Glancing Back, and Remembering Warren Spahn
The winningest left-handed pitcher in major league history, Warren Spahn could just as easily appear in any blog of great players from the 1940s and 1950s. And while the 1960s were, for him, the least productive of his three chronological decades as a ballplayer, Spahn had some of his best years in the early 1960s, continuing his run of pitching excellence well past age 40.
Spahn’s professional baseball career began prior to World War II, as he was signed as an amateur free agent by the Boston Braves in 1940. He debuted for the Braves in 1942, appearing in only four games before returning to the minors.
A tour in the U.S. Army kept Spahn out of the major leagues until his discharge in 1946. In 1947 he went 21-10, the first of 13 20-victory seasons in his career. From 1947 through 1952, as the Braves closed out their stay in Boston, Spahn won 114 games with a 3.03 ERA. In four of those six seasons, he won 21 or more games.
Spahn remained the ace of the now Milwaukee Braves throughout the rest of the 1950s. He was a 20-game winner six out of those seven seasons, leading the league in victories four times, in complete games three times, and in innings pitched twice. His combined ERA for those seven seasons was a sparkling 2.86.
Spahn turned 39 at the beginning of the 1960 season, but his excellence on the mound continued. From 1960 to 1963, he won 83 games, leading the league twice in victories and all four years in complete games. His 3.02 ERA was the league’s best in 1961. In both 1960 and 1961, Spahn finished second in the Cy Young award voting. (His only Cy Young title came in 1957.)
Spahn pitched his only no-hitters during the 1960s, shutting down the Phillies in September of 1960 and blanking the Giants the following April. In 1961, Spahn became the first National League left-hander to post 300 career victories.
Spahn’s best season during the 1960s came in 1963. At age 42, Spahn was 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA and seven shutouts. His 22 complete games led the National League (for the seventh consecutive season). He was an All-Star for the fourteenth (and last) time.
A terrific hitter for a pitcher, Spahn smacked 35 career home runs, tied (with Bob Lemon) for second-best all-time among pitchers (Wes Ferrell had 37). In 1958, Spahn achieved a rare feat, winning more than 20 games and batting better than .300 in the same season.
He ended his 21-season career with the San Francisco Giants in 1965 after starting the season with the New York Mets. The rest of his career was with the Braves. His 363 career victories (plus four World Series wins) put him at the top among all southpaws. His 63 career shutouts are also the best among all major league left-handed pitchers. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.