Born April 23, 1921, in Buffalo, NY; died November 24, 2003, in Broken Arrow, OK. Professional baseball player. Warren Spahn was a remarkable left-handed pitcher who won more games than any other left-hander in the history of major league baseball. He had a long career spent almost exclusively with the Braves team. His approach to pitching involved a signature style and absolute precision.
Spahn's father had played semi-pro baseball at one point, but by the time Spahn was born he was selling wallpaper. The elder Spahn had hopes for his son and set out to make him a professional player. He created a space for Spahn to practice and taught him a unique method of pitching. A Spahn pitch involved a grand movement of his leading leg that obstructed the view of his mitt and placement of the ball that was so precise that catchers loved working with him.
Spahn was signed to the Braves in 1940. At the time the Braves were located in Boston, Massachusetts. He started out in the minor divisions of the Braves team, eventually making his major league debut in 1942. He spent only a season and a half playing with the Braves before he was drafted into the Army. He served in Europe for three years and returned to the Braves in 1946.
Spahn's years in the Army were not lost years. He played a role in some of the war's most decisive battles. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge, a harsh battle that waged in the middle of winter. He was also present at the battle in Remagen, Germany, over the last bridge standing over the Rhine. His service in the Army earned him a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a battlefield commission, and a presidential citation. He also returned with an outlook on life that helped him succeed in his baseball career.
After facing freezing temperatures and battles in Europe, Spahn never considered his job as pitcher difficult. He won his first game at the age of 25, and would go on to set records as well as help form the backbone of a highly successful team. Starting in 1947, Spahn would win at least 14 games per season for the next 16 years. In 13 of those seasons he pitched more than 20 wins; six of those seasons were consecutive. In 1963, his last good year, Spahn pitched 23 winning games.
From 1949 to 1952, Spahn was the National League leader in strikeouts. His 63 shutouts is the National League record for a left-hander. He also holds the left-hander's record for innings pitched at 5,243 2/3. As a left-hander he also pitched more winning games than any other left-hander in the history of major league baseball with a total of 363 wins. He led or tied eight times for most victories in the National League and led the league three times in strikeouts and earned-run average.
Not only was Spahn an excellent pitcher, he could hit the ball as well. In 1958, he had a batting average of .333. In his career he hit 35 home runs, which is the National League record for home runs by a pitcher. His skill as a baseball player helped his team win the National League pennant in 1948, 1957, and 1958. In 1957, he led his team to defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series. That same year he won the Cy Young award for Outstanding Pitcher.
In 1960, when Spahn was 39, he pitched his first nohitter against the Philadelphia Phillies. In that game he struck out 15 hitters and walked two. The following spring, just days after his 40th birthday, Spahn pitched his second no-hitter against San Francisco. In August of 1961, Spahn would have the most personally satisfying game of his life. In a 2-1 win against the Chicago Cubs, he pitched his 300th winning game. Mike Kupper of the Los Angeles Times reported Spahn's feelings about that game, "It was really a big thrill—the thrill of my life. Winning the pennant and the World Series was the big thing from a team basis. But this had to be the biggest personally."
Within three years of these accomplishments, Spahn was finished in major league baseball. His 23 wins in 1963 were followed in 1964 by a 6-13 season. The Braves traded him to the New York Mets who kept him for a short time before trading him to the San Francisco Giants. He left the major leagues soon afterward but continued to pitch in minor leagues and in Mexico. At age 47, he pitched his last game.
Baseball was Spahn's life and he played the game until he could play no longer. In testament to the high esteem in which he was held by members of the baseball community, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, the first year he was eligible. In 1999, the Braves inducted him into their team's Hall of Fame and in 2003 erected a bronze statue of him at their field in Atlanta, Georgia.
Spahn's wife, LoRene, died in 1978. Spahn died on November 24, 2003, at his home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, from natural causes. He was 82. He is survived by his son, Greg, and two granddaughters. Known for his easygoing attitude and fondness for practical jokes off the field, Spahn was a meticulous, precise, and hard-working player on the field.
Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2003, p. B13.
New York Times, November 25, 2003, p. A27.
Washington Post, November 25, 2003, p. B6.
—Eve M. B. Hermann