Posted on Mon, Nov. 24, 2003
Another Warren Spahn? Nope, there's only one
By MICHAEL HUNT
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE - He became Milwaukee's first superstar 50 years ago and, with all proper respects to the supernova that was Sandy Koufax, the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history.
Warren Spahn was many things during a 21-year career that included a dozen remarkable seasons in our city, yet symmetry defined him best.
He won 363 games. He had 363 hits.
"He was also a wonderful hitter, an amazing athlete," baseball Commissioner Bud Selig recalled Monday. "The designated-hitter rule appalled him. To him, that was not baseball. He epitomized the things that make this game so great. His story was one of greatness. What a story."
A decorated war hero whose service to his country deferred his first big-league win until the age of 25, Spahn was so adept at his craft that he refused to leave the game on anyone's timetable but his own. So what if he was still rooting around in the minors and the Mexican league when he was 46? No one told Picasso, no more of an artist with a brush than Spahn was with a baseball, when to retire.
"I don't care what the public thinks," once said Spahn, who played so long that his teammates included Paul Waner and Tug McGraw. "I'm pitching because I enjoy pitching."
A persistent life ended Monday at the age of 82 in Broken Arrow, Okla., where Spahn spent his post-baseball years as a successful oilman and cattle rancher.
"He's gone to meet his No. 1 buddy, and that's Eddie Mathews," former teammate Johnny Logan said. "They'll have a great time arguing about baseball and having a beer together."
They will not disagree on Spahn's love for the Milwaukee Braves and their fans. An established star by the time the Braves moved here from Boston in 1953, Spahn adored the capacity crowds at the built-on-spec County Stadium, erected for his arrival, after years of winning games in the relative anonymity of a market dominated by the Red Sox. Milwaukee became his stage, a platform for a World Series championship, a Cy Young award, 234 victories, 14 all-star selections and countless good times.
Though Spahn would finish his major-league career with brief stops in New York and San Francisco, one constant remained.
"After he went on to the Mets and the Giants, I would visit with him when he came to town," Selig said. "But he was a Brave and he loved Milwaukee."
Selig was 19 years old when Spahn opened County Stadium with a victory against the St. Louis Cardinals, the beginning of an incredible run for an extraordinary baseball team and a city that embraced its greatness. Billy Bruton hit a home run in the 10th inning for the 3-2 victory. The memory was bittersweet for Selig, who helped close County Stadium in an elaborate ceremony more than three years ago.
"I feel bad," Selig said. "Eddie is gone. (Joe) Adcock is gone. (Bob) Buhl is gone. Bruton is gone. And now Spahnnie is gone.
"He was something. The likes of Warren Spahn will not come down this road any time soon."
Spahn was the heart of a team that would soon include Hank Aaron, baseball's home-run king. The Braves' talent was breathtaking, especially when the little left-hander, no more than 170 pounds, would take his turn in the rotation. His high leg kick was his trademark, but his originality came from the way he studied hitters. Think Tom Glavine in his prime, and then only do you start to get an idea of what it was like to face Spahn.
"Once Warren was in Cincinnati and Wally Post got a hit off him in a 2-2 count," Selig recalled. "He filed that away and said, `I'll never make that mistake again.' That's the kind of competitor he was."
Said Logan, the Braves' premier shortstop: "Warren was like a professor, a specialist. Every young pitcher adored him. He advised those young kids. He told them that speed isn't everything, that it's control and knowing the weakness of the hitters. He was a professor and he was a winner. That was his lesson to a lot of young pitchers coming up."
Spahn actually began his major-league career at the age of 21 with the Boston Braves but was sent down to the minor leagues because he defied manager Casey Stengel's order to brush back Brooklyn star shortstop Pee Wee Reese in an exhibition game. Stengel would later call it the greatest mistake of his baseball life.
***The next year, 1943, found Spahn fighting in World War II, where he served at the Battle of the Bulge. The winner of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, Spahn had abandoned all fear of big-league hitters by the time he returned to Boston in 1946. When so many of his fellow soldiers lost their lives tying to take a bridge at Remagen, Germany, exactly what kind of awe did Willie Mays inspire?***
***"After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work," Spahn once said. "You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy-threatened territory. The Army taught me what's important and what isn't."***
The joys that Spahn brought Milwaukee transcended his record for victories as a left-hander, his 20 or more victories in 13 seasons, the way he pitched effectively into his 40s and even the National League record for most career home runs by a pitcher (35). Yes, the city loved him back because he was a winner, but it was also the manner in which the Hall of Famer went about his job that earned him the adoration of what was once a baseball-mad town.
Before Aaron, before Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, and even before Brett Favre, Reggie White, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, there was Spahnnie. And there will never be another one like him.
"He was an amazing, amazing athlete," Selig said. "And he loved Milwaukee. He was an athlete who just loved it here."