THE BEST SEASON IN BOSTON'S BASEBALL HISTORY

The fifth-winningest pitcher of all time, Warren Spahn went 363-245 over parts of 21 years from 1942 to 1965. Only by remaining in the game two seasons too long did he fail to finish with an ERA under 3.00 (3.09) and a winning percentage over .600 (.597), and his totals are all the more impressive considering that he didn’t record his first big-league victory until he was 25. Spahn should make everyone’s list of the 10 best pitchers in baseball history, and was the one “sure thing” Braves fans had to cheer  for through the team's final five years in Boston and far beyond.

Spahn’s smooth overhand delivery and flawless follow-though won raves at the Boston Braves 1942 spring headquarters in Sanford, Florida, and he made the Boston club. But when he failed to brush back Pee Wee Reese in his second big-league outing as Stengel ordered, the manager stalked to the mound and growled, “After your shower, pick up your railroad ticket to Hartford.” Spahn reported, wowed the Eastern League with a 17-12 record and a 1.96 ERA, and returned to pitch twice more for the seventh-place Braves.

He had no wins over his 15 2/3 abbreviated innings with Boston, but did get credit for an abbreviated complete game on September 26th when Polo Grounds kids who had been admitted for working in a wartime scrap-metal drive swarmed the field and forced the Giants to forfeit a game in which they were beating him 5-2 (no pitcher gets a win in a forfeit). All of this, Spahn knew, was a prelude to war. He enlisted in the Army in October of ’42, and in November Buck Private Spahn was shipped to Camp Gruber, 60 miles southeast of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he learned to be a combat engineer.

The lefty had a far rougher World War II experience than most big-leaguers, who spent the conflict out of harm’s way with gloves instead of guns, but before entering the fray he too got to play some ball. Pitching in the summer of 1944 for the Gruber Engineers, with Reimann as his catcher, Spahn won his first 10 games and struck out 186 batters in just 80 innings. The winning streak was snapped when he uncharacteristically committed three throwing errors in a 7-1 loss to the semipro Atlas Electrics of Tulsa at Texas League Park on July 30, 1944. He may have had a lot on his mind, because Spahn was shipped to Europe aboard the Queen Mary on November 9, 1944. As a staff sergeant in the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, he arrived in France a few weeks later, and survived for about 10 days on peanut butter sandwiches provided by friendly British soldiers.

Spahn’s 9th Armored Division, which preceded much larger groups of Allied troops, was charged with repairing roads and bridges. Spahn fought in the snowy, frozen Battle of the Bulge, getting nicked by bullets on the abdomen and back of the head. Crossing France and Belgium, his division arrived at the Rhine River and the Ludendorff railroad bridge at Remagen on March 7, 1945. While retreating, the Nazis had destroyed every intact bridge but the one at Remagen. The demolitions were in place, but for some reason they had never pushed the plunger. The bridge’s defense was crucial to the Allies for delivering men, vehicles and equipment to the German heartland. On March 9th, Sergeant Spahn and the 276th were ordered to the bridge to remove the demolitions, repair the bridge, maintain it, and construct a second span for two-way traffic. Working furiously to maintain the girders, Spahn and Co. were bombarded by V-2 rockets while troops, tanks, and trucks crossed above them.

Ten days after the first successful crossing, Spahn received an assignment at a meeting over the center of the bridge and walked off to explain to his platoon that they’d be taking over the bridge’s security at 4 p.m. At 3:56 the span slipped into the river, leaving 28 soldiers dead, 93 injured, and Sergeant Spahn with shrapnel in his left foot. Having crossed the Rhine, however, the Americans were able to protect a second bridge and other smaller pontoon bridges they built. Surgeons removed Spahn’s shrapnel. On June 1, 1945, he was the only ballplayer given a battlefield promotion, from staff sergeant to second lieutenant. In all, he earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a battlefield promotion, and a Presidential citation. That made him the most decorated ballplayer in World War II. (Like Spahn, Hoyt Wilhelm earned a Purple Heart, but Spahn alone received the Bronze Star.)

Aged rapidly by his battle experiences into a partially bald and fully-grown veteran, Spahn also built up stamina, concentration, and discipline during this period. Unaware that the war would end just two months later after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Spahn accepted the battlefield promotion, which forced him to remain in the service until the next May and miss the start of the ’46 baseball season. Instead, he became the hottest pitcher in Germany that spring; working for the 115th Engineers Group, he allowed one run and struck out 73 batters in four games. And when he returned stateside, the Braves immediately promoted him to the majors, on June 10, 1946.

