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Warren Spahn: The Southpaw


1958, Baseball Digest, CC Public Domain

Warren Spahn is the winningest left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball history. The Hall of Fame southpaw won a record 363 games and posted 13 20-win seasons in his storied career.


A master of the off-speed pitch, Spahn baffled Major League hitters for over two decades. His philosophy was simple: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Since he wasn’t dependent on overpowering hitters with his fastball, Spahn remained one of the game’s most dominant pitchers into his forties.


The Hall of Famer is the only pitcher in MLB history to have seasons leading the league in wins and ERA in three different decades. His incredible durability also allowed him to pitch at least 245 innings in 17 straight seasons from 1947-63.


 

It took a little longer for Spahn to start on his Hall of Fame path, though. After appearing in only four games for the Boston Braves in 1942, the 21-year-old spent the next three seasons serving his country in World War II.


Spahn’s military career was just as impressive as his baseball career. The U.S. Army veteran saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, was present at the taking of the pivotal Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Germany, earned a battlefield commission, and was awarded a Purple Heart.


Spahn returned to the big leagues in 1946 at the age of 25, and made an immediate impact by posting an 8-5 record, 2.94 ERA and 1.138 WHIP in 24 games for the Braves.


 

In 1947, Spahn went 21-10 and led the National League in ERA (2.33), WHIP (1.136), shutouts (7) and innings pitched (289 2/3). The 26-year-old was elected to his first All-Star Game for his efforts.


The 1948 season saw Spahn’s numbers take a dip, as he posted a 15-12 record, 3.71 ERA and 1.222 WHIP, but it also marked the lefthander’s first World Series appearance. In three games in the fall classic, he went 1-1 with a solid 3.00 ERA and 1.083 WHIP, but the Braves would lose to the Cleveland Indians in six games.


During the next four years, Spahn established himself as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. He had three straight 20-win seasons from 1949-52, including leading the league in 1949-50. He also led the league in strikeouts four straight years from 1949-52. Spahn’s durability was on full display, as he averaged 299 innings per season and pitched 95 complete games over the four-year span.


 

In 1953, Spahn would see a change of address, as the financially-strapped Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee. The move was an instant success, as the Braves improved from 64 to 92 wins, and led the NL in attendance with over 1.8 million fans.


The move also inspired Spahn, as he set career bests with an NL-leading 23 wins, 2.10 ERA and 1.058 WHIP. The success would continue for both the Braves and their star pitcher, as Spahn averaged 20 wins over 11 seasons from 1953-63, and the Braves posted a winning record in each of their 13 seasons in Milwaukee (1953-65).


Spahn and the Braves reached the pinnacle in 1957, with the lefthander winning his first Cy Young award (21-11, 2.69 ERA, 1.177 WHIP) and the Braves bringing the city of Milwaukee its first World Series championship. The title was especially satisfying for Braves fans, as Milwaukee defeated the defending champion New York Yankees in seven games, including a decisive Game 7 victory at Yankee Stadium.


 

The Braves returned to the World Series in 1958, but this time fell to the Yankees in another epic seven-game series. After leading the NL with 22 wins, a 1.148 WHIP and 23 complete games in the regular season, Spahn was brilliant in the World Series, going 2-1 with a 2.20 ERA and 0.942 WHIP in his three starts, including a 2-hit shutout in Game 4 against Yankee ace Whitey Ford.


The Braves remained a contender for the next several seasons, including playing in a best-of-three tiebreaker playoff for the NL pennant in 1959. The Braves lost the abbreviated series 2-0 to the eventual champion Los Angeles Dodgers.


Spahn would not pitch in the postseason again, but his production in the regular season was outstanding. He led the NL in wins from 1959-61, making it five straight seasons overall. He also continued to lead the league in complete games, putting together a streak of seven straight seasons from 1957-63.


On September 16, 1960, Spahn pitched his first career no-hitter. The 39-year-old struck out 15 batters in the Braves’ 4-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in Milwaukee County Stadium.


 

Spahn showed no signs of slowing down as he entered his forties. On April 28, 1961, he pitched his second no-hitter in less than a year, as the Braves defeated the San Francisco Giants 1-0 in County Stadium. The game was just five days after Spahn’s 40th birthday, making him the second oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter.


In 1961, the future Hall of Famer became the first pitcher in MLB history to lead the league in wins and ERA in three different decades, as he led the NL with 21 wins and a 3.02 ERA. He also led the league in WHIP (1.142), complete games (21) and shutouts (4).


In 1963 at the age of 42, Spahn tied a career high with 23 wins, and posted a 2.60 ERA, 1.117 WHIP, seven shutouts and a league-leading 22 complete games. The season also brought the southpaw his 17th All-Star selection.


On July 2, 1963, Spahn faced the Giants’ Juan Marichal in one of the most famous pitching duels in MLB history. The two aces took a scoreless tie into the 16th inning at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park before Spahn gave up a home run to Willie Mays in the bottom of the inning to give the Giants the 1-0 win. It was the 201st pitch of the game for the 42-year-old.


 

In 1964, the ageless lefty finally showed signs of slowing down. For the first time in 18 seasons, he pitched less than 245 innings (173 2/3). He also posted an uncharacteristic 5.29 ERA and 1.474 WHIP. It also marked the first time in 18 years he won less than 14 games in a season.


Spahn was sold to the New York Mets following the 1964 season, and split the 1965 season between the Mets and Giants, finishing with a 4.01 ERA in 197 2/3 innings at the age of 44. The 21-year veteran retired following the season.


The final numbers on Spahn are outstanding. He finished his career with a record of 363-245 in 750 games, including 665 starts. He also posted a 3.09 ERA, 1.195 WHIP, 382 complete games, 63 shutouts and 28 saves. He ranks sixth all time in both wins and shutouts, and eighth in innings pitched (5,243 2/3).


Spahn was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.

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