ground out. Bobby Doerr followed with a single, then stole second. Sain had Doerr picked off second but fired the ball into center field, sending Doerr to third. He struck out Buddy Rosar, but Stan Spence, batting for Spec Shea, singled, scoring Doerr with the go-ahead run. The American League held on for the 2-1 win, and Sain absorbed the loss. Nevertheless, it proved a good year, leaving the Braves and their fans reason to be optimistic.
The 1948 season almost brought baseball Nirvana to Boston and New England. The Red Sox finished 96-58, two games ahead of the hated Yankees. The bad news was that the Indians under the leadership of Lou Boudreau were also 96-58. The first playoff in American League history saw the Sox go down, 8-3, in Fenway Park. However, the Braves, Boston’s “other team” and a perennial poor cousin to the aristocratic Red Sox, took the National League flag with a 91-62 mark that would have been good only for fourth place in the American League.
The close pennant race gave rise to Gerry Hern’s often quoted (and misquoted) lines about “Spahn and Sain.” In a way Hern took advantage of a little poetic license. He got the Sain part right, but at 15-12 with a 3.71 ERA, Spahn actually had one of the least effective seasons of his brilliant career, a season more typical of a third or fourth starter than an ace. Vern Bickford (11-5, 3.27) and Bill Voiselle (13-13, 3.63) were a touch more effective.
As for Sain, he was in a class by himself, going 24-15 with a 2.60 ERA. He led the league in wins (24), games started (39), complete games (28), and innings pitched (314⅔). He pitched the Braves into first place on June 15th, beating the Cubs, 6-3. It was a historic moment, as the game at Braves Field was the first to be televised in the Boston area. Appearing in the All-Star Game on July 13, he had three strikeouts (Vern Stephens, Bobby Doerr, and Hoot Evers, all in the fifth) over 1⅔ hitless innings. The year also included an extraordinary streak of personal endurance. From August 24 to September 21, Sain started and completed nine games, winning seven of them. Backed by Sain’s efforts, and equally hot hurling from Spahn, the Braves took 21 of their final 27 games to coast to the National League pennant by 6˝ games over St. Louis. The Sporting News rewarded Sain by naming him National League Pitcher of the Year, and he was runner-up to Stan Musial in voting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.
The year wasn’t all roses. During the season the Braves signed 18-year-old southpaw Johnny Antonelli for a sum reported to be at least $50,000. As a “bonus baby,” Antonelli couldn’t be sent to the minors for two years; but since he almost never pitched, he was taking a place on the roster that most players believed belonged to a proven veteran while pocketing more money than most could make in several seasons. Not surprisingly, the presence of Antonelli and other bonus babies made for tension in major-league clubhouses. All of the Braves were annoyed, none more so than Sain, who took his frustrations straight to owner Lou Perini in the front office. Mounting what he called the “Golden Staircase” that led to Perini’s door, Sain told the boss that as a proven pitcher he deserved better treatment than an untried teenager. Perini listened, and before the All-Star Game the Braves gave Johnny a new contract for the remainder of the season and 1949 as well.
The World Series opened in Boston on October 6th, with Sain drawing the nod against the Indians’ Bob Feller. It was all a Series contest should be, as both pitchers were at the top of their craft. With the game scoreless in the bottom of the eighth, Bill Salkeld led off with a walk. Phil Masi ran for him, and Mike McCormick sacrificed Masi to second. Feller then intentionally walked Eddie Stanky, with utility infielder Sibby Sisti going in to pinch-run for him. With Sain at bat, Feller turned and fired to shortstop Lou Boudreau in an attempt to pick Masi off second. As the story goes, everyone in Braves Field thought Masi was out – everyone, that is, except second-base umpire Bill Stewart, who had the majority vote and called him safe. Sain lined out, but Tommy Holmes singled past third to score Masi from second and put Boston up 1-0. Sain shut down the Indians in the ninth, and Boston won. Sain had given up four hits on 95 pitches, Feller, two hits on 85 pitches in a game of exemplary efficiency.
After Cleveland won the next two contests, Johnny came back to face Steve Gromek in Game Four at Cleveland and pitched superbly in a 2-1 loss. The Braves staved off elimination in Game Five, but the Indians took Game Six back at Boston, and the Series. Sain was magnificent in defeat – two complete games, a shutout, a heartbreaking loss, nine strikeouts against no walks, nine hits allowed, and a 1.06 ERA.
All told, Sain was arguably the top pitcher in the National League from 1946 to 1948 with a 65-41 record and 2.77 ERA. Indeed, he fit in nicely with his American League counterparts Bob Feller (65-41, 2.75) and Hal Newhouser (64-38, 2.59). Johnny’s decline, however, was swift and sudden. He was up and down from 1949 to 1951, going a combined 37-44 with an ugly 4.31 ERA. The kindest thing one can call the 1949 season is a disaster. Spent from his efforts of the year before and a sore shoulder that Sain blamed on his experimenting with a screwball during the spring, he suffered through a career-worst 17 losses (against just ten wins) with a horrendous 4.81 ERA. He had the dubious honor of leading the league in runs (150) and earned runs (130) allowed. For the only time in his career he walked more than he struck out (75 to 73), and he also surrendered more than a hit per inning (285 in 243 innings pitched), starting a pattern that would continue throughout the remainder of his career. True, he completed 16 of his 36 starts, but he was taking a beating most of the time. In short, there is no way to put the season in a positive light. The defending champs of the National League fell to fourth place with a 75-79 mark.
It wasn’t just Sain’s ailing shoulder at fault; almost everything went wrong for the Braves in 1949. Billy Southworth, whose demands were grudgingly accepted when his teams were winning, reportedly became intolerable during spring training. Claiming credit the players considered theirs and breaking rules that he set, Southworth put the defending National League champs through two-a-day sessions that totaled six hours and instituted a midnight curfew, complete with room checks by clubhouse attendant and watchdog Shorty Young. An early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, Sain usually retired by 9:30. Young checked on Sain just once, waking him out of a sound sleep. Furious, Sain said that if it ever happened again, he’d send the offender out the window. A rumor got out that Southworth had checked up on his star pitcher, that Sain had threatened to throw him out the window, and that Sain and Southworth weren’t speaking. For his part, Sain said he never socialized with his managers.
Although Sain rebounded in 1950 with his fourth 20-win season (20-13), the won-lost record is deceptive. Even in a year replete with heavy hitters, his 3.94 ERA was well off the league pace. While he completed 25 of his 37 starts, he gave up 294 hits in 278⅓ innings. Particularly ominous was Sain’s career-high and league-leading 34 home runs surrendered. He was lucky to win more than he lost, largely because he was pitching for a team that went 83-71 in a nice recovery from the debacle of 1949.
All that kept Sain’s 1951 season
from being a repeat of 1949 was fewer innings pitched, because the figures were
pretty proportional (195 hits in 160 innings and a 4.22 ERA with the Braves). It
added up to a 5-13 slate when struggling Boston sold him to the Yankees for
$50,000 and a young pitcher who would pay long-term dividends to the Braves and
haunt the Yankees a few years hence – Lew Burdette.