Spahn appeared in his first postwar game seven days later and gave up one run and four hits in four innings of a doubleheader opener against the Cardinals at Braves Field. In his first start, on July 14th, Spahn beat the Pirates, 4-1, and allowed just one runner past second base (Frankie Gustine, who homered). It was his first big-league victory. Then, after initial success, he lost four straight.

Because of his military service, balding pate, and relatively advanced age Spahn fit in quickly and became an instant elder statesman on the Boston club. Some pitchers are unapproachable on the days they start. For his part, Spahn played practical jokes. He thought nothing of whacking teammates upside the head, setting their straw hats on fire while they wore them, or leaving mice in their pockets.

In notching a 21-win season that helped the Braves to a third-place finish in 1947, Spahn led the league in ERA (2.33), innings pitched (289 2/3) and shutouts (7) while getting just 13 runs of support in his 10 losses. Most of the 1948 season was a different story; preoccupied by an erratic fastball, he was only 15-12, but Spahn and right-hander Johnny Sain pitched the Braves to a pennant with an incredible stretch run, prompting the “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” poetry crafted by Boston Post sports editor Gerry Hern and repeated around the Hub. The exact words were:

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.

Beginning on September 6th, Spahn and Sain started 11 of Boston’s next 16 games, with Spahn going 4-1 and Sain 5-1. On September 6th, Warren threw a 14-inning, 2-1 win over the Dodgers in which he picked off Jackie Robinson twice. It was probably the best-pitched game by any Brave all season, and helped spark a 13-1 stretch by the club that all but wrapped up the NL flag. Facing Cleveland in the World Series, however, Spahn lost his only start, 4-1 in Game Two. With the Braves trailing three games to one, Spahn won Game Five with 5 2/3 innings of one-hit, seven-strikeout relief before the largest crowd in World Series history until that time -- 86,288 strong in Cleveland. Back in Boston the next day, Southworth asked the weary Spahn if he had anything left, since the manager had to pinch hit for starter Bill Voiselle in his next at-bat and the Braves were trailing late in Game Six, 3-1. When he relieved in the eighth, the Indians scored an insurance run off him with three straight singles before Spahn stymied the rally with a pickoff that started a double play. The Braves’ two-run rally in the bottom of the eighth fell just short; Spahn retired the last four men he faced and struck out the side in the ninth to give him 12 K’s in his 12 Series innings, but the Braves lost, 4-3.

The Braves immediately self-destructed amid dissension, contract disputes, and injury in 1949, finished four games under .500 in fourth place, and began the decline that led to their departure from Boston. Already annoyed by the signing of 18-year-old “bonus baby” pitcher Johnny Antonelli for $50,000 or more in 1948, veteran players balked at Southworth’s two-a-day workouts totaling six hours at spring training. Drinking heavily, his nerves in tatters, Southworth had to take a leave of absence two-thirds of the way through the season. Unsatisfied, the players voted him a half-share of their fourth-place Series money. Then, as if things could not get worse, management infuriated players and many fans by trading double-play mainstays Alvin Dark and Eddie Stanky for four Giants on December 14, 1949.

But neither these distractions nor even his own salary disputes affected Spahn’s concentration: Up to 172 pounds, using his thick wrist and well-developed chest muscles, he went 21-14, 21-17, 22-14 in 1949-51, leading the National League in strikeouts all three years and in wins twice. He could go long -- he struck out a then-league-record 18 Cubs in 15 innings on June 14, 1952 -- and he could talk long.

Spahn was not only a jokester. He notably befriended Sam Jethroe, the Braves’ first black player, and helped start the Jimmy Fund charity in support of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He was also an oracle whose every word on pitching was eagerly awaited. Warren’s quotability was a welcome distraction for the 1952 team, which slipped back into the second division when Spahn went 14-19 despite a league-leading 193 strikeouts and a stellar 2.98 ERA (nonsupport again serving as his nemesis). It was his fourth straight strikeout crown.

While negotiating his 1953 contract, Spahn accepted a $25,000 pact but rejected a deal that would have paid him 10 cents for every paid admission over 800,000. That made sense, since the Braves had just drawn a league-low 281,278 in 1952. Spahn looked for another payday when his business venture opened Warren Spahn’s Diner just across Commonwealth Avenue from Braves Field. When the team moved to Milwaukee during spring training, however, Spahn took a double loss: the Braves drew 1,826,397 in their first Midwestern season (which would have meant a $100,000 bonus had he taken the deal), and the restaurant opened without its primary owner.

Financial loss wasn’t the only concern Warren took west. For all his success, his popularity with fans, and the respect of the many teammates and opponents he helped, Spahn was an insecure man who never forgot his youth in Depression-era Buffalo. After ripping cartilage in a knee during 1953 spring training, he didn’t tell anyone. Spahn pitched in pain all year, won the Braves’ Milwaukee opener and the All-Star Game, and led the league in wins (23) and ERA (2.10). Only then did he have offseason surgery.

The Braves finished second, third, and second their first three years in Milwaukee while rebuilding with players like Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, Del Crandall, Billy Bruton, and Spahn’s new running buddy and prankster pal, pitcher Lew Burdette. Spahn remained dominant, but with a chance to capture the 1956 pennant on the season’s final day after winning 10 of his last 11 games, he lost a 12-inning heartbreaker to the Cardinals when a double-play ball took a bad hop. He actually cried while leaving the field, and threw his glove at a prying photographer (to whom he later apologized). But the 36-year-old Spahn bounced back in 1957, capturing his only Cy Young Award by going 21-11 with a league-leading 18 complete games and winning six times in 19 stretch-drive days while the Braves took their first pennant in Milwaukee.

Spahn lost the World Series opener to the Yankees, 3-1, but won Game Four, 7-5, in 10 innings. It was perhaps with mixed feelings when he fell sick with the flu that Spahnie watched as Burdette took his scheduled start on two days’ rest and beat the Yankees in Game Seven. Although happy to see his buddy win three games and a new car as Series MVP, Warren had no doubt wanted the ball himself.

When both teams repeated as pennant-winners the next year, Spahn (22-11 in the regular season) won Game One of the rematch, 4-3, in 10 innings, contributing two hits and an RBI himself. Then, locked in a pitcher’s zone, he two-hit the Yankees in Game Four, 3-0, to give Milwaukee a commanding three-to-one lead. But called on by manager Fred Haney to pitch on two days’ rest, Spahn lost Game Six, 4-3, in 10 innings; the Braves might have won the contest (and the Series) in regulation if Billy Bruton hadn’t misplayed a fly ball into a single and third-base coach Billy Herman hadn’t sent 37-year-old Andy Pafko to be tagged out at home on a short fly. Many considered Spahn the outstanding pitcher of the Series, but the Yankees won in seven games.

With extraordinary staying power, the 38-year-old Spahn pitched a league-high 292 innings and went 21-15 for the injury-addled 1959 Braves, who lost the pennant in a two-game playoff to the Dodgers. Then, as the team began slipping, he stayed dominant by throwing his only two no-hitters at the ages of 39 and 40. He fanned 15 Phillies in his first gem, a 4-0 win on September 16, 1960. Seven months later, he faced the minimum 27 batters in a 1-0 no-hit win over the Giants on April 28, 1961, retiring Matty Alou with a spectacular backhanded flip to squelch a bunt attempt in the ninth. (Spahnie allowed two walks in this contest, but double plays wiped out both baserunners, accounting for his 27 men faced.)

This wasn’t his only milestone contest of 1961; Spahn won his 300th game with a 2-1 victory over the Cubs before a Milwaukee-record crowd of 48,642 on August 11, making him just the 13th pitcher (and the first since Lefty Grove in 1941) to reach the hallowed mark. Even upon getting there, he was far from done; in perhaps the last extraordinary performance of an extraordinary career, the 42-year-old lefty lost a 16-inning duel with the Giants’ 25-year-old Juan Marichal, 1-0, thanks to arch-nemesis Willie Mays’ homer, at 12:31 a.m. on July 3, 1963. Despite this setback, Spahn finished the ’63 season 23-7, led the league with 22 complete games, and even captured several MVP votes.

His silky-smooth delivery placed a minimum of pressure on Spahn’s arm. He also benefited from revolutionary training habits. In his time, pitchers used spring training to get in shape and babied their arms between starts. Spahn headed to camp in tiptop condition, having spent the winters working on his ranch, and threw between starts. Both practices are common today. The same could be said of Spahn’s research habits, since he studied hitters’ tendencies and rarely gave them the same pitches from one year to the next. He was no slouch at the plate himself; in addition to his 363 victories, he also had 363 lifetime hits including 35 home runs.

As time passed, Spahn adapted. When his fastball began to fade, he learned a screwball, and when that wasn’t enough, he picked up a slider. When his aching knees betrayed him in 1964, he went 6-13 and had to endure manager Bobby Bragan’s insinuation that he was hanging on selfishly because of his $80,000 salary. On November 23, 1964, the Mets purchased Spahn from the Braves.